Last winter, on December 30, American Poetry lost one of its most distinctive voices, Eleanor Ross Taylor—a voice that only recently, in Taylor’s seventies and eighties, had begun to receive again the notice it did when first heard. Eleanor Taylor’s work came to the public late, and slowly, then more rapidly in her later years. Generous and eerie, “down-to-earth and utterly strange at once,” as David Wojahn called it, Eleanor Ross Taylor’s poetry was honored this spring, among many places, in a memorial reading at the Library of Virginia, where Wojahn noted that Eleanor was the last of a significant generation of poets—which included Robert Lowell, Randall Jarrell, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Hayden, John Berryman and Gwendolyn Brooks. Of those contemporaries, Eleanor and her husband, the fiction writer Peter Taylor, were most closely acquainted with Robert Lowell and Randall Jarrell, and Jarrell came to know Eleanor’s work intimately. “The underground life of women” was the territory Adrienne Rich recognized as Eleanor’s, and Jarrell, whose writing also explored that territory with his own remarkable passion and clarity, no doubt found in her a kindred spirit—if not a rival. Jean Valentine, who edited The Lighthouse Keeper: Essays on the Poetry of Eleanor Ross Taylor, has written of Jarrell’s “holding his head and groaning in his office as he wrote his introduction to Eleanor Taylor’s A Wilderness of Ladies: ‘She’s so much better than I am!’” Jarrell called Eleanor “a Protestant Flannery O’Connor,” emphasizing the “violent emotion” that underlay the restrained surface of her work.
This restraint has caused some critics to suggest a more temperamental kinship between Taylor’s and Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry. Both Taylor and Bishop wrote with technical skill and powerful reserve, employing quiet but startling shifts of perception to reveal the miraculous in ordinary moments. They were very different writers as well, with very different origins and lives—yet both were affected not only by the fact that restraint and decorum received less immediate response than the confessionalism of many of their contemporaries, but also by the fact that they were women writing in a time when being a woman didn’t easily allow for being a writer. During her life, Eleanor Taylor met and encouraged many younger women who were beginning to find more room in the world for women who wrote and more space in the life of a woman for writing. Eleanor, like Elizabeth Bishop, had had the models of Marianne Moore and Emily Dickinson before her to look to, but unlike Dickinson, Moore, Bishop or fiction writer Flannery O’Connor, Eleanor Ross Taylor married and had children. Peter Taylor, one of the most admired fiction writers of their generation, was highly aware of his wife’s talent, and was the person who first asked Randall Jarrell to read Eleanor’s work. But theirs was still a time when and a home where the husband’s work came first. Taking care of children and a household made opportunity and concentration for writing hard to find; nor did Eleanor’s background encourage her to question convention outwardly, independent-minded though she was. “My parents were simple, dirt farmers. They went to church and my father read to us from the Bible every night before we went to bed. We were on our knees at the table, or beside the fire,” she said in an interview in Shenandoah. An ingrained sense of humility may have contributed to the limits placed on Eleanor’s writing life; at the same time, humility was a source of the tough-minded, subversive precision in her revelations of everyday life and her moving explorations of other lives, which her poetry entered without presumption or appropriation. Taylor’s honesty, directness and inventiveness made for poems that feel true, even “homemade,” a vital quality of voice Elizabeth Bishop also valued. “I just make up words,” Taylor said in a Southern Review interview. “Sometimes it’s just for the cadence—the real word wouldn’t fit; sometimes it seems I just need a word.”
Eleanor’s charm, in her writing and in her life, was a distinctive mix of frankness and wonder that threw her subdued propriety into relief, as if it were an inherited trait she hoped you would forgive. A letter in her tiny, exacting script always included bits of anecdote that she knew you in particular would want to hear. When my husband and I visited, she always asked us to bring our daughter, who would, when she was young, draw with Eleanor’s elaborate set of colored pencils while the adults talked. As we left, Eleanor usually asked Mia if she could have one of her drawings to put up and enjoy after we were gone. Once Eleanor sent in return a lovely, precise little drawing she had done herself, with a note of explanation below it: “The morning sun threw a shadow of magnolia leaves on the parlor wall—Sept. 5, 2001, about 11 am. Of course I could not draw it, but—made a note to myself of a moment of delight.” At ground, her attitude toward everything and everyone was an honoring of the other, yet her modest, self-deprecating manner did not conceal a fierce penetration. Eleanor was gentle, slyly humorous, candid—yet what she always seemed to want most intensely in conversation was to know what you thought, what you felt. You could be Charles Wright or the boy who delivered groceries (Eleanor didn’t drive): “Do you think . . . ”; “Don’t you think . . . ”; What do you think . . . ?” would begin or end most of her sentences. It is one of the delights of her poetry, this attitude of genuine invitation and curiosity. “It seems as if every reader who comes across her work considers Taylor his or her own private discovery,” Susan Settlemyre Williams has written. It’s as though her poems are speaking to you alone, to you specifically and privately, with something you need to know, even while they seem quite unto themselves. As Ellen Bryant Voigt noted in her forward to Eleanor’s last book, Captive Voices, “Taylor herself, in a review of Sylvia Plath’s Ariel in 1967, claimed as the ‘chief pleasure of poetry . . . the feeling of having come upon a silence, a privacy, upon intellect existing unselfconsciously somewhere out of reach of [the] camera.’” Eleanor Taylor’s poems are heard in a different register, but the startling directness that seems to arise out of nowhere is akin to Plath’s. Often Eleanor’s poems begin in a situation one might not have noticed otherwise—a quiet, often practical, nearly invisible moment, as in “Cuts Buttons Off An Old Sweater”:
It takes a needle to complete the job—
pick the two choked eyes empty of the thread,
pick out the particles of sweater wool.
It takes a dark, thin book to tray the pickings
(they’re hard to gather off her skirt, the floor)
and chute them in the trash can;
takes her tea-tin container for
such buttons, flat, dime-sized,
that might be useful on another sweater,
a weary blouse, some baby shirt.
It takes good light, the three-way study lamp,
though by the window, and midafternoon.
And it takes time. Minutes she crooked from the hour,
shoplifted from the day,
head bent to these useful buttons,
to this devised delay.
You’re drawn by the strange particularity into what might have been an overlooked scene, a forgotten gesture. One initial, off-hand strangeness is the lack of subject in the title, set against the absolute specificity of the work at hand, whose intense focus starts to feel almost otherworldly—then before you know how, you’re witnessing something that involves you, involves you physically, almost like a dance, though you’re not moving—no movement, yet some kind of rising and turning and returning again that the poem’s musical and syntactical patterns have set going without your quite knowing when. Once we recognize that a marvel is occurring, that we might’ve taken to the air for a time, the poem lets us as readers feel that we’re the ones who have managed the acrobatics and found a way to land on the ground again as though nothing had happened. The poem’s next stanza is a single startling line:
This is no dream. Real light, real time, real fingers.
And then the third, and final, stanza—the wild, tangled threads of stanza one’s underside:
The dream was
with flying arms,
slack, lazy bloom;
wading armed goldenrod
splashing around the shoulders;
crashing tall ironweed,
hushed, purple fireworks
and light years of taking leave,
leave-taking exuberant, with blowing hair,
and sun, sunlight, light of sun stars comets.
That is, an hour of some real use,
and never mind old sweaters and
good buttons undone underfoot.
—Which is more real, no dream or dream? How did we find ourselves so suddenly in the dream without questioning our being there? We began in a moment of concentration, of exacting, frugal, forgettable labor, fixed attention and repetitive small movements echoed by repeated words and sounds—a situation of almost ritual activity and rhythm that keeps bringing around the same words and the same sounds (t’s and k’s and p’s, l’s, d’s, short e’s, short i’s, short u’s and o’s, and especially the long a’s and long e’s: “It takes,” “It takes,” “takes,” “It takes,” “ And it takes” . . . until the d’s and long a’s and long e’s of “day” linked with “devised delay” lead us to “This is no dream. Real light, real time, real fingers.” All so focused, present tense, actual, except there’s something in this emphasis that pushes reality and practicality to the limit: ”This is no dream.” Then the dream, in all its unraveled, sensory uncontainment, breaks through—not just as release from containment, past tense bursting into the life of participials (even while the head is presumably still bent, the cutting off of buttons continues), but as transformation of these “Minutes . . . crooked from the hour, / shoplifted from the day” into the breathless “leave-taking exuberant, with blowing hair . . . an hour of some real use.” The “good light, the three-way study lamp, / and through the window, and midafternoon” become “light years of taking leave . . . and sun, sunlight, light of sun stars comets” . . . that reflects the thrilling, furious, sexual “buttons undone underfoot.”
What’s not been said, what can’t be found by the camera, has opened from a silent, private, breathtaking moment of unselfconsciousness. Throughout her work Eleanor Ross Taylor’s careful managing of the undercurrents of sound, rhythm, syntax and verb tense allows us to perceive something surfacing from beneath what we thought we were seeing and hearing, as a woman “Cuts Buttons Off an Old Sweater,” “Chain Gang Guard” holds his loaded gun, “Retired Pilot” walks his dog and looks up at the sky—something we recognize as our own submerged lives also—women’s, men’s—among the most remarkable discoveries made available by her generation of poets.