Nathaniel Tarn
Selected Poems: 1950-2000
Middletown, CT: Wesleyan, 2002

Nathaniel Tarn’s Selected Poems collects a half century’s work from a life lived between disciplines and continents. An anthropologist turned poet, Tarn moves across an impressive range of myths and geographies in search of a poetry that can speak to the widest range of human concerns, engaging "the heart of mankind beating from one end of a/great city to another which is the whole earth now."
Tarn is probably best known for his translations of Neruda, and his own work follows Neruda’s in its commitment to the traditional resources of the lyric, its outrage at the New World’s ruined promise and its faith in the poet’s continuing ability to speak out "with the voice that does not lie/at the depth where it becomes the voice of any man." From the earliest poems in 1964’s Old Savage/Young City, Tarn sets out to restore a mythic consciousness to the thick particulars of everyday experience. His work is in the tradition of Olson and Pound and, behind them, Frazer’s The Golden Bough in its effort to bring pre-modern modes of understanding to the ruptured ecology of an increasingly Westernized world. One of the most appealing features of Tarn’s poetry is the way it tweaks the borders between myth and experience, as sharply-observed details from the poet’s travels and personal history join larger narrative structures drawn from sources as varied as the Kabbalah, Classical mythology and Tarn’s fieldwork among the peoples of Alaska, Guatemala and East Asia. The Persephone myth in particular recurs in various cultural guises, her cyclical return from the dead mirroring Tarn’s own hope that a renewed respect for the feminine can balance modernity’s excess. "We have no alternative," he writes in The Beautiful Contradictions, "to taking the whole world as our mother."
The collection begins and ends with meditations on the city, an emblem of civilization’s destructiveness ("Cities devour her face") but also the possibility of a redeemed social space — "all reassembled, all transfigured,/a human reign." Mediating between despair and redemption is the poet’s cosmic sense of the present, alive to a world where lovers blur into goddesses, the lyric ‘I’ meshes with nature’s cycles and the instant pulls constantly towards eternity, circling "down through forgetfulness/to some new, unified beginning." Some readers will welcome Tarn’s "habit of looking for the eternal side of things" along with his willingness to claim for poetry something like a global function. Others may find the poems pushing too insistently towards rapture, and wish for more of the trickster’s humor to go with the shaman’s vision. Tarn is an expansive poet, and some of the best poems in the collection — from The Beautiful Contradictions, Lyrics for the Bride of God and the outstanding Architextures — are detached from the longer serial arcs that give them resonance. But despite its limitations, Selected Poems is a powerful record of a poet richly devoted to "Our moods of love/as they will seize and shake us all our lives."

-- Rodney Koeneke