Book Review: Poet Nathaniel Tarn's New Collection 'Gondwana'

Ken Bullock
Saturday December 09, 2017 - 04:09:00 PM

" ... A silence there hard to believe, a hazeless,/dustless air when in the clear:a spot/on the farther side of knowledge/from which all other points are North./Where is your "epilepsy" West,/your "wisdom" East when everything/flies you away from known dimensions/into the stillness? This is no crossing/from a river's bank to its other side, but/lack of movement absolute,/total attention/to a deliberate deliverance./The orb has turned all diamond."

Poet Nathaniel Tarn's latest collection, 'Gondwana and Other Poems' (New Directions, 2017), his 33rd book of poetry, opens with the 19 sections of the title poem, discrete perceptions and thoughts, sometimes contemplating stillness, sometimes caught up with the motion of the ship taking him to Antarctica in his 80th year. 

"Sun so blinding in ice facets/borders fade and you enter/what hunters have known for centuries:/silence of silence. No silence on known/ground outsilences this silence./What is an individual/so spread over so many miles/eyes can't encompass them?/Eventually you'll wear/pelts of all animals/you have come so far, at such expenditure of energy,/to witness ... " 

[Link for the complete text of the title poem "Gondwana" on the publisher's website:

Tarn's spirit of exploration and discovery also inspired his book-length narrative poem 'Avia,' an epic of the air war around the world from 1939 to '45, as revealed in a prophetic dream to Charles Lindbergh after his 1927 transatlantic flight. Tarn researched and gathered aviators' accounts for 15 years to write the globe-spanning story, dedicated "to my boyhood and its hopes," meanwhile learning to fly at 79. 

In "Fighter Pilots," midway through 'Gondwana and Other Poems,' Tarn returns to aviation by rehearsing the story of Russian fighter pilot Lydia Litvyak, "The White Rose," Heroine of the Soviet Union, with language more lyrical than in 'Avia,' and partly in her own voice: 

"Overwhelmed--and drowned out entirely--by the luminosity. 

"And that I could finally land this aircraft on a manicured field. 

[ ... ] 

"Like the birds at St. Lawrence Island, on the world's other side, going round and round like the ghosts of the other dead-- 

"(Those who had not been fetched and would stay below, those who had never flown) 

"as if they were exiting a western star and entering into an eastern one before returning to the first. 

"When her wing rode high, shadowing the blinding ice below. 

"Of wisdom which is the world to come and of flight--which is this world." 

By describing himself as "a Franco-Anglo-American poet," Tarn touches on more than his personal history, also indicating how the impulses of his poetry--including that ongoing spirit of adventure and discovery--relate to kindred movements in each of those linguistic and cultural traditions. 

His immersion in all three gives Tarn an unusual critical perspective on these traditions. In 'Gondwana,' his poem "In Love with the Queen of Amherst" is a love letter to Emily Dickinson that incidentally also pays court to Jane Austen, authors from two of Tarn's cultures posthumously awarded places in the literary canon of a tradtion that has neglected the recognition of the feminine, of love--and of the sacrifices by and for both, and for the art of poetry. 

"This is the start, love or no love, of an/enormous solitude. It's no small thing/to turn your back on everything that you/have ever done, or said in praise, or blame,/of any what at all pertaining to the world/you've made your own. Turning your back/is vast advent, leaving you wholly open/to hunger, pain, and thirst--thirst being for an angel's tongue beyond the boundaries." 

Tarn was born in Paris, his mother a French national of Rumanian background, and father a British national of Lithuanian heritage. He's said of his bilingualism that the question of which language he spoke first is a mystery to him, though he "suspects French." His family moved to Belgium when he was eleven to be near his grandfather who had relocated there, where Tarn attended a French lycée in Flemish Antwerp--and remembers that a week before the War, everyone suddenly packed up, since his father had to report to the U. K., then quickly traveled to Britain. 

After a period in Wales, Tarn's family went to London, staying in the Cumberland Hotel, "at Marble Arch in the center of London, with the ack-ack in the park across from us, going to the windows to try to see London burning in the Blitz, and getting pulled back for fear of flying glass." His public school was evacuated to the Cornish coast, and remembering his facility with the lessons, said "I must have had some English before." 

Later, after attending King's College at Cambridge, on early scholarship, a younger classmate to officers coming home after the War, Tarn returned to France. "Ï felt I hadn't finished with France. And I wanted to become a French poet. 

"At school in Cornwall I had read the Surrealists, and thought all of them were dead," Tarn recalled--until older friends took him to a café in Montmartre one Sunday where Andrë Breton held forth to a tiny audience. Tarn attended these sessions until getting caught in the middle of a factional dispute concerning leftist politics and the occult tradition, with his friends on one side, Breton on the other. Someone accused Tarn's book, published in St. Germain-des-Prés, the Paris neighborhood seat of the Existentialists. "Surrealism didn't like Existentialism! A rumpus and we all walked out." 

Citing an insult to their guest, Tarn's friends walked out of Breton's colloquium, Tarn with them. But meanwhile Tarn had begun a lifelong friendship with Mexican poet Octavio Paz. And he would find his profession in Paris, going to the Musée de L'Homme, the anthropological museum at the Trocadéro, after watching a film on what could be found there. Unfortunately, he never saw Breton's collection of masks and "primitive" art. 

"I was thunderstruck," Tarn said--and "seeing they were teaching there," signed up without telling his family, whom he later convinced, concerned as they were about "dangerous jungles," by downplaying fieldwork and emphasizing possible future professorships. 

Tarn would have many distinguished teachers at the Museum, the École des Hautes Études, the Collège de France, the University of Paris and later at Yale and, on a Fulbright, the University of Chicago. These included the great structural anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss--though their relationship, such as it was, always seemed strained. Even years later, when Tarn presented Lévi-Strauss with his first book in English, 'Old Savage/Young City,' inscribed "To the Greatest French Poet of the 20th Century," the famous thinker and writer was not pleased. Later, Lévi-Strauss replied to a request for a reference when Tarn was seeking a professorship in England "with something like: 'He is a good anthropologist; as to poetry, I know nothing about it.' This killed any chance at that job." 

"[ ... ] Futures and Pasts cannot hold up, examined by/the mind, and as for the Present, that mighty Present all talk/about as the one only thing to do, or see, or think--no/I don't think so. The verbiage masters have talked of it/as the sole enemy of the destroyers, but they themselves/are this destruction too, a loss of language. In the interior the forests fall and all things in those forests also fall,/a famed diversity gone in that fall, like languages. Just/now, just one ago, last speaker of that given language,/unknown, barely recorded, barely understood, fell into/silence, and the whole span of human history for you/fell also. 'Idiots, I die for you!' said a resistance chief/to Wehrmacht soldiers about to shoot him. A Marxist./Masters, I lack the calm to navigate the giant ocean of/your writings (masters!), the nerves to hack your noise,/you that fill agorae with noise as loud as thunderstorms/over civilizations. I have gone deaf. I am going blind. I/feel no part of anything in alll these limbs extending/like some eastern god's multiple arms into all space [ ... ]" (from "The Guest, In Memorium Ernst Bloch," part III of section III of "Exitus Generis Humani" in 'Gondwana and Other Poems') 

Tarn's doctoral fieldwork was done in Guatemala with the Highland Mayas. A Rockefeller grant later took him to Burma with his wife Patricia. But a dissatisfaction with his writing in French led him to switch to English, writing 'Old Savage/Young City' (Jonathan Cape, 1964; Random House, 1965). After some years teaching at the London School of Oriental and African Studies, he joined Jonathan Cape publishers and co-founded Cape Editions and Cape Goliard Press. 

A watershed was reached when, while enroute to a conference in Hawaii, Tarn found in the basement poetry room at City Lights Books in San Francisco books by poets like Louis Zukofsky, Charles Olson, Robert Duncan ... "with Pound in the background." Some of their work he had seen in London, but now it increasingly became a touchstone. He helped get American poetry published in Britain, along with European and Latin American poets in translation. Then Tarn wrote, partly while on retreat in Wales, 'The Beautiful Contradictions' (Jonathan Cape, 1969/Random House, 1970). 

Tarn regards 'The Beautiful Contradictions' as his first American book--and the year after it was published in London, he moved permanently to the States, teaching literature and other subjects at a number of schools, including Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania, Jilin (China), then Rutgers, from where he retired in 1985, moving to Santa Fé, his present home. 

The late 60s-1970s were possibly the time of Tarn's greatest recognition, with his translations of Pablo Neruda's poetry and works of his own, like 'A Nowhere for Vallejo' (Random House, 1971; Jonathan Cape, 1972). Famed San Francisco poet Kenneth Rexroth wrote to James Laughlin of New Directions publishers insisting he publish Tarn. The result was 'Lyrics for the Bride of God,' brought out by both New Directions and Jonathan Cape in 1975. Tarn continued with a steady stream of books, including in the late 70s, sections of 'Alashka,' by various presses, a collaboration with his second wife, poet Janet Rodney, collected together in 'Atitlán/Alashka' (Brillig Works Press, 1979)--and Tarn's 'Selected Poems, 1950-2000' (Wesleyan University Press, 2002), just to name two of more than two dozen, cementing a reputation for lyrical brilliance with subjects both bucolic--or ecological--and urbane, including much remarkable love and nature poetry. 

But Tarn's accomplishment goes deeper than that, with his complex grounding in the traditions of European lyricism and of natural philosophy and cosmology, inherited from figures of antiquity like Virgil and Lucretius, descending through the medieval troubadours of Provence and Dante, to more modern writers who set out to explore unfamiliar landscapes, encounter different languages and peoples, thus reencountering themselves--the British, French and German Romantics, early American wrters like Thoreau, Whitman, Melville; modern French poets such as Gérard de Nerval (whose 'Les Chimères' seems to crystallize the Hermetic quality of German Romanticism in the clarity of French), Victor Segalen (who Tarn has translated), Blaise Cendrars, Henri Michaux ... Mingled with the poetics of personal perception and historical experience pioneered by Ezra Pound and other 20th century American poets. 

Tarn's lyric voice is a special one in today's poetry, his 'I' not the more familiar First Person Confessional; neither is it stylized and aloof; but a voice able to speak on the poet's own ground or through other personae, as few in English have done so well since Yeats and Pound. His poetry both fulfills the traditions from all over with which it's in accord, yet remains unique, insolite. Nobel laureate Octavio Paz said Tarn has "a vision both universal and unique." And renowned San Francisco poet Michael Palmer has called Tarn "a singular marvel of our culture, and not only ours." 

"[ ... ] Wake! Wake!/For love of all you've ever been./Remember to remember/there is no other space,/no other time you could enjoy/or truly live--as if a flower,/let's say my great white spire//unearthly high (tall as yourself,/tall man, sharp tempest)/of White Delphinium,/had stood beyond all reason,/had not been broken down/by winds of such violence//as no year in this place had blown/with such fury, such indignation,/that you'd forgotten how to still//the suffocating mind [ ... ]" (from "Moment" in 'Gondwana and Other Poems') 

''Gondwana and Other Poems' by Nathaniel Tarn (New Directions Books) $15.95 

Available in Berkeley at Moe's Books, 2476 Telegraph, between Haste and Dwight. (510) 849-2087 

(Link to audio of Nathaniel Tarn reading from his poetry at PennSound: