Ever since Plato kicked the poets out of his Republic, it’s been said that the gulf between poetry and philosophy cannot be bridged. Luckily enough the people who actually practice these arts often don’t listen. Perhaps one of the best living examples of the poet as thinker is Nathaniel Tarn, now into his 80s and still working. I think I first learned about Tarn through his early translation of Pablo Neruda’s “The Heights of Machu Picchu”—a translation that introduced a whole generation of American readers to that masterpiece. Yet Tarn was trained through his PhD as an academic anthropologist and has published over thirty books that are primarily literary. He has traveled widely yet is clearly a devoted gardener. He has studied the birds that share the planet with us, both in his backyard and in the faraway places where his work has taken him.
In his most recent major collection of poems, Ins and Outs of the Forest Rivers, he writes meditations on Renaissance art; prophetic cries of anguish against a culture that seems to demand endless war; laments for the millions of trees dying in our forests (“Our pines continue to die and continue to die— / funeral carpets of needles around their base”); and the title poem, which among other things is a narrative of a journey he undertook into the wild regions of Borneo when he was close to 80, a journey during which his guide died of a heart attack. None of this leads to easy explanations of the difficult questions of life, particularly for the artist or thinker “whose daily / work is close to prophecy, who feels it in his nerves / or in her muscles—where news travels up fast / and lodges in the eyes, all-seeing, all-pervading vision / of disaster.”
These larger issues, however, are always connected to the facts of this world. Nathaniel Tarn not only sees the smaller things, but he has studied them, knows their names and how they act. When he steps back to some kind of conclusion, it feels earned:
Let the bird joy, live, signify there is
some purpose in the purposeless.
There is no movement forward. Despairingly,
you try to move but cannot. Yet everything
connects. Sometimes, you know, the poem can-
not stop: from day to day, a gift in fragments.
Because Tarn’s process has been long and arduous, crossing many lines of discipline, language, and culture, when he comes to some vague possibilities of joy, or even of hope, he is much more convincing than lesser thinkers who work from a smaller data set:
Emotions are dead leaves; yet some may carry
to sing as if a world were morning, as if light,
still tinted by the birds, were truth and possibly.
Nathaniel Tarn comes to town to read in the One Pause Poetry series, now held at the Metal gallery on Felch St., on May 5.