The Microcosm, by Nathaniel Tarn.
5" x 8"; 32 pp; saddlestitched. 1977.

The Microcosm, by Nathaniel Tarn

I met Nathaniel Tarn at a conference in 1975 or 76. He had a long list of accomplishments behind him. Most important to me in the list were his activities as publisher, introducer of new poets and poetry, and translator, as well as poet under the Tarn name, and an equally impressive body of anthropological work under the name Mendelssohn.

A problem for me was that as much as I appreciated some of his work with Mayan texts and other meso-American sources, he at times seemed to be riffling through these huge cultural and artistic zones too quickly and perhaps superficially. On one hand, I found his edition of Neruda's Alturas de Macchu Picchu essential in part because it was bilingual, and I used his translation as a crib as well as a poem to read in translation. As such, it made one of the most important works of the century immediately and easily accessible to me in its own language at a time when I was trying to learn it. Sometimes I carried a volume of Neruda or Lorca with me in the car so I could memorize passages as I drove. On the other hand, this was a time when I was immersed in meso-American studies, and I felt uncertain about a rhapsodic approach to such works as his version of the Mayan Rabinal Achi.

The resolution came from a mid-length poem, The Beautiful Contradictions. On one level this was a beautiful extension of Charles Olson's "The Kingfishers," and on another a rhapsodic romp through an exceedingly complex body of thought and culture. Understanding the function of a rhapsodist seemed to be what I needed at the time. A rhapsode makes endless digressions, and his art is based more on what we might consider as melodic progression rather than single-minded focus. Tarn seemed to approach poetry that sought to escape static referents - a practice that was just coming into fashion at the time; but clearly Tarn was was not trying to follow this fashion. Lyrics for the Bride of God, which had just come out at the time of the conference, carried rhapsodic patterns farther than his previous work. Contradictions moved fast; Lyrics suggested that a rhapsode like Tarn might make a virtue of haste, skimming across a very large field.

Our conversations at the conference were amiable enough. I had plenty of books with me to hand out, and gave him several. I also sketched some of the meso-American projects I had been working on. As congenial as these conversations were, they didn't seem to have any immediate projects attached to them and hence blended into the general texture of the conference. As I look back on it now, this seemed to be the beginning of a process that included several arcs. The most important thing about the conversations was the correspondence they initiated after the conference was over. As with many correspondences, this one lead to a book.

The book was titled The Microcosm, a collection of shorter poems. This seemed an interesting microcosm of Tarn's poetry in itself. Virtually all of the major themes were there, though for the most part stated more directly. The rhapsodic structure persisted, but the pattern of movement away from whatever began each poem didn't go too far, just hinted at the possibilities of restless movement away from whatever strand of daily life set it off. The poems thus suggested some of the shorter Homeric Hymns which simply presented the opening of what could have been a longer poem; or one of the "preludes" of Debussy or one of the other musical Impressionists. What might those longer rhapsodies be - another Beautiful Contradictions or Lyrics for the Bride of God? Perhaps. But not necessarily.

For the cover, I decided to use a portilano map - a type of map used in the early Renaissance, marking out paths used in such navigation techniques as dead reckoning. These gave lines to follow, but did not anchor them to place the way later maps did using longitude and latitude lines. I decided to use the net of these lines lifted out of their graphic context for endpapers. I accomplished the separation by making a huge bromide stat of the image and then applying white-out to everything but the lines. This took considerably longer than I expected - and used more white-out than I could have imagined. After shooting the copy at great reduction, I hung the sheet with the white-out on it in my hall along with performance scores, thinking that given enough time most of the white-out would peel off, some taking parts of the image with them.

Aside from the satisfaction of doing books, this one did another side step approximately two decades later. I talked to Nathaniel about putting work of his on the web. We decided against The Microcosm but went with an old favorite of mine, "The Great Odor of Summer." Nathaniel's partner Janet Rodney had begun sending me books of hers as partial exchange for those I sent originally to Nathaniel and then to both of them. I put several complete books of Janet's on-line with excerpts from others. The process lead to webbing Alashka, a lengthy collaboration between the two poets that had particular value to me for a number of reasons. Looking at this book from the Tarn angle, the rhapsodic elements of earlier books actually brook out of vocal modulation into literally a second voice, something that it seemed to be trying to do in such longer workings as Lyrics for the Bride of God. Janet's tight lines both set up boundaries for Nathaniel's long bardic sweeps and his rhapsodic process of what otherwise might be endless digression. Perhaps because of Janet's participation, perhaps because of a more than usually clearly defined telleos, this book strikes me as something of a sequel or at least parallel or hommage to Neruda's Alturas - I thought of Alashka as Alturas del Norte.

Perhaps a rhapsode has a tendency towards self-triangulation. Whether that's the case or not, the process of moving from a small, self-contained book to the publication of work by two poets and a collaboration between them gave depth to all other lines of development. Perhaps the early book acted something like a portilano for other projects which could not have been predicted when I printed The Microcosm.

Return to Volumes of Poetry, Part 1

Go to The Great Ordor of Smumer by Nathaniel Tarn

Go to Alashka by Nathaniel Tarn and Jannet Rodney