Wednesday, August 01, 2007

A Year Without Tagliabue

Amid hectic preparations for a move to Providence, Rhode Island, Professor of English Emeritus John Tagliabue---the muse of Bates College for more than forty years---and his wife, Grace, took time out for portraits by Phyllis Graber Jensen in the garden of Muskie Archives. The caption, a fragment from a poem in John's book New And Selected Poems: 1942-1997, reads "...a breeze hails our way,
we lift our sails;
we hold on to each other for dear life." (Bates Magazine, Spring 1998)

All of us are watchers---
of television, of time clocks,
of traffic on the freeway---but
few are observers. Everyone is
looking, not many are seeing.

---Peter M. Leschak

You ask why I live in the mountain forest,
and I smile and am silent,
And even my soul remains quiet:
It lives in the other world
Which no one owns.
The peach trees blossom.
The water flows.

---Li Po

My nature is subdued
to what it works in,
like the dyer's hand.

---William Shakespeare

And so a year has gone by. A year without friend and poet John Tagliabue. A year without Tagliabue and the sun has shined its radiance with slight dimness. Music of the spheres has played less sparkling. The dancers whirl without shout. His death last year was certainly at his time, but it has meant a year without my teacher pushing me closer to the edge.

Besides a flutter of poems tumbling out like petals from blossoms, his letters and conversation always contained what books to read. He urged them as he did his assignments, shrugging off your foolishness if obviously you didn't read them. There were exhibits at the museums and he would tell you. Dancers and actors on the boards, and he needed to share with his own advertisements. There were foods and people from so many countries to visit. Be sure to have pad and pencil for jotting down impressions of human scenes on the train.

One time, when I was a junior at Bates College, where he taught and I learned, he decided he wanted to see Martha Graham dance in New York. It might be her very last time. We were in Maine. John had a car but he never learned to drive. Refused to. Usually his wife Grace took him somewhere he needed to be, but for some reason this time he asked a few of us students if we wanted to drive him. And we'd see La Martha of course.

As I recall there were 5 of us on the expedition. Two couples and my roommate. We would drive all day, stay one night, see the company's performance, and then drive all night back to Lewiston. I can't think how we fit in that small car. On laps I guess.

When we got to Manhattan, John had us drop him off at his sister's apartment...and then we were left on our own. This was a surprise to us, and hardly our idea of a school field trip. Don lived in New Rochelle, so he just took a train home. Paul's girl friend, like mine, was a sophomore, but he thought he could just bluff his way into a hotel room with her...and he did.

This was 1960, and I wasn't so sure I could get away with it. So Bonnie and I stayed with the car, and drove all over the place looking for a secluded spot to park for the night. Neither of us knew the City. Finally I came to a place near the water that appeared to be a kind of parking lot, at least during the day. It was deserted. Across the bay were a thousand lights...and in the bay stood the Statue of Liberty, far out there. I would later learn this was The Battery, but that's where we stayed---in our fog-windowed coupe. We were not disturbed.

Martha was wondrous, dancing one of her Greek things, but unfortunately barely able to get back up once she had lain down. I never had seen anything like this, but I knew a little about myth and things by then...and sometimes you had to go to the Underworld, and maybe that was happening. The music, also original and strange, sounded underworldly and then maybe rejoicing we were back up. I think dancers waved streamers around or got wrapped in them.

Don drove all the way back. He chainsmoked Camels or Luckys to stay awake, keeping the side vent open to flick an ash or the butt. I think I was in the front seat with him, and maybe Bonnie was up there too. John was in the middle of the back seat, and must be Paul and Carol on either side. We all slept and Don drove. At 3 AM, wherever we were, suddenly this great improvised Kabuki chant shouted. Tagliabue had stirred and needed to announce it! He always made up his own Japanese, whether dance, poem or song. After the fright, we laughed on for miles.

A Japanese friend spoke at John's Memorial Service in Providence a year ago, and said the poet always spoke to him in Japanese. Through all the years he knew him he did that, and the friend would politely reply. But finally the truth could be told: in all those years, he said, he never had understood one word John uttered. But of course that didn't matter. The meaning was clear, always beautiful and somehow about love.

Here's a poem Grace sent to me recently, carefully calligraphied as she is so expert to do~~~

With infinite Play,
with infinite Presentations

Loving to communicate,
loving to touch, to see,
to hear, to be active sensible,
loving to touch with his feet
the Divine Ground, to dance,
to read this to you, he
returned often; as often as
music in the bodies of lovers.

---John Tagliabue


jazzolog said...

I've received some lovely replies to this post by email both from people who knew John and those who never heard of him...a situation these writings seek to remedy. Two such comments came from Ivy and Linda.

Ivy met John when she still was somewhat involved with the Joffrey Company and dancing as Ivy Clear. Her stepfather's name was Clear, so it was real...but naturally John went poetic with such a name. He told her it could have been made up by Nathaniel Hawthorne for a novel. Since then she has been identified in her dance career as Ivy Forrest, and you can learn ballet from her at this school . It's never too late!

Well, maybe it is for some of us. Neverthless, Ivy's remark is not about the poet, but about the Martha Graham section~~~

"LOL( the description of Martha)..... I saw her even later than that - everyone wore black & masks except for Martha who wore a permanent mask.... I think it was a farewell performance ( or everyone thought it was - like yours on the trip) and I was struck by her lack of agility but intense presence ; it was a palpable energy in one not moving ( like an unsmashed atom). It is good to remember those gone.... they live thru us now."

"Unsmashed atom." What an image to describe a dancer of that power!

Linda Gramatky was a classmate at Bates and a student of Tagliabue. She was one of dozens who showed up in Providence last year for a tribute and grieving on his passing. Now Linda Gramatky Smith, she spends much of her time managing the estate of her late artist father, Hardie Gramatky, one of this country's most brilliant watercolorists . It's wonderful to be in contact with her, and to receive a message like this~~~

"Oh, this was so wonderful, so evocative of what we loved about John (or 'Tag'). Thank you for sharing your memories of that amazing and funny trip so that we can hold them close too. And now, a huge Kabuki chant, please, to wake Tagliabue up again!"

jazzolog said...

mrdAn online friend I got to meet at last year's memorial in Providence is this member of the staff at the Harvard Divinity School Andover-Harvard Theological Library. James Adler did not go to Bates nor ever had John Tagliabue in class. He found him through the poetry and became so enthused he sought him out. John always had room for more friends, and that's what happened. Jim replied to this entry with a lovely email he's permitting me to post here~~~

Hi Richard,

I've also been meaning to thank you for this terrific piece on John Tagliabue... Last month I pinched a nerve in my back, and have been under the heavy boot of this, though it's slowly getting better. Beautiful piece. So often we all intend to do, I think, what we don't don't get around to doing. This past May I was thinking of writing you the whole month to suggest you do a commemoration for John on Jazzlog on May 31, the date of his death.... We were all probably thinking of John during May... I know I was... and hoping Grace seemed to be holding up as well as could be expected at that anniversary period. I was going to call her May 31, but then felt, well, it was probably a day best just for her family to do the commemoration and have their emotions in private. I called about three days later, and she seemed to have gotten through it decently enough... It's hard to describe for me this first year without John. At one level, I've felt all year like I've lost a father-figure.... At another, I've missed the phone calls, phoning John and having wonderful conversations with Grace for a little while, and then her saying she'd go get John, and then hearing John's booming, exuberant voice, and feeling just a thrill of happiness vibrate through my whole body !, feeling that John was a basic source and pillar in the world of sheer and rock-solid joy, happiness, energy, and the sense that all was in the last analysis well in the world... May was the bad and sad month for me about him. I still can't believe it. What a wonderful picture you sent of him and Grace together... I still just can't believe not only that he is gone, but that he isn't better known... isn't well known... our generation had our own Rumi, Tagore, Hafez, Kabir, what have you, and even the literary public was to small-minded and provincial and secularized to realize it. Just a Pulitzer would have gotten him so much publicity, and in my opinion he deserved more than that. But it was partially John's own karma playing out it's destiny... personality is fate... John just wouldn't sufficiently engage with the practical side of the world, the world of publicity and publishing... He's a complete package of course, and that impracticality was part of the same core of John that enabled him to write poetry constantly, prolifically, and poetry so much about our world but could take a step back and have its source virtually from another fresher and original world, of Eden and innocence, as Mark Van Doren put it, "before creation rested." To have been able to inhabit and tap that source for the unimpeded freshness of his poems, probably necessitated some sort of impracticality. I've told Grace I'm still trying (but now sort of stuck) trying to find someone who will take a "highlights" from his "New and Selected," plus some of the published poems from his other books, and she completely supports it. Incidentally, you probably know that she and a retired Art Professor at Brown are putting together some of his unpublished poetry on French painters... We so miss him... He could have lived, perhaps less actively but still in productive health, into his 90s... if only, like Richard Eberhart, until 101 ! But he had a long life and, thankfully for us and the world, wrote a lot, a whole lot, a huge body, of astoundingly fresh and original and almost Eden-like work... If only we could think of further ways of spreading his work.... Have you discontinued Jazzalog, incidentally? Your recent wonderful emails have just seem to come from "Richard Carlson," rather than "Jazzalog." I wonder if Grace would let us set up a John Tagliabue site? Do any of our friends, or anyone on your mailing list, have access to publishing or publishers, someone who would take a "highlights" of John's work? Grace would want examine and edit and change it before okaying it, of course, but in general she would completely support the project.... Do we have any friends or "friends of friends" somewhere "high up" in publishing somewhere? That might be an interesting question to pose to your list.... Anyway, thanks, thanks, thanks, for the commemoration of John... and his unimpeded affirmations, those of an ancient-modern Orpheus... whom were we all so deeply lucky personally to have known...


A Reader said...

Gone but not forgotten!


“In a time of divisiveness, John Tagliabue showed how to be inclusive. In a time of partisanship, Tagliabue embraced opposites. In a time of suspicion, Tagliabue accepted the other without making them over.”

This review, dated 12/31/98, from a reader, was about John Tagliabue's "New and Selected Poems: 1942-1997":

"New and Selected Poems includes more than half a century of poems, but I find the book speaks to our historical moment. For those who enjoy plenitude, I can recommend no more heartening way to move into the new year than to read--even read aloud--from this big book. It will make you want to reach out, to combat bitterness with wit, to love difference, to imagine, to fully live.

Despite his ethics of inclusion, there is no homogenization of the reader; nor does Tagliabue make an issue of cross-cultural engagement. Rather, his poetics demonstrates how to move in a direction neither of global uniformity nor of radical fragmentation in a globalized democracy. As such this most prolific of American poets mirrors "the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present" and confirms Shelley's belief that "poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the World."

The verbal syncretism, oceanic rhythm that counters chronometric progression, freely flowing analogies, unpredictable prosodic doublings and embeddings serve to subvert the reader's expectation of univocal form, yet unravel a mutuality with all things, including the chaos needed in oneself to trigger recognitions, transformations, exchanges. The dialogical openness of Tagliabue's poems, old and new--and for longtime readers a special pleasure is to follow the changes through the decades--will make you hope for our escape from power, as Tagliabue's poems call for the reader to renounce monological boundaries for the lyric as genre."

Such reviews and the testimony of those who knew him are a tribute to the spirit of the man both as a poet and as a person - and man and poet, can the two really be set apart as if we were talking of two separate entities?

I was not a student of his and I never met him in person, and so I cannot speak of him as a "friend," as we usually think of that term (a person whom one has met - an acquaintance) yet, as the saying goes "a good book on your shelf is a friend that turns its back on you and remains a friend." I've collected many such friends over the years, some of whom I have actually met in person, but most of them, came and went before I was ever born, yet they are not gone, they "return often," "with infinite Play," "with infinite Presentation..."

“A good book has no ending.”