Part memoir, part ecological treatise, part ars poetica, Sam Taylor’s Book of Fools practices the visual poetics of textual erasure (the disappearance of text within a text) to tell the mother-load-like story of mother-death: the disastrous death of mother earth; and much more urgently, the death of Taylor’s actual mother, expired of stomach cancer twenty years prior to the book’s composition. Taylor frames his memoir in the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, where Taylor is the poet Orpheus trying to recover the beloved through song, and the mother is Eurydice, sucked back into Hades at the very moment of revelation.
Fools is challenging to read, like summiting Mount Olympus or climbing to the gates of Hell. Conscious of textual difficulty, Taylor apologizes to the reader, asking himself why—if he wants the reader to understand; to bear witness to “what [he] has done”—he makes the text so difficult? Taylor’s quest is to “expose[s] the underworld where a text is forged,” for it is only there that the poet can “cross worlds and charm the forces of chaos” and find the “golden fleece,” the “magical object that can overcome death.” The role of the reader, described variously as “voyeur  lover, beloved, stranger, and friend” is to “bear witness.” even at the expense of exhaustion, for Taylor is the obsessive artist who cannot do otherwise. The poet’s and the reader’s reward is revelation.
Fools is challenging, too, because it covers such a wide range of (sometimes) non-poetic topics (biography, ecology, science, plastic, Picasso, painting; modern art, dance, Isadora Duncan) in a variety of narrative formats (poetry, prose, philosophical treatise, journalistic expose). To read the text is to be trawled like a net through a vast sea of thoughts and ideas. On one page find a dry scientific treatise on the “Pacific Trash Vortex”—a 1.6 million kilometer wasteland twice the size of Texas of floating garbage in the sea; on another find a poetry- suffused love song to the mother reminiscent of Milton’s “Methought I Saw My Late Espoused Saint”:
I dreamt I told my mom a secret
that had weighed my heart for years.
We were standing in the kitchen
Of the last house before they split.
Bright kitchen, tucked into the night’s
Carbon like a jewel, my mother leaning
Over with an oven mitt to take out
Her famous artichoke dip. It felt so good
To tell her, the room so warm, I wondered
Why I had not told her earlier.
Waking I remembered she was dead.
The story’s underlying plot elements are these: Sam Taylor’s mother died when he was in his twenties of stomach cancer. His parents’ marriage was troubled. One of Taylor’s first memories is of his mother beating his father’s chest, which Sam took to be her beating his chest. Later, his father went mad and was institutionalized, leaving Sam and his sister to fend alone with their mother. The book is Sam’s tribute to his mother (“Hello Mother. I haven’t forgotten you”) and his attempt to come to terms with her death and the complexities of their relationship. If by book’s end, Taylor has laid his mother to rest, the laying to rest only comes after a Ulysses- like voyage home past rocks, sirens, and monstrous waves of guilt, grief, and pain.
As the memoir begins, Taylor is returning via taxi from life-in-his-twenties to visit his dying mother who has one simple request: that he to “drive her” to what she loves, “the sea” (3). This simple but consequential request becomes the book’s backbone; its inter-continental highway and venous nervous system; threading in and out of the book like a highway, providing an “explosion of lyrical intensity” that transports the memoir to its epic apotheosis. By the time Taylor and his mother arrive at the sea, Taylor has had his vision.
In the way a picture is worth a thousand words, Taylor’s vision and the book’s apotheosis—his coming to terms with his mother’s death—is illustrated on the book’s cover which depicts a scene seen through the windshield of a parked car. In the illustration’s foreground, a Matisse-like figure (Taylor) dances on a strip of sand; in the distance, a ship steams across the horizon. The point of view is from the back seat of the car, looking past the twin empty front bucket seats, a dashboard and a steering wheel. This view from the car onto the sea—which is the mother’s view of the son dancing on the shore before she dies—represents Taylor’s arrival at the wished-for place at the liminal margin between life and death where Orpheus temporarily regains Eurydice. It is a “To the Lighthouse” moment when the childhood dream, long frustrated, is realized and a vision of the reconciliation; the re-integration of the self and the parent is achieved in a luminous moment of satisfaction and re-birth; a “momentary stay against chaos” before the waves of self-recrimination and guilt return and Eurydice is sucked from sight.
I would be remiss to say nothing of Taylor’s secondary theme, the destruction of mother earth, a topic which Taylor takes up in perhaps a third of the book with both the arid devotion of the scientist and the evangelical zeal of the investigative journalist. For some readers, maybe those most engaged in the subject, Taylor’s critique of the sacking of mother earth by corporate greed may provide the book’s keenest keening, its most sentient cry at waste and loss. Taylor analyzes “plastic” at length, that gross 20th century product of gluttony clogging the oceans with irreducible waste, and his critique of all our roles in late-stage capitalism is cogent: what we make “for profit,  can only be for our loss” (57), Taylor writes, for we are on the verge of destroying everything we have “ever known,” and “all of us are poisoned and the poison is within and without us.” But for me at least, Taylor’s ecological theme remains secondary, less impactful, both because that (more prosaic) story is less compellingly told than Taylor’s “one long wail of grief” for his actual mother and because (at least as far as I can tell) Taylor never fully reveals what the reader still hungers for: the connection between the two themes: the death of the mother and the death of mother earth.
In the remaining paragraphs, I would like to focus a bit more on what may be the book’s most monumental contribution: its experimental use of language. In one of the epigraphs to the book, Taylor quotes George Oppen as saying: “One must not come to feel that he has a thousand threads in his hands./ He must somehow see the one thing./This is the level of art.” Similarly, Taylor quotes Matisse, who said about his paintings that at the end of every day, he erased the painting he did during that day until he arrived at the complete, original vision. The Book of Fools is one long expression of this erasure; an ars poetica of attempts to reach the nirvana, however brief, of artistic and emotional achievement.
It is a bit hard to describe Taylor’s visual poetics without the benefit of the text itself, but the main device is erasure expressed through the greying out, crossing out, and reappearance of remembered lines. A sentence may begin in readable black print, but fade to grey and then, frustratingly, to white, halfway through, as if Taylor’s voice were fading and you have to strain to hear what you desperately want to hear and strain to see what you cannot—even holding the text up to the light—desperately see. Taylor drops explanations into footnotes on separate pages; he intersperses words with pictures (for example of water bottles sinking with coral and fish and anemones and squid-like forms into a black sea) and dimensionalizes the text by decorating the front and back pages with illustrative paintings. By reversing stanzas and printing pages upside down; by bolding some words and whiting out others; by crossing out whole lines and paragraphs as if this final, published version of the text were merely a draft, Taylor forces the reader to summit Olympus in her effort to understand, even as he provides a portrait of the artist, writing and discarding, writing and discarding, until the ideal text, the seminal vision, is achieved. Taylor’s disappearing poems memorialize his theme that truth—however laboriously constructed moment by micro-moment—is erected like a pillar only to fall, far from the hopeful grasp of the living, like Keats’s Adam who dreams of Eve and wakes to find its truth and the husband in Milton’s “Methought I Saw My Late Espoused Saint,” who wakes to find his dead wife fleeing and day bringing back his night.
In the hands of a less competent poet, Taylor’s devices may appear gimmicky, but Taylor uses them to sublime effect, underscoring his primary themes of loss and renewal; his quest to get the storyline straight and complete the vision. One has to go deep into the underground of the self, beneath the fading light of imperfect words, to recover feelings which are at the last minute yanked away, never to be retrieved again. The model of truth you thought you perfectly made must be cast aside to get it right; to nail; to summon up and express the original feeling; to arrive at visionary exactitude on the tragedy-strewn path of vagaries and imprecisions.
In his taxonomy of grief, Taylor sounds no false notes. The book enraptures the reader with moments of pure, incandescent poetry simply stated, such as when Taylor describes his mother as in the arms of his father, “the man she thought she’d married carried under by the man she married”; or when he writes of a moment’s intimacy with his lover, greying out all the poem’s other over-determined superfluous words, “lying/aglow in words/after everyone had gone”; or when he says he holds “the imprint” of his mother’s “suffering” or writes in self-recrimination that “the journey [he] did not make / [to save her] he makes forever.” In such moments Taylor hits the exact right note, achieving a kind of apotheosis, what F. Scott Fitzgerald calls “a tuning fork struck on a star.”
Taylor’s Book of Fools enacts mortality in languages’ inability to capture meaning. Meaning is indecipherable, or if decipherable, it slips like the song of the nightingale distantly away. The Orphean goal is to recover the dead; to capture the impression of life in a container that is not a sieve, in the momentary stasis of art. But the task is impossible, for feelings and their expression are as fleeting as moving streams. Taylor’s poetics of nothingness, of illusion and disillusion; of absence, then presence, expresses the writer’s almost always frustrating attempt to find the right words in the right order to animate death; to fix it, once and for all, like a butterfly to a wall. But to the still living, the dead are no more than faces floating in fog. Neither the dead nor thoughts and feelings about them are fixable; poetry is at best “a momentary stay against chaos,” and empty-handed Orpheus, that divine imaginer, that superlative poet capable of enchanting even the gods of the underworld with song, is unequal to the task of resurrection.
Lisa Low is a poet and essayist from Maryland. Her poems can be found or are forthcoming in Poetry, Crazyhorse, Ecotone, Poetry Northwest, Copper Nickel, and elsewhere, and her essay “How to Apologize” won the 2020 Gulf Coast Nonfiction Prize. She is a graduate of Indiana University’s MFA program, a 2021 Mae Fellow, and the associate editor at The Cincinnati Review. She is currently a PhD student and Yates Fellow in the creative writing program at the University of Cincinnati.