Dreaming At the Gates of Fury by Alexander Taylor
Reviewed by Chris Faatz
Many people believe that poetry and politics don't mix, that "political poetry" is doomed to be didactic, narrow, hysterical. In my experience, this isn't necessarily so. Many of the finest poets of the last one hundred years -- Brecht, Rukeyser, Hikmet, Eluard, and Neruda among them -- were ardently political, yet their verse sang and continues to resonate on a multitude of levels.
The same can be said of many contemporary poets who mine a politicized vein. Martin Espada, Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, Ernesto Cardenal -- all of them are political poets, yet their work is informed by so much more than mere politics, whether of protest or something else, alone. Love, commitment, the beauty of nature, the fragility of life, all of these themes arc through their poems in
Alexander Taylor is a poet and cultural titan little known outside the narrow world of literary publishing. The co-founder of Connecticut-based Curbstone Press, he has dedicated his life to giving a voice to the work of people who use literature and poetry to question and criticize the status quo a voice. His authors have included both Cardenal and Espada. He's also published the likes of Salvadoran revolutionary Roque Dalton, Claribel Alegria, and San Francisco poet laureate Jack Hirschman.
While Taylor has achieved some eminence as a publisher, only an elect few know that he's also an accomplished poet. Taylor's work is widely recognized in Europe, and particularly in Denmark where he's won several awards and fellowships, but in this country his poetry has only been issued by small presses and in limited editions. This is a real shame as his work is simultaneously extraordinarily powerful and exquisitely and meticulously rendered.
We are fortunate, then, to have Dreaming at the Gates of Fury: New and Selected Poems from Azul Editions of Washington, DC. This is a fabulous collection of poems, running to just over 100 pages of stirring meditations on a plethora of topics. Here you'll find scenes from the guerrilla insurgencies of Latin America juxtaposed with vignettes from inner city America, shatteringly beautiful love poems alongside depictions of humanity at its most brutal -- and also at its most promising and inspiring.
This book basically mixes two very powerful subjects, and Taylor shows himself to be a master of each. First, are his love poems -- rich, textured, deeply erotic. Often verging on the surreal, these go beyond the merely descriptive to capture something that is essential to the act, to the moment of love. Second, are his political poems, each a small masterpiece of description and power. These are most often written in straightforward free verse, with no fancy or arcane stylistic pyrotechnics. These poems are delivered in the language of the street, of workplace and shop, and are beautiful too, in their way. True, their subject is often grim, but they move with a life of their own to describe a world that has gone dreadfully wrong -- and to paint a picture of that same world as it might be.
At his best, and at this book's best, Taylor combines the two, his love poems with his political poetry. In poem after poem -- "Comedians," "Clear Water," "Overheard Among the Guerrillas" -- the political bleeds over into the poem of erotic adoration in a way that lends depth and texture and a heightened meaning to both. These poems are sprinkled throughout this book like pearls, and I found myself returning to them for re-reading time and time again.
Take, for instance, "Overheard Among the Guerrillas:"
Between the bursts of shellfire
we could see the stars pulsing quietly,
stretching far away.
Between explosion and echo
"What a beautiful night!"--
her wrists platinum fish
in the moonlight, her hair
flowing over thin shoulders.
A distant flash lit up
the crooked buildings of the city
and one flaming star
plunged to earth.
It was a beautiful night,
a night of light and shadow,
the night I was struck by
the dazzle of her teeth and eyes
when she smiled and took up her rifle.
We followed her up the path
that smelled of evergreen and roses.
Taylor's poems sing to me. They're deeply political, yet not defined by that alone. They are redolent of all the things that make up a life, and they weave together the many threads that give life texture and meaning. They are a profound "yes!" to the adventure and challenge and wonder of living. If only for that reason alone they are worth reading.