Book Reviews

Town, Woman, Country, Violence: A Geologic History

by Margot Kahn | Contributing Writer

Rift Zone: Poems
By Tess Taylor
Red Hen Press, 2020

There have been times in my life, and many more since I’ve become a mother, when I’ve walked around wondering how any of us hold our fear. Fear of the big quake. Fear of the rising seas. Fear of the shooting that happened near the school where your eight-year-old, who still snuggles his blanket, is now locked in a room with a clear glass door. Think of the day your friend’s son fell through the ropes of the two-story spider web at the neighborhood park; visualize the image of him snagged by a shoe and dangling, head toward the ground, until rescued. Remember how your friend told you this story as you watched the children—your children, other people’s children—climb the very same structure again and again, the two of you whispering your fears into each other’s ears, then calling the children for a snack, holding hands on the way home. It’s unconscionable. 

In Rift Zone, Tess Taylor’s fourth collection of poems, readers are given a keenly observed tour of El Cerrito, Taylor’s Northern California hometown, and the hyperbolically American conceit that we have built a paradise on a set of colossal fractures—clear and present dangers of which we are at once terrified and dismissive, predatory and proud. As Taylor explores the many rifts she’s found in her hometown—emotional, historical, geological and political—she writes part elegy and part ode, part radical introspection and part sweeping cultural commentary. “Each body cradles its own conservation,” she writes. But why then, she repeatedly asks, do we ignore, resist, and fly in the face of the natural order? Why are we fearful of one another? Why do we ignore history and the earth herself, the very signs of her shifting?

Taylor employs the same rigorous attention to history in Rift Zone as in her previous three collections. Her first book, The Forage House (2013), explored the fractured legacy of her family’s history as descendants of Thomas Jefferson. Right out of the gate, Taylor grappled with issues of whiteness, privilege, culpability, responsibility, reconciliation, and reparations. On finding an ancestor’s will detailing the recipients of his “Books Negros Land,” she writes: “In any archive, fingering pages, / I am enthralled by gilt work, silk, / leather, the quill stroke’s turn. / Feel physical want / for ink as if desiring the conquest / of tongues. And feel my pen’s weight: / Whose life was traded? / Luxury of blind and delicate pages. / On which spines does this volume rest?” Three years later, in Work & Days (2016), she explored the agrarian philosophy of her famous forebearer alongside the legacy of “the farm poets”—Hesiod, Virgil and John Clare— while putting her hands in the dirt for a full year’s planting season on a small farm in the Berkshires. 

The publication of Rift Zone comes in the same year as Last West: Roadsongs for Dorthea Lange (2020), Taylor’s fourth book, published in conjunction with the Museum of Modern Art’s retrospective of Lange’s work. I imagine Rift Zone was inevitably influenced by Lange’s photographs, those great binders of image and memory. In many poems, Taylor opens her family’s physical photo albums alongside history books, documenting her own life from girlhood and innocence to motherhood and return. 

She opens an early poem, “Del Norte,” with a quick expanse of time—“The old school crumbled in a landslide. / We disappeared / into our overpriced adulthood”—before hurtling back to the memory of the day her friend Dana brought a gun to school, the memory of which is triggered by finding a photo—“Dana and her friend Mynon / mug for my frame. / Mischievous grins / split baby cheeks: Ponytails / bustle in the wind.” By the end of the forty-one short lines of “Sixth Grade, 1988,” she’s rushing into the present and back again: “All the schools / have drills for guns now. / None of this names how it feels / to look back 30 years & find / this odd remainder. / Bright and on the verge of life, / as if we are yet unhurt: / There’s Dana smiling.”

What was it like to grow up in El Cerrito—or any suburban town in America in the 1980s for that matter? To be a local, a colonizer, a person of privilege? A wife, a mother, a documentarian? A redwood, a sea creature, someone’s beloved lemon tree? There is a rift between what Taylor knew and what she knows, between what history taught and what happened. There are fractures everywhere, happening daily. Danger lurks in every fault.

In the poem “Three Dreams, 2018,” she writes about living in a place whose history she didn’t know or comprehend—“I live on fault line which most days feels like nothing / except in sidewalk crosshairs / streambeds where schist / & bay leaf seep into the sea”—a theme that reverberates throughout the collection. There is the old trade route along San Pablo, the stands of papusa beside the crumbling mission, the crumbled school, “another strip mall.” There are the mastodon and “the last Castro inheritors / of a Spanish land grant / locked in US land dispute.” There are Japanese immigrants: “( had to purchase land / under the names / of their American-born sons)” and Prohibition gangsters. Down the street, “Hillbillies played the Six Bells / (now the Burger King).” There is hate, a different kind of fear: “Some people from the Stege church / lit up the hill / with their white enormous cross. / Easter 1933, they burned it for the Klan.” There is the “quarried blue-schist hillside . . . & upthrust seafloor” that became a freeway: “Now the hill / was bowling alley, Wild West Gun Shop.” And then these devastating lines: “Sometimes I think that all / privilege is / is some safer vantage / for watching the trauma, America, happen. / What human words will I use to explain?” 

Given things both personal and global, I’ve been holding this book in my hands for nearly a year, reading and re-reading its narrative. And in that time it’s only become more timely,  which you could call prescient or you could say underscores the multi-layered heat and pressure of systemic injustice: the bedrock on which this country was formed and out of which it continues to form—to crack and slip, to fracture and erode, to erupt and create. Taylor, a white woman alive and aware of herself in the 21st century, has been leveling an unflinching gaze in the mirror for decades.

Wrapped into, around, and through these poems is an exploration of desire. The desire to survive (“Each body cradles its own conservation. / Each body bears forth the enormous dark chain.”), the desire to save what is worth saving (“Still everything we name / is disappearing”), the desire to create (“Even in the face / of devastation / we must make art”), and the desire to transcend and honor, escape and return to what we came from (“My mall: The one I grew up near.” / “Bright off-center longing / I always sense as home—”). 

Ilya Kaminsky’s crushingly insightful introduction says everything about Taylor’s masterful melding of scale—from small, suburban detail to historic and geologic time—and her ability to tend to “the rift zone . . . between fear and tenderness.” But there are two poems in the very center of the collection that he doesn’t mention, ones I want to draw attention to here, for this book is a textbook of sorts—a lesson in how we ourselves are formed, and the way great change can happen as slowly as mountains are made or as quickly as a landslide.

In “Valley Girl Paramount, 1988,” we see the geologic formation of a girl, Taylor, and her friends, Rochelle B. and Melissa K.—and a whole generation of American women—in language so exact and gutting. What was the pop song, who was the superstar who taught you to want to be wanted? For Taylor, it’s Geena Davis in Earth Girls Are Easy and the song “Cause I’m a Blonde”:

Nazi ideal in a parched valley.
Little sex-show song: White-blond ditz song, 
Please harass/date me song.

Easy: I loved it so much, like trying on
my own pink training bra.

The lyrics of the film’s song, the language of the age (“Like omigod!”) are woven together with a keen eye for the natural world and a logophilic vocabulary:

Melissa K. & I learned to lip-sync it 

for the sixth-grade talent show
jiggling our arms & legs & also pouting

RainrainI don’t have to worry about getting a man/

RainrainIf I keep this blond & I keep theeeesee tan…

Absorbing watermelon glister 
the way some jellyfish or squid 

grow coterminous 
with phosphorescent cells 
that make them bioluminesce,

we grew in symbiosis 
with fucked-up desire.

The poem closes with a recognition of the “toxic playbook” we have had to undo, are in the process of (hopefully) undoing, that begins with a recognition of the self:

the American myth of newness
or the bloody hills of California— 
I was an Earthgirl: I lived in a Valley.

I kept reciting just a little further

the toxic playbook where I learned myself—

“Handgun & Tetherball, 1990” similarly explores the coming up and the drifting apart we do as humans—like the redwoods, like the rocks. The poem begins with a packing-together: “Portola Middle School, they called it. / PMS, we said, feeling awful / packed together in our teenage sadness, // finding out the colors of our skins.” And it closes with the inevitable, a falling-apart:

O they are tearing down that school:
It was always in a landslide zone.
Perhaps it will be returned to hillside.

RainrainPerhaps someone will plant
the hillside with wildflowers
which the legends say were also blooming

when Portola, Conquistador, came.

Taylor isn’t the only important poet planting wildflowers to remind us that this land was conquered and taken, but her voice stands with them. These poems lay both grief and responsibility on the page. They are a handful of seeds.

Margot Kahn is the author of the biography Horses That Buck (University of Oklahoma) and co-editor of the anthology This Is the Place, a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice. Her poems have been published in Portland Review, Whiskey Island, Grist, Nimrod, and other places. Her work recently won the 2019 Crab Creek Review Poetry Prize.

Tess Taylor’s chapbook, The Misremembered World, was selected by Eavan Boland for the Poetry Society of America’s inaugural chapbook fellowship. The San Francisco Chronicle called her first book, The Forage House, “stunning,” and it was a finalist for the Believer Poetry Award. Her second book, Work & Days, was called “our moment’s Georgic” by critic Stephanie Burt and named one of the ten best books of poetry of 2016 by The New York Times. Taylor’s work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Kenyon Review, Poetry, Tin House, The Times Literary Supplement, CNN, and The New York Times among others, and she’s received awards and fellowships from MacDowell, Headlands Center for the Arts, and The International Center for Jefferson Studies. Among other things, Taylor is the on-air poetry reviewer for NPR’s All Things Considered. She served as Distinguished Fulbright US Scholar at the Seamus Heaney Centre in Queen’s University in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and was most recently Anne Spencer Writer in Residence at Randolph College. She grew up and lives again in El Cerrito, California.