I accepted the task of reviewing Michelle Taransky’s Sorry Was in the Woods, out from Omnidawn this summer, nearly a month ago, and have since become somewhat in the woods myself. Over that time, Taransky’s volume has been a near constant companion for me throughout my daily tasks, and has been read, re-read and revisited in nearly every format imaginable: in a single sitting just once, each section on its own at least three times and independent poems, on average, twice or so. At first, I found myself returning to this book to get a better grasp on its very notable difficulty, but with each reading, it became more and more clear that this wasn’t something I would figure out. Although something called “sorry” very clearly is in the woods here, what it is, what it means and what we do with this fact is something that only comes out—and even then, only faintly—while in the woods of reading Taransky’s volume itself.
If this sounds like a familiar experience in poetry, that’s because it is. Although this is something that Taransky both accounts for and expands upon throughout her volume; its most notable structural feature are its sections. Here functioning as sign-posts for the book’s place in the twentieth century’s radical poetry tradition, each one of the four bears a telling epigraph from a giant in that field: Charles Olson, Louis Zukofsky, Bob Perelman and, lastly, Gertrude Stein. The first three of these sections are short, numbering between only 10-15 pages, while the final Stein portion almost equals their combined length on its own. Accordingly, Stein figures as the primary orienting figure here, and proves supremely helpful as we find our way through the twisting language of this brief volume.
Stein most loudly announces her presence in Taransky’s Woods though her practice of subject-based portraiture. Stretching from the household items in Tender Buttons to her now infamous friendship with Bernard Fäy, Stein’s portraiture distinguished itself from the poet’s cubist contemporaries in visual arts by fracturing the image along a plane of time, rather than space. As a result, the image still appears in diverse, juxtaposed sections, but instead of the spatial puzzle, we get Stein’s experience of these objects as objects in time. Thus, the simple
Roast potatoes for.
and complex or abstract:
A fine finely.
A is an advice.
If a is an advice an is a temptation ridden. If a is an advice
and is a temptation redden.
For Stein’s poem-portraits themselves, this results in a prescient shift away from the poem as art-object and onto a view of poem as experience, because as readers, we inherently assume the task of treating Stein’s poems as they treat their objects.
For Taransky’s Woods, this means a persistent feeling of being lost, with only the faint orienting notion of a primary conceit or section introduction. For example, take this passage from “Sorry Asked To”:
To call the way to the woods
The main woods the settled
Woods a woods that were
A smaller place than now
The pacing is that practice
A smaller place than now
The woods are that conceit here, and Stein the matriarch. As result, this distionction between main and setteled woods allows as supposition to creep in: woods are only woods because we call them such, because they are not/have not yet been settled, and this is very much like the poem, right? Isn’t that what the poem is getting at with this business of pacing, that practice of, which forms a smaller place than now: the now of the reading present? It seems as though this could be the case, or we could just be imagining things. Its dark outside, and the inside of this volume offers only the glimmer of an brief “maybe, no . . .”.
There are also clearer conceits, but then again, there’s nothing to confirm that these beacons aren’t witches houses enticing us with the empty sensation of candy. The book starts with Olson:
THE NECESSITY OF A LINE OR A WORK TO BE AS WOODS IS, TO BE AS CLEAN AS WOOD IS AS IT ISSUES FROM THE HAND OF NATURE, TO BE AS SHAPED AS WOOD CAN BE WHEN A MAN HAS HAD HIS HAND TO IT.
And this this image of the woodshaper/cutter cuts clearly to a metaphor for the author as Taransky asks:
Do you know the author?
This is a known picture of that tree.
Only a few lines after mentioning the “woodcutter [who] met//A description” (56). Going back to Olson here, we see the same point confirmed, and although it gets us further into the woods, things don’t get any clearer. “To be as shaped as wood can be when a man has had his hand to it.” In other words, to be as altered from itself while mainting the limitations of its material circumstance, and this also resonates in the body of the poems themselves. At times, they’re so tight that one wonders if they could accommodate an additional splinter or fiber of pulp, while at others, they seem as expansive as the woods themselves.
That makes me think of how there isn’t an equivalent
In the woods. To the woods. (77)
Tranansky notes as she concludes in “How to Find the Woods.” She’s right, there really is no equivalent to the woods in the woods, and after reading her volume, you’ll wonder whether “the woods” can ever equal even “the woods,” even if language can represent the feeling of woods in language itself.
If nothing else, pick up this volume for yourself. See how thrilling the lyric can still be when one attempts:
To think about maintaining
Our surfaces, keep on
Finishing with the hand
Where the tools left off (77).
Buy it from Omnidawn: $18