Canadian writer Rob Taylor is one of my poetry heroes and it doesn’t hurt that he’s an amazing human being. As we stay isolated for the tail end of the pandemic and prepare to tackle climate change with everything in us, Taylor’s body of work, particularly The News, is a source of solace. In this elegant collection, Taylor finds meaning in chaotic and challenging times through a committed practice of compassionate connection “along an invisible tether” to his future child. The News, published by Gaspereau Press in September 2016, is an inviting, lyrical read. It was a finalist for the 2017 Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize, an annual award for outstanding British Columbian poetry, and went on to a second printing in 2017.
Preparing for the announcement of the big news to family and friends at Christmas dinner, the moment when Taylor and his wife would reveal that she was pregnant with their first child, Taylor wrote and polished thirty-six poems for the book, interspersing deep personal thoughts with current events and dreams. Even while dealing with serious matters, Taylor humanizes them, makes them manageable, acknowledges fear, loss and heartache outside of his control, while reminding us of the wonder of each day, the growth of a family, a marriage, a fetus into a baby, a man into a father, a helpful message at this time of pandemic isolation and forest fires, to live simply and nurture what is within reach.
Taylor composes in chronological order, creating and polishing one poem a week, a blend of internal and external spheres. The News begins when his wife is five weeks pregnant, dreaming with wisdom and depth of the moment their joyful announcement is shared, “…you and the idea of what you’ll be/ and listen as your mother breathes/ for three,” he writes, gently confessing emotional insight, his wife sustaining him as well as their child. Each poem is named for the week number of the pregnancy until Taylor closes the collection with the visual image of the child’s feet deep in the uterine wall of his wife’s skin at forty weeks, a rare use of enjambment picking up the pace to capture the intensity of waiting for the impending birth in the last few days and hours, “Whenever your mother/ presses the bulge of your feet,/ you press back. A reflex/ and a game. A conversation./ You talk us through long days.”
Within the clearly defined structure of one poem a week, there are subtle nuances, internal patterns and bookends. Many of Taylor’s poems invoke permission to play in other people’s rhythms, as he weaves lines from famous writers including Albert Camus and Basho, along with contemporary poets, into his pieces. Then there are the bookends of his father’s spirit and death. The second poem, “Six Weeks,” gives a sense of the father’s love, support, and presence in the narrator’s life with lines such as, “…the moon through the sunroof/ of your Grandfather’s Mazda/…singing into dreams/ (what else can I call you?).” We know that his father has given him a car, but don’t know until much later that he died. In “Thirty-six Weeks,” the narrator dreams he was at his father’s funeral and burial in the first stanza, then explains upon waking in the second, that his father had passed twenty years earlier, if we do the math as readers, in the narrator’s childhood. “We bury people/ many times…/ and if we are lucky/ and if we love them enough/ they come back a bit…/ Death the moon and my father/ its satellite,” he says of the gift of being with of his beloved father in dreams.” In the third stanza, Taylor ties profound thoughts together into the theme of becoming a father, of reaching and carrying, thinking of his future grown son aching to remember him, “within these words/ the man I was though he/ will be beyond your reach,” always returning to the impending arrival of his child.
Meanwhile, headlines contextualize the outer world. As we read about and remember traumatic events of the war “In Fallujah in ’04” and a racist shooting in a Charleston church with the narrator, we are located in twenty-first-century Vancouver, grieving but somewhat removed from much of the actual suffering of the world, hoping our pristine landscape and life in the west coast mountains remains unscathed, while at the same time feeling apprehensive that the flaws of humanity and civilization that lead to war and mass shootings may touch us too, wanting to protect our children from what eludes our comprehension, the construction of societies in prejudiced, narrow-minded, militaristic manners that implodes into collateral casualties. “In Canada/ we kill our women one by one/ and by the time we notice/ the anchorman is on to sports,” Taylor notes. Though we have gun control, we are not immune to the indifference that allows for violence, especially targeting impoverished sex trade workers with the many disappearances and murders on the Downtown East Side of Vancouver. The blend of personal and international content in Taylor’s work locates the specific nine months in time in which it was written, a chronicle of the collective consciousness surrounding the arrival of his firstborn.
Taylor’s humanistic approach through the verse of The News is an inspiration for writers in these times to find an uplifting blend of news and authenticity, of inner and outer worlds, to embody memories of loved ones, prepare for new life, be a parent, a partner, a whole human in relation to others, first family, then chosen community. Though he dreams with death and loss, allowing it to travel with him, Taylor lives in a very present way in his teaching, performances, hosting and interactions in the Canadian literary community. If you’ve ever shared a stage with Rob Taylor, as I got to do in a poetic pairing at Word Vancouver in 2018, you know he’s all about lifting people up, generously bringing positive, present energy to every moment as graciously as he carves out poems. Though the outside world is tumultuous with murder, destruction and suffering we grieve for, Taylor’s poetry and personal presence are a reminder that kindness and compassion remain, that we have the ability to maintain the sanctity of our most important ties, living in balance with all the news we can’t control while investing in the need to nurture today with wholeness from our deep inner dreams through our closest relationships and outward to everyone we engage with. In these fragile times, Taylor’s work gives hope of personal growth even in a vociferous landscape. At a time when the world feels on edge, Taylor’s The News can send our beings into zen.
Copies of The News can be purchased from Gaspereau Press here.