Nathaniel Tarn
New Directions ($16.95)

by John Herbert Cunningham

Born in 1928 in Paris, France, Nathaniel Tarn became both a poet and an anthropologist. He brings both of these disciplines to the fore in his new book Ins and Outs of the Forest Rivers, which he says “arose out of, and was written during, two months’ travel in the wild regions of Sarawak, Borneo, East Malaysia, in 2005. Anthropological and archaeological interests were fed by visits to contemporary indigenous settlements and historic sites.”

The book is written in five parts: “Of the Perfected Angels,” “Dying Trees,” “War Stills,” “Movement / North of the Java Sea,” and “Sarawak.” But before this multi-stage expedition can begin, there is a prefatory poem, a moment of reflection, a meditation on the thing that makes up and encompasses life. Titled “Pursuit of the Whole & Parts,” this meditation ends:

when whoever owns the machine stands again at the doorsill
and the astonishing beauty of the understanding is detected
and the knowledge that it is always there—however many times
you are at a loss in the world, [at a complete loss in the world],
to be returned to, in that new moment, which is also all the old,
as if this moment were ageless and could always return
with the astounding recurrence of air by the unbounded ocean.

Here we feel the rhythm of the waves lapping at the shore and envision the sunrise and the sunset at the same instant, as well as all that came between.

“Of the Perfected Angels” initially seems to have nothing to do with Tarn’s trek, although it may signify the leaving behind of Western civilization. The last poem in this section, “Mathis at Issenheim,” concerns Tarn’s response to an altarpiece created by Matthias Grünewald in the 16th century, titled “Green Forest,” which was

saved over the years
from many wars and revolutions,
hidden, carried away and changing domiciles
time after time for seven centuries,
saved from perdition but not so much discussed,
catalogued only among earth’s treasures . . .

Tarn condemns war and contrasts it with the enduring nature of art, claiming that the altarpiece

has lifted him little by little,
men’s eyes sharpened for vision,
to the highest tree,
in the top branches of the highest tree,
(as lords of patience triumph over loss),
there where the stars are singing, uneclipsable.

This, to Tarn, is the essential nature of Western civilization—the ebb and flow which he recreates through his halting, returning lines between good and evil, between creation and destruction.

We move from “Green Forest” to “Dying Trees”—a poem in nine parts, each individually labelled. In the second poem, “A Hand,” we read:

Skyscrapers had not done it,
not raised it truly over all the land
around, the huge, thirsty expanses dry as
the dustbowl of our present time, choking
the trees. Now there’s to be some talk of hands—
one hand especially that has grown old, spotted
and veined in honest work and honest “husbandry.”

Is this a subtle condemnation of monoculture? And does that condemnation extend to the “skyscraper,” that symbol of man’s “progress” that has spread like a cancer across the land, literally and figuratively creating a “dustbowl”?

The final section, “Sarawak,” consists solely of the long poem “Ins and Outs of the Forest Rivers.” The tenor of this section is well summarized in the following excerpt:

Trapped in pervading stench of old ideas,
trapped in repetitive paralyzed projects,
trapped by the magistrates who never move
on cases dusty for decades, and by police
who police nothing but the new owners’ acres
they took from those who grew the land
and are now homeless.

Tarn trashes society’s institutions, condemning them for their destruction of the planet and the poor; he sees in them only the upholding of a status quo which bears the motto “might is right.” It is within the bailiwick of this rant that we find the message that has permeated this entire volume, a message that could be summarized as “this place stinks and I’m not going to take it anymore.” Tarn thus promotes rant to the rank of first-rate poetry, adding his voice to the others that try to bring light and hope to our dark time.


Editor’s Note: “Dying Trees” was originally published as a chapbook by Rain Taxi in 2003.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009