You can’t read Rob Taylor’s Strangers and not be aware of the poignant absences—and by virtue of that, the presences—that populate its pages. The poems are full of love and loss in a way that feels almost physically tangible. In the first poem in the collection, “Strangers,” Taylor writes of his father’s death: “I held his ashes/and wondered where to put them./And I waited for his return./I wait still, whatever sense it makes.” In the same poem, he speaks of reading a friend’s poems and realizing that, by doing so, “in this act I saw my father.” The dead who are beloved to us always visit, it seems, when we least expect them to. They work their way into our narratives—our lives.
In “Speak While Illuminated,” the poet writes of how he used to tap on the wall that separated his bedroom from his parents’ room. There is a shared, coded message that equates three knocks with ‘I love you,’ and one more is added in response from the other side of the wall for ‘too.’ As an adult, much later in life, Taylor writes of being stuck in a stalled elevator, and how he knocks three times on the door. “Four knocks ring back.//My waking mind falls silent, yields the floor./I am not a child anymore.” What parts, I wondered as I read this poem, do we cast aside as we grow into adults? We have still lost a parent, and so—deep inside—we are still very much childlike in our grief of their having died; we are forever our parents’ children.
There are common thematic threads that run through this collection of poems. The notion of story as something that belongs to one person, and then how that notion shapeshifts to include the other participants in the experience and memory, is explored in poems like “You ask me about my mother,” “Smoothing the Holy Surfaces,” and “Weather in Dublin.” These are just a few poems that are set off as tiny ripples to the pebble that Taylor gently tosses into the pond with the first poem in the book. In “You ask me about my mother,” a story that begins with a boy’s neck getting mistakenly caught in the closing trunk of a car is something that makes the poet laugh. His mother also laughs, “each time she hears me tell my story/which isn’t mine, of course, but hers—.” At what point does one’s story become shared, and then told by way of a different lens or perspective? An experience that is shared by two people, of course, will be differently perceived by those two. There is no one set story. In “Smoothing the Holy Surfaces,” another mishap occurs, and a boy with a banged head has grown into a man whose mother laughingly re-tells the story at parties. In hindsight, even difficult things sound funny, when you’re far enough out from the original date of injury, perhaps.
“Weather in Dublin” also speaks to the idea of how
story is remembered, told, and transformed by the participant and by the
teller, too. A tribute to Seamus Heaney, and specifically to the day of his
death, has Taylor thinking about how the death of an influential poet has
impacted his own life, how Heaney’s death marked a day, a breath, a moment, and
an energetic shift. The first, second, and fourth stanzas are rooted in
Vancouver, but the third is set in Dublin: “The night Heaney died it was
morning in Dublin,/so what am I going on about? It was thirteen degrees/and
partly cloudy. Visibility good, wind from the southwest.” In the final stanza,
Taylor writes, “We will remember this morning forever, I am almost sorry to
say.” Heaney’s death happened in Dublin, but his going rippled across the
world, and poets who have been influenced by his work likely felt his departure
as a sudden gust of wind moving through a tree’s leaves.
Taylor’s tribute to the Purdy A-Frame residency, “At Roblin Lake,” is one of the loveliest sections in the book. Taylor captures the physical and metaphorical landscape of Roblin Lake and Purdy’s cottage, exploring the idea of how place seeps into a person’s life, and into a poet’s work. There are the mice, the snow that “blusters in the entry” when someone opens the door, the “flock of terns” that “circle a flooded field,” the place where “the lake and trees” are busy “interlocking fingers,” and the last embers of an outdoor fire after it has been extinguished before bed. Here, then, is another ghost, but one whom Taylor acknowledges probably wouldn’t have liked him because “I don’t drink./I make nice./I stunt my opinions.” A visit to Al Purdy’s grave has the poet confessing: “If we’d met you wouldn’t have let me crash one night/in the loft. Now I’ve slept two months in your bed.” Sometimes ghosts haunt places where you can be still, outside of your own life for a while, and usher in new poems. Thankfully, these poems made it into Strangers, so readers can experience the essence of Roblin Lake without ever having been there.
The structure of Strangers is beautiful. Its title finds itself at the beginning and then at the very end of the collection, framing the poetry inside as if it were a painting. References to Mary Oliver, Heaney, Rainer Maria Rilke, Louise Gluck, Wallace Stevens, and Pablo Neruda weave Taylor’s work into an ancestral poetic web that finds itself rooted in the rhythms of the natural world, and in the way that we find ourselves relating to one another as humans. The poet places haiku pieces throughout, as way stations to mark shifts in content and focus. There are poems that speak to the loss of a father and brothers, but also pieces about marital love, and then poems about the loss of a mother as she declines.
Taylor’s mother struggles with a loss of language, in poignant poems like “On the Occasion of my Mother First Forgetting my Name,” “Diagnosis,” “Most days you still remember,” and “Reprieve.” At the same time as she struggles with dementia, and the loss of language and meaning, the poet’s son begins to experiment with words. In “Long Distance,” Taylor writes of an almost-three-year-old boy who moans for Elmo, his “vowels long slow animals/growing the miles.” In juxtaposition, the poet’s mother, in “Reprieve,” begins to lose words and meanings—“reaches back sometimes” in memory and language. Her life, she tells her son, is frequently more dream-like than a reality that feels fixed and certain.
The poetry in Strangers asks you to consider how memory works, and how stories are told and passed down through generations. Taylor’s poetry presents you with the unavoidable notion of how love and loss are nearly inseparable. This collection is stunning in its poignant intimacy, in how the poet opens the door to his readers, inviting them to listen to his stories, but also bravely nudging them to consider their own recollections of how memory and story are woven into one another.
Kim Fahner lives and writes in Sudbury, Ontario. She was poet laureate in Sudbury from 2016-18, and was the first woman appointed to the role. Kim's latest book of poems is These Wings (Pedlar Press, 2019). She's a member of the League of Canadian Poets, the Ontario representative of The Writers' Union of Canada (2020-22), and a supporting member of the Playwrights Guild of Canada. Kim can be reached via her author website at www.kimfahner.com