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America the Possible? Seeing America First with Nathaniel Tarn By Katherine Kearney MaynardGo Back to the Table of Contents
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The traditional objection to this kind of American poetry, in which states of mind and literal places are interwoven, is that the poetry dwells finally in the realms of the would-be, the land of wish fulfillment. This kind of criticism, however, overlooks the purpose and power of aspiration. When Whitman declares “I see the frontiers and boundaries of the old aristocracies broken,” he is really stating that in the breaking of the old order he perceives the open-ended possibilities of the new; he foresees the vast frontier of the self situated in a real geophysical world. It was the achievement of Williams, Crane and Ginsberg to ground this perception of the “new world” firmly within the physical and the historical: within the realities of Paterson, Cape Hatteras, or a Hebraic New York. Tarn embraces such a synthesis of spirit and place whole-heartedly. In “Narrative of Men and Women Who Become Stars,” he writes of

Republic; discussed so often, is, in essence,
The Republic of calm in which love naturally flowers
At the end of an immeasurable cultivation:
and later
Alas, the quiet Republic is no nation,
divided against other nations, at constant war, whether
for now or in some future endlessly predicted,
but a completeness beyond our understanding which is

The effort to create the new world and the new self is not possible without tension. Tarn declares in “And Even the Republic Must Have an End” that “the dialectic, though painful, can be managed.”

Thus, Tarn is the poet-as-protagonist caught up in a cosmic drama, producing art out of a living, breathing environment. This sense is strongest in his “rectangle poems” in which each poem is written with precisely the same number of spaces and characters in each line. Paradoxically, the sheer arbitrariness of the form opens unlimited rhetorical opportunities. The form operates as a lens, focusing myriad subjects, tones and personae into a tightly wound inner structure, while the internal passion of each poem is set free. The “rectangle poems” provide a natural complement to the breath units of Olson or the “variable foot” metrics of Williams-alternative verse forms replace the traditional organizing principles of stress and meter. It is through this lens that Tarn records his most telling “snapshots” of America.

If one can See America First, then this poetry persistently challenges us: what will we do now that we have arrived? Tarn returns us to the very continent beneath our feet, the wonder of time and light overhead,

the ancient voices of Native American shamans, the presence of the eternal mystery of time, and perhaps the magic of love. Thus a search for the new world becomes a way of bringing us home to the world of the heart and the mind and the senses. Seeing America artfully the second time might prove to be seeing it for the first, introducing us to the oldest and truest of adventures. In an age of American waste, such a vision for America is rare and should be prized.

Before the Snake

Sitting, facing the sun, eyes closed I can hear the sun. I can hear the bird life all around for miles It flies through us and around us, it takes up all space, as if we were not there, as if we had never interrupted this place. The birds move dioramically through our heads, from ear to ear. What are they doing, singing in this luminous fall. It is marvelous to be so alone, the two of us, in this garden dessert. Forgotten, but remembering ourselves as no one will ever remember us. The space between the trees, the bare ground-sand between them, you can see the land’s skin which is so much home. We cannot buy or sell this marvelous day. I can hear the sun and, within the sun, the wind which comes out of the world’s lungs from immeasurable depth; we catch only a distant echo. Beyond the birds there are persons carrying their names Like great weights, Just think: carrying X your whole life Or Y, or Z. Carrying all that A and B and C about with you, Having to be A all the time, B, or C. Here you can be the sun, the pine, the bird. You can be the breathing. I can tell you, I think this may be Eden. I think it is.

Nathaniel Tarn
Reprinted by permission of the Author

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