- Quicksilver Mind
"I care about poetry that disrupts business as usual," reads Charles Bernstein's epigraph to Barn Burned, Then, Michelle Taransky's new book drawing inspiration from and paying tribute to the Objectivist Poets of the 1930s. So, apparently, does Taransky. Taking up her cudgel and adz against conventional uses of language in poetry, she achieves a perfect splintering that generates multi-factorial images and levels of meaning and the kind of compound-eye truth that can be achieved only through the concentrated focus of a thousand perspectives.
Objectivist poetry emerged from the work featured in the February 1931 issue of Poetry, edited by Louis Zukofsky after he was asked by Harriet Monroe to articulate the basis for a new movement called "objectivism." One founder, George Oppen, described his primary concern as "the subject of the sentence," and he cautioned against "rushing over the subject matter in order to make a comment about it." Drawing from science of optics, Zukofsky defined "objective" as the "lens bringing the rays from an object to a focus."
The artifacts of objectivism are everywhere in Barn Burned, Then, beginning with the title's evocation of what Oppen once said about political and artistic action, that "surely no one need fiddle precisely at the moment the house next door is burning." At least three poems, beginning with the first one, reference the praying mantis of Zukofsky's poem, "Mantis" and "'Mantis,' An Interpretation." Also present is this image from "A Group of Verse" by Charles Reznikoff in the 1931 issue: "Among the heaps of brick and plaster lies / A girder, itself among the rubbish." An objectivist "touchstone" for "the poem as object, sincere in itself," the girder shows up in "The Event," one of many poems that strew the rubble of cataclysmic destruction across the page:
And seven barns respectively. A crying falcon. You were the oneWho told me girder. Cast the anchor in rich earth. Declaration of echo is noDifferent from the fold. When weeds push at the walls, the wailingNames names.
In Barn Burned, Then, images like these are repeated and expanded in later poems into multiple permutations, with the extreme heterogeneity of materials and consequent foregrounding of language being precisely the point. Words like "mother," "safe," "weeds," "frame," "tender," "teller," "fold," "bank," "branch," "burn," "barn," and "burglars" repeat in the book like talismans. Subsequent readings morph a "teller" from a person behind a bank window into one who witnesses or "tells" (or "untells") truths and a "safe" from a noun meaning a bank vault to an ironic adjective in a world where the vagaries of a capitalist economy level bulldoze entire cultures along with their historical structures.
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Taransky jettisons most of the elements of poetic convention, initial-capping some lines but omitting capitalization in others and minimally punctuating most poems, with the notable exception of "The Bank Holds" which ends each of its first nineteen lines with a colon. Still, a feeling or shadow of structure—what T.S. Eliot might call the ruins of form—haunts Barn Burned, Then. Neither regular nor symmetrical, lines are nevertheless consciously and carefully shaped, and often seem almost to form regular stanzas until they are disrupted, so reliably disrupted, in fact, as nearly to constitute their own pattern. The predominant visual statement is of stanzas stacked into slender verticals, like silos, towers, or columns in a bank ledger. Here is one example, in the poem that opens the book:
Empty will take careAsk, can our diggingDo the job, untellWhat crier told
Only stories grow tallNo fossil wrote inWasn't the emblem of the whaleOrdered from confession to cave
That stores names
That had to be fed to the children
Barn, you turned away at that [End Page 27]
Lip—decreed ballads notKnowing the country planted itself
Felt bones in the wayWe stood for
Frontiersman meaning itObject over hero, cryWhiteness and mantis mayBe white, proceed I amBurning the portraitThat barn painted...