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‘Capriciously Ongoing’: Eleanor Ross Taylor’s Late Leisure


ISSUE:  Spring 2000
Late Leisure. By Eleanor Ross Taylor. Louisiana State University Press. Cloth $19.95. Paper $12.95.

Eleanor Ross Taylor’s “Ending Winter” concludes: “After a fruitless winter/ my ego is leafing/ but won’t bloom this year.” Were it not for the allusion to winter, we might surmise that the leafing and blooming images are a young woman’s and that this collection is a coming-of-age testimony. We would not be entirely mistaken—except that the age is not young, and winter is a trope associated with various silences.

Like most women of her generation, Eleanor Ross assumed that marriage and a career were incompatible. Despite precocious beginnings, therefore, Eleanor Ross largely ceased to write when she married the major short story writer and novelist, Peter Taylor. Perhaps she did not want to compete with her husband; certainly she was too busy to follow a dedicated writing regime. She served as wife, mother, housekeeper, hostess, letter-writer, and also family packer, as Peter Taylor nomadically moved from one to another writer-in-residence post.

Eleanor Taylor alludes to such duties in “Late Dinner”: “popsicles melting and the freezer far;/ had clothes to bring in from the rain./ I ran, but they were always damp;/ and diapers to be changed, pail full;/ something indefinable, and self-contained, / one hoped.” A Freudian or a radical feminist would insist that she hoped for too much self-containment. Unlike Tillie Olsen, whose Silences (1978) voices women’s resentment of cultural “silencing,” however, Eleanor Ross Taylor lacks bitterness. She made her own choices and seems to have been content with them. Besides, she was never really silenced.

Over the years, Taylor reserved a corner of her mind for composing lines of poetry, which she honed and smoothed at her will. While teaching with Peter Taylor at UNC-Greensboro, Randall Jarrell became Eleanor’s champion. He critiqued her poetry, tirelessly encouraging her to discriminate between lines and words that worked and those that did not. Jarrell first sent out her poems for her and probably was behind the publication of Eleanor Taylor’s first collection of poems, A Wilderness of Ladies.His long introduction to that volume emphasizes the repressed life and resulting “violent emotion” that those poems idiosyncratically express.

Eleanor Ross Taylor’s Late Leisure follows four previous collections of poems: Wilderness of Ladies (1960); Welcome Eumenides(1972); New and Selected Poems (1983); and Days Going, Days Coming Back (1992). The diminishing time breaks between collections (12, 11, 9, 7 years) suggests quickening confidence and concentration. Over the past decade she has submitted poems as if she were an unknown youngster. Magazines and journals as diverse as Cape Rock, Ploughshares, Yale Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, and The New Yorker have printed them. Along with 19 previously unpublished poems, these magazine publications reappear in Late Leisure.

Taylor’s poetry has been remarkable for the number and variety of voices it adopts: hill country farmers, a chain gang guard, old family members, memoir writers like Florence Nightingale, a man who visited the American South near the close of the Civil War, an 18th-century Virginia preacher, and Indian captives. In this volume, Taylor alludes to such autobiographers as Jane Carlyle, Fanny Kemble, Father Lopez, writing of “La Florida, 1565—1569,” women who detailed the hardships of the Oregon trail, and Marie Vassiltchikov, author of Berlin Diaries, 1940—45.Explicitly or not, Taylor also alludes to individuals like her brother Fred Ross, her friend Aubrey Williams, and her fellow poet Joe Bolton, whose suicide coincided with the publication of his first book. Her conviction, as she explained to me, is that people “have some dramatic moment in their lives, and if you can discover it and identify with it, it broadens your experience.”

Some of these poems are, at least in part, about that broadening. A Taylor persona, from inside her house, dizzily observes as a “Retired Pilot Watches Plane.” Following his gaze, the persona discovers “no line between/ earth’s atmosphere/ black space”; then Taylor leaves a blank space on the page. After this discovery, suddenly feeling “no oxygen,” the persona lingers safely inside for a time. “Worlds Old and New” moves in and out of the consciousness of Father Lopez, incorporating first-person journal entries with third-person reflections. These shifts culminate in the consciousness of the poet: “Nobody guessed I would be anxious/ four centuries on,” as she “hungered and explored” the record Father Lopez left. Like the poet, the reader feels “a pang” when the journal ends abruptly with the unexplained death of Father Lopez.

In a recent conversation with Eleanor Taylor, I noted that, while a number of voices do speak here, her own voice dominates this new collection. With characteristic self-effacement, Taylor supposed the poems “lose something” for being so personal. Her conviction is that “The artist has two guises/ in one time/ and so must I.” She seems to associate self-revelation with self-indulgence.

Despite her uneasiness, however, her own voice enriches these poems as it testifies to the spirit’s resilience. When I asked her if “Long-Dreaded Event Takes Place,” the first poem in Late Leisure,refers to Peter Taylor’s death, Eleanor Ross replied that she wrote with a more generalized tragedy in mind, but she revised the poem after her 50-year marriage ended with Peter’s death. Using an extended painting metaphor, she aptly captures the way the mind slows down when it meets catastrophe and thereby accomplishes emotional retreat. The mourner viewed death like a painter “at my easel/distancing my sketch/ pretending I recede/ not present. . . .” She concludes:

Everything establishes my absence in this scene later somewhere I’ll paint-in gaps, fill in the larger picture, withholdings spilled out of my pockets of resistance— the brushes the paints the skill

The fresh use to which Taylor puts a cliche like “pockets of resistance” typifies the way she strips language bare and then reapplies it. And the wry self-consciousness of “the skill” (followed by no punctuation) reminds us how much emotional healing is a skill, like painting, learned through distancing.

In the amusing “Accidental Prisoner,” the poet, trapped under her back porch, reflects on her own burial. More often, though, entrapment is preparation for escape. The persona hurries home in “Diary Entry, March 24,” outpacing a “foam hot dog carton,” “a little casket” blown by the wind. In “Completing the Pilgrimage,” the poet remembers rides on the school bus in the hills of North Carolina. In her imagination, she breaks from the bus and bolts for “Kimmer-ville” —for the wild and untamed, which she thinks of as “another-part of myself.” In “Contemplating Jailbreak,” though “marriage was an economy all round,” the poet considers abandoning the appurtenances of a secure life.

In “Dust,” the poet wonders “How’d all those years/skip me?” In “Deer,” a spirit knows “something it has to do—shatter a wall and jump through.” Sometimes, as in “Late Dinner,” the self-discovery seems sexual. Sometimes, as in “Find Me,” it is playfully illusive. Always, it is preparative, as in “Night Retrieves”:

A gray arachnid that sleeps all day and sews up the night, spinneret ingathering with care, primordial eyes shut tight, never loses a stitch of my long laddered snare.

After such “ingathering,” the poet still is “struggling to speak.” In “Why Angels Choir,” she admits, “It’s the tongue/ Has needs”:

Out on a sunny wire one mockingbird says things severe, makes lists, gets it all off his chest. In this house, silence, heavy.

In Late Leisure Taylor makes a feminist escape from that heavy, repressed silence. The poet has “read somewhere/just waking up can kill you”; nevertheless, with new-found strength, “I burst up/ from deeps, detach a buried habitat/ re-enter.”

Despite such self-revelation, Taylor need not worry that her poems are self-indulgent. Their power far surpasses mere self-expression. In “The Diary,” Taylor cites a number of journal keepers who feel “love for the white-hot page/ that drains the wound, seals it.” Taylor too shows how language in and of itself inspires love and admiration. In “Always Reclusive,” she uses the trope of an isolated briarpatch where thorns can “cut both ways.” She ends by citing a guide to plants: “ ‘The blackberry, permitted its own way, / is an unmanageable plant.’” Then she adds an ironic self-estimate: “Here’s a variety called Taylor: ‘Season late, / bush vigorous, hardy . . .free from rust.’/ That’s it. Don’t let my briarpatch rust.” Word play here typifies Taylor’s love of language: Rust not only corrodes metals but names a disease affecting plants with rust-colored spots; and it also refers to an impaired state resulting from inactivity or disuse, conditions Eleanor Ross Taylor furiously resists, in life and art.

Taylor’s voice maintains an outspoken and perfect, if surprising, pitch. She writes a quirky sort of verse, too structured to be free, too irregular to be formalist. Always, sense dictates sound. Sometimes playful rhymes appear: “They say the Afton road is wider now, / but I don’t drive/ and as you know John Kirby-Smith is not alive.” In “Kitchen Fable,” a verse tale about a clearly masculine knife and feminine fork who live together for years, Taylor uses heavy rhymes. Taylor’s poems are filled with experiments in consonance (“nut-gnawers nulled” and “murky matter”) and assonance (“gold veins jagging in the plum skins/ like metal boiling, / plums bolting, knocking to the ground . . .” ). She teases the reader with rhyme and off-rhyme in variable stanzas, and sometimes she writes lovely blank verse, as in “The Lamp”: “glass font well up, firm hands around its waist, / its see-through, brass-clipped chimney tight, / its unlit wick looped dreamily in oil.” Taylor often experiments with visual space. “The Sky-Watcher” is a patterned poem of alternating short and long lines. In “Katydids Sewanee,” a stair-step form suggests insects’ erratic movements, while the formal patterning of “A Place Apart” mirrors the elegance of the Sewanee establishment of the dean of the seminary.

Taylor’s poems embody what I choose to call free formalism. Their flexible forms may look casual, but instead they offer complicated mirrors of unique experiences. Like the poet in “A Place Apart,” Taylor “unwords poems”—an odd image with which she is not entirely comfortable. To me, it suggests taking language away from abstraction and opening up the husk of language to its most concrete associations, as in this explanation for marriage: “my testimony is/ in the beginning, / my bed had/ little round china rolling feet/ that’s why.”

The house Eleanor Ross Taylor has lived in longest is her current Charlottesville home. I wondered if, since Peter’s death, the house is too big for her. When many women her age are moving into garden apartments and “assisted living” arrangements, however, Eleanor Ross Taylor is enjoying having a whole house to herself. Each of her second-floor bedrooms now has its own function and, she tells me, she occupies all three of them. That physical expansion parallels the emotional and verbal expansion that this book charts.

In Eloquence and Mere Life, Alan Williamson follows Randall Jarrell in describing Taylor as a poet in the tradition of Thomas Hardy, for she too uses dazzling language to present ordinary experience. To that assessment, I add that Taylor’s language dazzles also because of her remarkable refashioning of words and experiences. As her poems testify to the resilience of this woman and of the human spirit at large, they also demonstrate the power of verse to etch a particular set of images on the reader’s consciousness.

Taylor says she used to be so insecure she “couldn’t make up my mind about anything.” Now she simply decides. She used to be nearly paralyzed by the fear of death. “But at my age, and for quite a while now, I really don’t have that sort of apprehension.” Knowing that, “not only can I not do anything about [death], I don’t have to do anything about it,” has freed her: “I feel very lucky that I have this little bit of time, even though I feel that in some ways my powers are diminished. And obviously, I have less life in one sense, but then I have more intellectual life in other ways.” That intellectual power shapes the unique but apt forms of these poems.

After long silence, recognizing that her tongue too “has needs,” Eleanor Ross Taylor has used her “little bit of time” to escape her winter of silence. She is wryly humorous about her age, as she writes in the title poem:

I, past my expiration date, fold the cloth twice for center, my needle threaded for the first small stitch, myself capriciously ongoing

Whatever she claimed in “Ending Winter,” Taylor’s winter was sparse but never fruitless. Her life’s late summer (to mix the seasonal metaphor) has occasioned in Late Leisure, a flowering that is a victory of both feminism and free formalism.

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