Subject to Change
- by Marilyn Taylor
In this lively collection, Marilyn Taylor uses traditional forms but with a modern touch. We find sapphics, sonnets, villanelles, a rondeau, rhyming quatrains, an astonishingly good crown o’ sonnets, and even a double dactyl. However, Taylor is such a skillful craftsman that it is not until the reader succumbs to the irresistible urge for a second reading that the forms become apparent, surely the mark of a master formalist.
In the ambitious “Outside the Frame: The Photographer’s Last Letters to Her Son,” which comprises the fifth and final section, Taylor uses the guise of letters to soften formality and create intimacy. Throughout this nine-part series she manipulates form to show the unraveling of a mind. The three poems in part I are strict sonnets, but as the series proceeds, the poems take on a more contemporary feel. Taylor loosens her grip on form, opening up the poems, varying their shapes, and dispensing with rhyme. The two stanzas of part III are set side by side, visually representing the fractured mind of the photographer. The final poem leaps in short phrases from margin to margin, scattering itself down the page and omitting punctuation. Here, as elsewhere, Taylor achieves the perfect blend between form and meaning.
The fusion of old and new seems ideally suited to a collection which takes Time as its primary concern. Taylor consistently keeps us aware of the ticking clock as she moves back and forth between past events and more immediate concerns. In “For Lucy, Who Came First,” the speaker feels her body inhabited by the long-dead Lucy and overwhelmed by the weight of Time:
I sometimes feel her trying to uncurl
from where she sank into mudbound sleep
on that soft and temporary shore
so staggeringly long ago, time
had not yet cut its straight line
through the tangle of the planet,
nor taken up the measured sweep
that stacks the days and seasons
into an ordered past.
Other poems deal with voice mail, Harlequin romances, condominiums, and the premature demise of the Nissan Stanza wagon. In “Subject to Change,” a delightful villanelle, the speaker describes her young students as “beautiful. And very young,” but then acknowledges that:
like me, they’re traveling headlong
in that familiar, vertical direction
that coarsens beautiful, blackmails young,
and turns to phantoms those I move among.
Again and again Taylor reminds us that everything that exists within Time is subject to change. We grow old. Our skin withers. Our bones crumble. “Women at Sixty,” Taylor writes:
turn from their bodies
in embarrassment, as if
they had found themselves
wearing the wrong thing.
They wonder how
it could have come to this,
how the gardenia flesh
could have wilted on the stem
Nor do men escape Time’s touch. In “Poem for a 75th Birthday,” one of the collection’s finest poems, a woman watches her aging beloved working in his garden among flowers that “sway on their skinny stems / like a gang of super-models. . . .” He becomes “the sun itself, brilliant enough / to keep them in the pink, or gold, or green / forever.” And she becomes a flower, leaning in his direction, “absolutely satisfied / that summer afternoon is all / there is, and night will never fall.”
Taylor captures Time in titles that contain dates and numbers and in poems that describe portraits and photographs. In “Marriage Portrait, 1874,” written entirely in questions, the speaker speculates about the sex life of the newlyweds portrayed and, in effect, resurrects the couple. She imagines them kneeling in prayer, each body touching and arousing the other. In “A Native” the speaker describes a photo taken of her years ago in Milwaukee by Japanese tourists who carried it to Tokyo or Nagasaki where they now study it as if it were an artifact.
Taylor has the photographer’s eye for the interplay between background and foreground. She gives us the macrocosm of history and the world outside the home in poems that take us to other times, other places. “Notes from the Good-Girl Chronicles, 1963” returns us to the early days of the women’s liberation movement. “The Blue Water Buffalo” takes us to Cambodia, “The Belgian Half” to Belgium, and “Legacy” to the Germany of World War I.
Set against these background poems, we find the microcosm of the small world of home, with its spouses and children, its circle of relatives, its backyard gardens.
Three poems deal with the zany Aunt Eudora. Another deals with an old cat gone
blind. “After Twenty Years” deals with the speaker’s gradual loss of the memory of her deceased mother:
You have faded to a sepia glimmer
in my head, and I’m having trouble
retrieving you from my gallery of still-lifes.
Even your quaint name, Alice, melts
to nearly nothing on my tongue.
Taylor also brilliantly juxtaposes shadow and light. She confronts dark subjects with boldness — a predatory father who sexually molests his daughter’s college roommate, teenage pregnancy, spousal abuse, and adultery. But Taylor leavens the collection with wit, humor, compassion, and love so we never feel that darkness is all there is. In “Posthumous Instructions” the speaker informs her relatives of what they must do after her cremation:
After the fire, when I am rattling in my urn
and have no more to say to you, go home.
Have lunch. Ignore me, while I try to learn
the etiquette of ash and clinkerdom.
In “Leaving the Clinic” someone close to death finds much to love in what is left of life:
But then you saw how a small rain
had pocked the creamy skin
of the beach overnight
causing snails to leave their sanctuaries,
and the pursed hibiscus buds
to fatten and explode,
and with the sea collapsing around us,
thinning to a glassy sheen
that blinded you
you hid your face
behind your hands and shook
with unrequited love.
In the closing lines of “In Memory of the Nissan Stanza Wagon, 1982-1996,” Taylor echoes the advice of Ezra Pound: “. . . check out the lines / and brakes. Make it yours. And make it new.” That is precisely what she has done in this collection. Readers already acquainted with the rules of formal verse will admire Taylor’s deft handling of them; those unacquainted with the rules will leave the collection vowing to soon learn them.