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The World Underneath: Richard Tayson

The World Underneath: Richard Tayson

Author: Brent Calderwood

July 21, 2009

With his second book of poetry, Richard Tayson delivers mightily on the promise of his wonderful debut collection, The Apprentice of Fever. More than ten years have passed since that collection, but the wait was well worth it.

The very first (and eponymous) poem, “The World Underneath,” a suite in ten parts, assures readers that we are in the hands of a master craftsman. Infused with music and meaning, each line yields riches. Tayson starts the suite by introducing us to “A woman whose laugh I love” who has survived breast cancer and worries, like him, about “79 degrees // in November, and the leaves / just starting to fall….” Meditations on meteorology, life, string theory, and relationship to family and friends – particularly to women and children – are weaved into a seamless whole. Technology and theories about time, however, do not change the ineluctable fact of the fragility of life, which Tayson addresses over an over, his unflinching matter-of-factness tempered by the beautiful exactness of his language:
Julie made it into the bone
trial. Kate varies her cocktail
and will likely die by natural
causes, which is not the way
Liza died, not the way
Anne B. died, or the woman
whose beauty stunned me ….
Cancer, death, melting ice caps, SUVs – topics that in other hands might feel clinical, topical, or voyeuristic, are instead engaging, uplifting, at times transcendent.
Another startling transformation into art of timely, harrowing facts is the poem “Whatever Happens to the Lesbian Happens to Me” (with a nod to lesbian poet Muriel Rukeyser’s “Waterlily”). In the poem, Tayson details the attack by three college boys on a lesbian in New York City. As he so often does, Tayson takes us inside the mind of one character, then moves us toward the actions and responses of other characters, and finally into a sort of beatific world-mind. At first, the victim is “not thinking of anything / but the pain, as she falls / on the concrete in our human city.” After the attack has ended, her thoughts move from “Where are my glasses?” to
— We’re not
separate ever, and is
changed forever, in the middle
of the night, eight blocks
from my room, whatever
happens to the lesbian
is happening to you asleep,
is happening to me asleep,
safe in my lover’s arms.
As in all good collections, poems speak to each other, and “Whatever Happens” is followed by “On the Way to See James Dean,” a recounting of the harassment the speaker and his husband encounter in the subway en route to a theater. Stunningly, the speaker moves from a homophobe spitting invectives to his own response, “We should move to another car,” to his partner’s refusal to move, to the response and non-response of the other passengers: “the dark-skinned mom / … staring at the man as if / daring him to come one inch / closer to her two pink-ribboned girls,” as well as “the Chinese woman / with her bag of Chinese cabbage, / the red-haired eighteen-year-old / who presses his chest into the back / of his raven-haired girlfriend” and others. The speaker lifts his camera: “you climb higher, get a wider / view of the world’s delicacies, love / the diversity of ocean fish and grains / of sand …” until “you come back into the car and have / the chance to love humans of every / persuasion, even the ones who want / to bomb the hell out of every creature / still breathing.”

While moving through bodies and time and space, while exploring the world underneath facile surfaces, the reader is over and over brought face-to-face with mortality, hate, and complacency, but also with compassion, understanding, and the higher self. To be sure, The World Underneath is expansive enough to also hold moments of joy and tenderness (as in “I Do,” an exultant and persuasive epithalamium) and wry wit (as in “Dark Theater,” which delightfully pilfers song-lyric sentiment to burst illusions about romantic and domestic bliss). But whether we are watching a brutal crime, a birth, or the wedding of two men who love each other, we always have the feeling that we are, indeed, watching. The reader feels invited, not only into a world of women, children, and men, but ultimately into the world itself, with all its hidden gifts.

The World Underneath
Richard Tayson
Kent State University Press / $18.00
ISBN 978-0873389488
Paperback, 76 pp.

Brent Calderwood photo

About: Brent Calderwood

Brent Calderwood is the author of the poetry collection The God of Longing (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2014) and Literary Editor for A&U Magazine. He lives in San Francisco. His website is

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