The Tall Lighthouse - November 24, 2008 - 0 Comments
Horizon & Back by Heather Taylor
Reviewed by Michelle Miller
Horizon & Back is Heather Taylor’s first full-length poetry collection, following the 2003 chapbook She Never Talks to Strangers. Although Taylor is a native Canadian, she has been living and working in London, England since 2002 as an educator and performance poet. It is clear from reading this collection that Taylor writes with an eye to performing, and for the most part these poems benefit from her background in spoken word and performance, giving the poems a strong visual and audio quality. Taylor’s work is characteristically British, meaning that she uses exclusively black humour, both successfully and to a fault. The collection itself is absolutely cohesive, which may be surprising given that it is Taylor’s first attempt at a full length book and might easily have suffered from the “grab bag” mentality of many first collections. However, this cohesiveness serves as both strength and weakness, since her approach leaves some questions about how capable she is of exploring a diversity of emotions.
This book is split into six sections, with all of the poems in each section remaining very true to their theme. It sometimes seems that Taylor is unable to move past a very literal understanding of the themes she’s chosen, and her utter faithfulness to her theme risks narrative drone. It is only Taylor’s likable voice and offbeat observational skills that keep the reader from flipping to the next section three quarters in. A less talented poet would not have been able to succeed in this approach. Even with her considerable skills, Taylor’s reluctance to write outside of the box she creates in these sections becomes a disappointment at points. She uses experimental language and brazen wordplay, and yet many of her poems seem sad and safe. The collection begins: “I speak fondly of places, like a sailor / looking for the change that becomes changeless,” and quite honesty, this is the last ‘fondness’ I see in any poem here.
Taylor begins with a reflection on the family entitled “Building Blocks.” In a move characteristic of the rest of the collection, the family she uses (which may or may not be based on her own family) is “broken.” The family members are all here, described with stunning visuals and intense feeling. We come to know Taylor’s family as she sees it, which is not always flattering, not always sympathetic, but always real. These characters are the building blocks of all further relationships gone hopelessly awry. In “Last Chance” we see
Gramma, big boned & tight-lipped
her apron half on & feet plunged
into thick rubber books
advance[ing] with plastered down arms
of grease and flour – the early morning residue
of half finished treats
for the child. (17)
“Grandpa Urness” is a sadly familiar figure to many adults:
daytime he lies there
in too short jogging pants
plaid farmers jacket
supported through tubes
life blurred through aneurysm eyes. (14)
Taylor is ruthless in her description of the mother character, who is shown to be constantly scolding: “She scolds to siblings / scolds daughter / son / invites whispers of can we talk?” (6). She is also displayed as promiscuous. In “My House” Taylor tells us
They said the most confusing day in my house
was Father’s Day but my mom knows
who all the dads are, there are just so many of them. (2)
In “Red” she addresses a socialist brother killed:
The newspaper ran a picture of your face
twisted ugly with hate, a crow bar uplifted
frozen, a hero to socialism your new mates said. (7)
Taylor seems especially sensitive to the Father character here, who gets none of the stigma attached to the mother’s inability to give her children the same father. Instead, he becomes a victim of the “broken-not-broken-home / of my generation” (2). In “The Weekend Father’s Fantasy” she writes a father who wants desperately to be a family with his children, but who finds himself
left with the children no longer his
except on weekends, every second
said the lawyer, that are slipping away. (5)
Although I should admit myself to be slightly more cynical about who suffers more from a broken home with a weekend father than Taylor might seem, it’s somewhat refreshing to read about a father interested in a relationship with his family. Of course, due to Taylor’s reluctance to display any positive emotions or events, it’s hard to walk away from these incredibly sad and pessimistic poems feeling refreshed.
The second section is called “Playing the Gods,” an idea that Taylor takes completely literally. The poems, titled after the characters they display, take gods out of their literary tradition and bring them forward into modern time. Athena is shown being birthed from her father’s head in a taxi cab: “He had a splitting headache the day she was born / as he sat in the back of a taxi cab” (21). Icarus becomes a musician catapulted to fame and victim of a heroin overdose, while Arachnae becomes a hacker, “his tapestry of interconnection / intricately weav[ing] its way past internet security / into bank accounts” (24). You may notice Taylor’s questionable decision to make the traditionally female Arachnae into a male… is it perhaps because women can’t be hackers? I found this choice to be really interesting and ultimately disappointing, since none of the other mythological creatures here change sex in their retellings. Medea’s husband kills her children while she listens on the telephone, Myrine survives breast cancer, Diane and Acteon have shower-room sex, Charybdis is a high school social pariah and Echo – also a high school student – strives to become beautiful, collecting tips from evil journalists. This is an interesting idea, and when it’s done well, retelling classical stories with modern characters in contemporary settings can open doors for entertaining social commentary. But throughout these poems, I kept waiting for Taylor to break from a literal understanding of these characters and breathe some fresh life into them. Unfortunately, my desires there were not satisfied. There’s not much subtlety in this section, which is unfortunate, because good storytelling requires it. And I was so annoyed by the idea that girls can’t be hackers that I was unable to enjoy the following poems at all. That was just a poor choice.
In the section “Bar / Love” Taylor tackles the troublesome nature of modern romance. Her characters meet at the bar, they get along (sometimes), but they don’t end up together (ever). Or if they do, they’re not happy about it. In “Gone” a woman who has been stood up worries that the man might have been killed: “people can’t be claimed back / so I think – I have to think. That he’s not dead/ but just another bastard” (37). “The Past” discusses a sexpot past her prime “with fat face & bloated belly” (38), who like many other characters, has let her life slip by her. In these poems men cheat, children are killed, and even “Captivation” becomes
A soft melding
As worms twist through apples
Turned brown by autumn. (43)
Every poem in this collection is pessimistic. It’s not necessary to go through and explain the themes explored in the rest of the sections, since they follow the tone of those already discussed. I will mention one spectacularly infuriating point. In “That Night” Taylor seems to sympathize with a confused date rapist, who somehow believes “what they made that night / was love” (33). Frankly, I have a strong stomach for disappointment, sorrow and misery in poetry. While I may suspect some anti-feminist reluctance to write a female hacker character, I can chalk up the choice to change Arachnae’s sex to a momentary lack of Taylor’s sense and poetic bravery. But I can never look past a willingness to sympathize with a rapist. Not to get too political here, but date rape is rape, and I think it’s ridiculous and problematic to suggest that any date rapist might think that sleeping with a woman too drunk to communicate her “no” strongly enough could be “making love.” No, I’m sorry, no.
My criticism about her political choices aside, this collection needs some optimism to lighten it up. I’m not asking for rhymes. I don’t want any trite love poetry. I don’t need everything to work out perfectly and for everyone to live happily ever after, but I need a little breadth here. I’ll certainly say that Taylor’s got a great gift for the depressing, but as a reader I’m looking for more than that, and I hope that she’s able to deliver it in her future work. I also hope that she bones up a little bit on her feminist theory, because I see some anti-woman short-sightedness that needs to be addressed. I’d say yes, read these poems, certainly. There’s some very good writing here. But take some breaks to smell a flower or kiss your lover or oh god, anything, anything positive. And if you see Heather Taylor on the street, give that girl a hug or something.