Shake Hands

Shake Hands by Carl ThaylerCarl Thayler
Pavement Saw Press ($10)

by Reno Lauro

The poetry of Carl Thayler has been largely ignored for the past 30 years, but what a mistake that has been. A man of diverse talents and concerns, Thayler grew up in Southern California. During the '50s he acted in several B-movies—the Hollywood press even touted him once as the next James Dean, much to Thayler's chagrin. Deciding to leave the mills of visual opportunism, he eventually moved to the Midwest to study philosophy and pursue poetry. Over the years, his creative life would be extended by friendships with Dexter Gordon, George Oppen, Paul Blackburn, and Howard McCord, among many others. After his first book, The Providings, was published in 1971, he continued writing, testing himself and his art. But without formal publication his work receded behind an onslaught of writing in the 1970s and '80s that would change the concerns of poetry. The brazenly theoretical and social concerns that became the motivating forces of experimental poetry in those years extended a stark contrast to Thayler's perceptive and personal investigations. Both by temperament and the process of his art, he worked in growing isolation.

On the heels of last year's Poems from Naltsus Bichidin (Skanky Possum Press), Shake Hands presents a more personal and painful acknowledgement of the lonely American West. It's sustained by a focus on friendships and their dissolution with the passing of time. The deeply introspective arc of this work examines close bonds between friends, and the inevitable conflict of those relations as they are played out according to their geographic and historic conditions. "Friends…defined a world," Thayler says in the foreword, "I mean literally defined a world as surely as any instrument of thought might map various placements among which one's attentions might trace, or rationalize, lines of perception and activity." Thayler takes us on a journey—gritty, bawdy and, at times painful—of a life and world lost.

Like the line-drawn specter that graces the cover we are left with questions, unsure how to read what we see. Is Shake Hands meant to paint a picture or is the intent to tear one down? Thayler is a tactician versed in literature, landscape, and music. Like a Merle Haggard song, he artfully pieces together verse using skillful rifts and edges that leave one in a morose middle ground where the joy of remembrance is haunted by longing and regret.

Mercy—umbrage taken at your minimalist love? Well here's your drowned world in a seashell—bandy it about as you have my heart, my dreams, & that's only a slurred summary.

Since love encourages defiance of shabby astral secrets: here's to my ruined liver, the glass raised in apology to the quips of excitable song birds.

There are also moments of lucidity and clarity when raw nerves are exposed and undercut by an ethereal level of reflection. In Poems from Naltsus Bichidin, Thayler tied loss and pain to the historic mythology of an American West. Here, there is a groundedness that comes with reflection and the attempted articulation of that experience.

I pray in bird-time, leap in toad-time, turn the corners of heaven in spider-time, perch on the left hand

of Him, thy most reclusive sky-crusader, the northern lights keen among my feathers. I am a saga in my own right, filling the breadth of thy Lord's palm,

I savor the wonderment of myself, token anthropologist, Ghost Dancer, slayer of the mathematical canon, lineage of One. Pure white crow.

Thayler's work reminds us what it is to be human. He knows the metaphysical wilderness and returns from it with new life. "Imago Mundi as malleable / as the world / by which I breathe / a glaze," he writes, sensitive to the craft of his art. His work retrieves the song of the earth. Thayler's acute sense of the lyric, his ear for music, and his truthfulness extend to us a necessary and compelling vision, one ready to be discovered by a new generation.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2001