Revelation and Reconciliation in Rob Taylor’s “Strangers”

I love Rob Taylor’s new poetry collection Strangers, out with Biblioasis press, and not just because it opens with an epigraph from an older poem of mine, but because it is a robust book that embraces narrative, memory, and language, teasing epiphany from words and family history.

Take the titular poem “Strangers”, for instance, which combines grief, memory and allusion with staggering dexterity condensing time and making it an instrument of revelation:

At three, on vacation, my mother and I alone 
on an aerial tour (two seats, no exceptions), 
my father waving until he was very small 
then unfolding the paper from under his armpit, 
I wept with the depth of the assured—
the Ruahine Range irrelevant below.
My mother asked, coddled, pleaded.
The pilot offered ridiculous faces, 
an early return. Only in the sight 
of my father, rising from a bench beside 
the helipad, hand raised again in greeting, 
was my world, pulled apart, reassembled.
Nine years later his hand, warm, 
was thirty minutes later cold. I watched 
him wheeled away. I held his ashes 
and wondered where to put them.
And I waited for his return.
I wait still, whatever sense it makes.
Alright, okay, we do not live forever. Our works 
are lost and are not found. There is no consolation. 
But, Elise, I read your poems today.
Each rose and greeted me as if everything was normal, 
as if my return had been expected. 
And in this act I saw my father.
It makes no sense. You would be strangers 
if not for this. But I saw him, Elise.
He was your poems.
He was waving and becoming larger.

This poem reminds me of the American poet Dave Smith with its masterful use of narrative and descriptive detail, but I also love how it pulls in the work of the deceased poet Elise Partridge so the speaker’s grief over the loss of a father is tempered by the experience of reading a master poet’s work, and suddenly the speaker’s experience with loss connects with Partridge’s experience which is the gift of poetry. It lets us know we are not alone, and it helps us to remember those who are gone from us too soon.

Death continues to be a theme explored in the poem “The Future” where the speaker imagines a future where his father and his son might meet: 

Reading a poem about the dead, I realize 
that for the first time in my life I am far from them, 
which means, of course, that they are very close 
in the direction I’m not looking.
Death, like a fine muslin you wrapped 
every part of me—my eyes, my mouth. 
Whenever I believed I’d escaped, I’d only turned, 
tightened or loosened your grip—
until today, when I cannot feel you, 
not even tangled at my feet.
When I whip around 
I can almost see them:
my father, my son, together.
The future behind me. Now the past.  

That first stanza is perfect in its explanation of how the dead are actually “close” to us; just not in the direction we are looking. That kind of epiphany is weaved throughout the poetry collection as a whole.

Perhaps my favourite poem in the whole collection is “One Lie” with its repetition and quick mind-boggling turns of phrase that are somehow both anomalous and true making you want to read the whole thing over, again and again:

Intelligence is nothing. Money is nothing.
Power, comfort, independence, protection 
are nothing. Strength is nothing. Confidence, 
talent, assurance are nothing. Looks are nothing.
The colour of your eyes is nothing. The length of 
your fingers, the swell of your belly: nothing.
Your eyelashes are nothing but eyelashes. Your teeth 
are only a pain in the mouth. Your skin is brand new 
every month. The cries you make and the cries 
we make rock in the air until they are nothing.
Quiet is the air relaxing its arms. Sleep is joy 
and practice, how you learn to let things come.
Milk is but one of milk’s many forms. Desire’s 
a chicken and death’s an egg. The heart’s 
an organ, compassion’s an engine, solidarity 
is all in the hands. Luck is nothing. Glory is nothing. 
Wisdom is restless. Success and failure 
are the horn and its unicorn. History is the air 
entering and exiting your lungs. Art is an emptying, 
arrogance pursed lips, vanity a mirror 
in someone else’s house. Kindness is the roots 
that ruin lawn mowers. Courage is a madman 
guessing right. Sanity is what you make of it.
Addiction is waves on the beach. Fear travels 
in packs. Grief drags its tail. The rained-on page 
stiffens but is not the same. Fire is the end 
greeting the beginning. Fate is nothing. Loss is nothing. 
Love is not everything, no, I am sorry to say.

I could quote this whole poem I love it so much—“Quiet is the air relaxing its arms” or “Art is an emptying” or “Grief drags its tail” or “Fire is the end greeting the beginning”—as these peculiar aphoristic phrases help build a portrait of a speaker grappling with loss, struggling with a dearth of rational answers, so the imagination is forced to step up and speak its apprehensive truths.   

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The poems in Strangers are wide-ranging and are as much Matryoshka dolls full of baby sons sussing out word-sounds, dying brothers, dead fathers who are mostly now photos and cassette recordings, as they are fire-pits and boardwalks “scuttled like diving-reef schooners”, material things made of cardboard and duct tape and sheeting and screws. 

However, the lynch-pin of the whole collection is the speaker’s bereavement: his personal grief for deceased family members, and his grief for a larger world that is constantly passing forever into the past. 

If “Imagery is the memory of memory” as Stanley Plumly believed, Rob Taylor’s Strangers out with Biblioasis press uses imagery as both revelation and reconciliation. The poems tease epiphany from memory, memory from language, language from grief and loss. I urge everyone to go out and buy this wonderful poetry collection that dares sadness and boldly remembers, imagining a present moment where our deceased loved ones and friends are still close by, albeit unseen, making loss and life more palpable.

Rob Taylor is the author of four poetry collections, including Strangers (Biblioasis, 2021) and The News (Gaspereau Press, 2016), which was a finalist for the 2017 Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize. He is also the editor of What the Poets Are Doing: Canadian Poets in Conversation (Nightwood Editions, 2018) and the guest editor of Best Canadian Poetry 2019 (Biblioasis, 2019). Rob lives with his family in Port Moody, BC.

  • Publisher : Biblioasis (April 6 2021)
  • Language : English
  • Paperback : 96 pages
  • ISBN-10 : 1771964197
  • ISBN-13 : 978-1771964197

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