Seven Ways of Looking at Marilyn L. Taylor
by Barbara Crooker
How do I love thee, Marilyn Taylor? Let me count the ways:
• for your effervescent wit, as evidenced in poems like “Reading the Obituaries”:
Now the Barbaras have begun to die,
trailing their older sisters to the grave,
the Helens, Margies, Nans—who said goodbye
just days ago, it seems, taking their leave
a step or two behind the hooded girls
who bloomed and withered with the century—
the Dorotheas, Eleanors and Pearls
now swaying on the edge of memory.
Soon, soon, the scythe will sweep for Jeanne
and Angela, Patricia and Diane—
pause, and return for Karen and Christine
while Susan spends a sleepless night again.
Ah, Debra, how can you be growing old?
Jennifer, Michelle, your hands are cold.
Your use of the verbs “bloomed and withered” in line six is pure genius, alluding to the long-ago
fashion of flowers as girls’ names. The slyness and subtlety of your point, how names
sweep in and out of favor, both tells a deeper truth and is deeply clever. I’ve heard you
read this poem several times, and the audience is in stitches at the end.
• for your way with rhyme, both regular and slant:
In the poem quoted above, your off rhymes make inventive music: “grave/leave, century/memory, Diane/again.” So, too, in “The Geniuses Among Us”: “perennials / testimonials, happen / soften, fences / romances,” and “where we’ve been / where light is pouring in.” Wow!
• for your virtuosity in received forms:
You can toss off Sapphics; show skill with the villanelle; go a few rounds with the rondeau; wage hand-to-hand combat with the sonnet (as in the “Obituaries” poem); claim the rhyming quatrain; brew up clever clerihews; tackle double dactyls. . . .
You have such a sure touch on the wheel in the rhymes of the final stanza of “In Memory of the Nissan Station Wagon”:
. . . the disagreements, groans and whines
about what Stanzas could or couldn’t do.
So if one comes your way, check out the lines
and brakes. Make it yours. And make it new.
Ah, the ghost of Ezra Pound must be groaning with pleasure over that one!
In several cases, I needed to reread poems before I even realized they were in form—for example, the Shakespearean sonnet “Posthumous Instructions,” your take on the ultimate recycling (ie, the disposal of your ashes). For me, it speaks volumes of your skill, that the reader is at first unaware of the frame.
• for your out-and-out cleverness:
In “Notes from the Good-Girl Chronicles, 1963,” you take us back to a time “when the friendly skies were full of virgins,” where stewardesses (not flight attendants) wore “mock-military fitted suit[s] / and soldier-cap[s]—utterly chaste, / yet so erotic,” when wives waited for their husbands to come home: “a match / to light his cigarette . . . one moment more to fetch / the Wall Street Journal. Then his Crown / Royal” (with the felicitous internal music of Journal/Royal), then the bank calls and “checks / that didn’t clear” (and the slap across the face that follows); when the mother of the state fair Queen is proud because her daughter “slinks on those high heels, / cranks her little hips just like a pro”; when 16-year-old girls who go all the way realize that then those boys “will drop you like a shoe”; when the stages of women’s lives could be summed up by Mrs. McKinney: “No one cared whether we flounced / or crawled through all the tragicomic phases / of our lives—we nearly always played / our grand theatricals to empty houses.” The bad old days. All of these observations live and breathe within a crown of sonnets.
• for your use of figurative language:
In “Rondeau: Old Woman with Cat” you say: “Osteoporosis (one of life’s indignities) / is such a splendid name for the disease— / all those little o’s, holes in the bone.” You then give us vivid pictures of these bones: “porous as swiss cheese,” “lacy filigrees,” “breakable as glass on stone.” Your riff on a different part of the anatomy in “Another Thing I Ought to Be Doing” (breast self-examination) gives the bosom its own history: “. . .these very breasts that caused me great gymnasiums / of misery and high humiliation—”
• for your deeply felt knowledge:
“Subject to Change: A Reflection on my Students,” rings an elegiac tone, as even the young
. . . like me, [are] traveling headlong
in that familiar, vertical direction
that coarsens beautiful, blackmails young,
and turns to phantoms those I move among.
Ironically, your speaker knows she can’t keep time from elapsing, and yet isn’t that what poetry does, arrest time, like the lovers frozen on Keats’ Grecian urn? We are, all of us, subject to change, and while we don’t like to hear this familiar news, you also remind us in “Horace Redux” to
. . . pour yourself another glass of port
Before your dithering becomes addictive—
Then smile, drink up, and keep Time in perspective
If it kills you, buddy. Life is short.
• for the tenderness of your heart:
(Yes, I know it’s not fashionable to have poems with heart in them. Bah, humbug, I say to that!)
In “Poem for a 75th Birthday,” with the poignant opening line, “Love of my life, it’s nearly evening,” here’s the ending:
. . . as I lean
in your direction, absolutely satisfied
that summer afternoon is all
there is, and night will never fall.
Wouldn’t we all want to stop (and stopper) time like this?
I could go on and on. William Wordsworth tells us that “the first principle of poetry should be pleasure,” and Marilyn Taylor, you give your readers great pleasure indeed. And for that, all I can say is, “Thank you.”
Barbara Crooker is the author of six volumes of poetry; Barbara Crooker: Selected Poems is the most recent. She has been a recipient of three Pennsylvania State Arts Council Fellowships, The Word Press First Book Award, The Thomas Merton Poetry of the Sacred Award, the W. B. Yeats Poetry Prize, and others.