“Exposing the figure of the wood”: Michelle Taransky’s Sorry Was in the Woods

Ida Stewart

Richmond, CA: Omnidawn, 2013. 88 pages, $17.95.
(Click on cover image to purchase)

When you go hiking in the woods, do you ever see a tree that looks like a man?

You catch your mistake almost immediately—Not a man! Just a tree!—but an indefinite feeling lingers in your stricken bell of a body. What is the nature of that feeling? Dismayed resignation that you are safe, but you are never alone, because you are always with subconscious fear, the way a woman can be with child—that is, held captive by something she houses within herself? Does the proven fact that your eyes see danger before they see beauty fill your gut with sorrow? As you press on through the woods, are you also now following a trail back through memory in search of a time when you felt truly alone and truly safe? Do you realize that you are more like an animal—more instinctual, more wild—than the man whom you drew from the tree?

Or is it just me?

Michelle Taranksy’s arresting book of poems Sorry Was in the Woods has put me out here in these woods, in this state of mind—“there there,” she clucks or stammers, “there are people / we can choose / not to trust / the view / proving worrywoods”—not because the book is laden with portentous imagery or dangerous symbolism, and not because it is conventionally feminist or nature-oriented. Although I feel vividly transported, these are not the rhapsodically descriptive, lush poems you might expect to find in a book presumably about the woods. And very few of the poems’ lines have the kinds of sonic resonance and sensory redolence that leave lingering impressions in your ear or mind; Taransky’s lexicon is familiar and fragmentary—seemingly cut from the cloth of everyday speech. I write all this not to list things that the book is lacking, of course, but to show that it functions outside the bounds of expectation. I’ve figured the book as a kind of wilderness, but let me readjust that metaphor to explain that the poems, as they move through the wilderness of the mind, seem not to leave a trace. Rather, their effect is atmospheric, ambient. Perhaps my original metaphor will work, but instead of figuring reading as hiking, let’s imagine reading as shining light through the woods. Line by line, the trees/lines filter and tear shadows through whatever external luminance one tries to import. The book is a difficult hike through strange new post-modern pastoral terrain. As Susan Howe writes on the back cover, Taransky is willing “to go further than most dare—formally, conceptually.” If you know Howe, Stein, Hejinian, Olson, and Zukofsky, you might have a compass, but you do not have a map, and you certainly do not have a legend or an end in sight (ledges, however, abound). You must keep moving and trust that you are at least in the process of arrival.

Individually, many of Taransky’s lines feel like stray scraps of communication trimmed from conversation—and yet, stark and carefully placed on the page, they insist on being heard, being parsed. Or, in keeping with the book’s own material, the lines resemble chips or shavings from a chisel or lathe. Or the lines feel as incidental as just another tree to the forest. As a writer, I am initially preoccupied with curiosity about Taransky’s own writing process. How have these fragments happened? I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Taransky had written a more conventional draft of the book, printed it out, cut it up, and then rearranged a new kind of whole from those pieces. But now the wilderness metaphor has found its cliché: if you fret about the origin and meaning of each individual line, you’ll miss the forest for the trees. Regardless of where these lines came from, or how they fell like the book’s felled “woods,” one after another onto the page, what matters is the ways the reader connects them—what she makes of/with/from them, especially when they do not connect the way she has expected. That process is, I dare say, what this book means.

Instead of describing these poems and lines as “fragmented,” which implies an underlying dichotomy between brokenness and wholeness that does not account for the aesthetic and philosophical argument at the core of the book, it might be more useful to use the terms “raw” and “processed.” In one of the book’s most processed poems, “How to Picture This Place Where,” Taransky writes,

[…] A tree is like a steer.
There are many kinds of cuts. Gentle polishing
Exposing the figure of the wood.

These lines remind me of the definition of sculpture that’s often attributed to Michelangelo—how the sculptor’s task is to discover the figure inside the stone by simply removing all of the stone that is not part of the figure. Carving sense from Taransky’s raw materials in Sorry Was in the Woods might be sculpture, gently exposing latent qualities. Or, Taranksy implies, it might just as easily be butchery, processing meat for consumption. “Making” meaning may be as much “creating” as it is “forcing.” In a later poem, “Sorry Let in the Door and Done Nothing Since Then,” Taransky introduces a machine that “is being made / To make enough room.” In the first line, one sees the assembly of a machine, but the next line after the enjambment revises one’s understanding: we see that the making of the machine will somehow create room, or that the machine is being forced aside to make room. Or perhaps room is what this machine produces? Or all of the above and more: Taransky is interested in the machinations of language, as it is worked and works upon itself.

After becoming acclimated to the field of raw potential that is Taransky’s woods, I am able to read “a steer” not just as an animal, but also as an act of volition. Do you see, as I do, the tree steering itself up out of the ground, following its own direction? Taransky’s interest in the machinations of the reading process is part of a broader ethical and existential concern about how a person makes her reality, as well as the subtle difference between making a choice and exerting control. What to make, then, of a poem like “A Thought the Same as the Bough,” in which Taransky writes, “The rules our tree has found are already / A story that is about trees carved from houses”? Is carving a tree from a house a kind of reverse birth—the raw material of the tree reclaiming itself from the storied wooden house? Or does the presence of a house impose a kind of treeness on a surrounding, otherwise self-steering field of raw volition? That is, does the house domesticate the wilderness? Are the rules that the tree has found the same rules, plot, path, or understory that keeps steering me/me steering toward men instead of trees?

The book hinges on many words—such as steer and rule—that can be made (another one of these words) to have different, often conflicting, meanings, depending on whatever sentence (yet another) is imposed upon them. Taransky’s poems demonstrate how art commutes the meanings to which words can be sentenced. Art knows that “the woods,” an elusive reserve of latent and indeterminate potential like the human spirit, remains even in a processed thing—and the possibility that this spirit might be tapped, accessed, divined, figured is balm to the book’s underlying sorrow.

Figure is another of the book’s hinge words. Taransky writes in an early poem, “When the Woods Is Where,”

We came out here
to figure out figuring
out—Which woods took
what tree from the bodger
made symptoms
into a sentence.

A figure can be an emblem, a form, a guess, or the kind of hard and fast number written on a bottom line. In woodworking, the figure patterning of a type of wood (burl, for example) is a product not only of the wood’s inherent texture, grain and color, but also of how the wood was cut; it is both fingerprint and scar. In all these senses of the word, I understand Taransky’s lines to be “figures,” and by “figuring out” her lines, I understand how the processes of writing, reading, and meaning-making happen both because of and in spite of the lineage of sorrow, soreness, or wounds that scaffold a voice or stretch of language.

I won’t go so far as to say that “loss” is a theme or subject of this book, but loss figures at the heart of its process of figuring—the math of one thing determining another determining another. Taransky’s interest in the way sentences both make and foreclose upon the possibility of meaning implies an interest in reconciling or accounting for absence. For instance, in one of several poems titled “The Plans Caution,” the absence of a man who “didn’t clock out” presents itself as an impasse in a system of accounting: “It’s ticking—that they can understand / it can’t be fine, he // Always comes to the table then.” What happens when one of the key figures is no longer? If we’ve only ever known one thing in relationship to another, what happens when we lose one of the things? How are we to make sense?

The amassing
Sentences are
What built it

What describes the resulting
image that is
Two images:

it is not a cabinet

Where one may be hidden

As I struggle to work the math of narrative along with the speaker—who or what has been lost? how? why?—I begin to sense that our process of defining loss is just as responsible for making it happen as any other force. And I understand, along with Taransky, that no sentence, no line, no elegiac poem is a cabinet to hold or hide loss by securing it within meaning; but language can be an engine for processing loss—not making it go away, but making it go—and for making ways through it.

While certain distinct losses are intimated in this book, a broader, more pervasive loss seems to suffuse the soil from which these woods grow. In Taransky’s ragged and raw lines, I recognize the figure of our current environmental crisis, the ever-expanding disconnection we perceive between humans and our idealized “nature.” In Sorry Was in the Woods, Michelle Taransky offers us if not a map, then a way to practice navigating this seemingly fallen landscape. She reveals our sense of disconnection to be a dead-end myth, a sentence we have followed into nonsense. We are nature. Even as the woods fall around us, we are still in the wilderness, where we can—and must—make a different kind of meaning, if only we allow ourselves to drop the old-saw paths that led us here and the myths that have propelled our axes. Finally I realize that the figure I’ve seen in the tree is no dangerous stranger—it is me and you.

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