Innate Cussedness of the Part: Ins and Outs of the Forest Rivers by Nathaniel Tarn

Ins and Outs of the Forest Rivers

Ins and Outs of the Forest Rivers
BY Nathaniel Tarn
(New Directions Publishing, 2008)

Nathaniel Tarn is not afraid to take on the big questions. Fueled by a lifetime of study in the fields, literally and figuratively, of anthropology and poetry, he emerges once again in this new volume of poetry, Ins and Outs of the Forest Rivers, as a supple and highly intelligent voice. Embracing with gusto the perennial questions of humankind, he is forthcoming, and aware, of his own starting points and burning issues.

In the first poem, “Pursuit of the Whole and Parts,” he establishes as agenda:

What is this self which realizes one night
that its whole life has had only one meaning:
the question of the relation of a whole to
whatever may be said to depend from it —
that most ancient of philosophical questions?

And declares:

the whole being meaningless without the part
and the part must be as carefully examined and expounded
as the whole.

— “Pursuit of the Whole and Parts,” p. 1

He insists on the “stubbornness, the innate cussedness [and stubbornness] of the part / any part” which “links you to the moment, / to the circumstantial existence of yourself in time” (p. 1). There follows a profusion of the particular swept up in compelling language, a never-ending search for significance and wholeness, from Tarn’s home in New Mexico to distant places, via meditative states to veritable rants, with razor-sharp mind, clarity of vision, and passionate heart.

The book is divided into five sections, including many long poems, giving the poet time and space to gather disparate material to good effect. Many of the individual poems use a fairly regular long line. One notable exception, “Mathis at Issenheim” (pp. 22-29), uses varying line lengths and a sometimes shorter line. This poem occurs in the first section, “Of the Perfected Angels,” a series of elegiac meditations about, put broadly — the art of living.

The second section, “Dying Trees (Andante Maestoso)” is a tour de force of disjunction and fusion, so to speak — the parts providing a peek into wholeness, or the lack thereof. Comprised of nine poems, it speaks of a tree-destroying drought, cancer diagnoses and our ongoing wars with no real breaks, a deadly progression. In the poet’s hands, the heartbreak of these particular dying trees seems even more unbearable than mass destruction:

(…) Ghost beetles,
smelling the dying from two miles away,
rush to the place, a Halloween gone mad,
devour their way, quite audibly, from tree
to tree. The landscape’s mouth, great smile
full of live teeth, ages in a few days—the teeth
turn brown. Within a few more weeks, trees
will shed needles, then remain black,
specter-shaped growths on the land’s health.

— “3. A Smile,” p. 38

The third section, “War Stills,” contains poems as dense and as powerful as any in the collection. Tarn pulls no punches. In the poem, “Asphyxiation,” the poet ferociously demands that we, in whose name atrocities are committed, realize our silent complicity and the price we are paying as human beings:

(…) So that, to go to town, to greet
one’s friends implies the occultation of the strangled
scream inside the throat that swallowed gag or kerchief
in the act of living. And you say “fine,” yes,” “fine thanks,”

— “3. The Asphyxiation,” p. 59


with throat now free of all encumbrance
since you had mastered the asphyxiation.

Ibid, p. 60

The fourth section, “Movement/North of the Java Sea,” contains similarly vatic poems, set in the narrative framework of a Pacific journey. In the first poem, “Ascending Flight, Los Angeles,” the previous section’s darkness lifts a bit:

(…) To stop life’s turn to nightmare
adopt the colorful patience of birds. Flowers
take flight and become birds, add color to
the birds in the sky.

— “Ascending Flight, Los Angeles, 2” p. 74

This becomes personal in “Self and Other” where

that a one might spend a whole existence
with another and yet the tethering
never occur — [not once in, what,
seventy / eighty years: a lifetime?]
This is the greatest “sin” among the sins
once named “original”

— “Self and Other,” p. 79

The last section, “Sarawak” contains only the title poem, “Ins and Outs of the Forest Rivers,” written, according to the poet’s note, during a two month trip in the wild regions of Sarawak, Borneo, East Malaysia, in 2005. Twelve pages long, this complex and muscular poem contains many elements of previous poems, but is an utterly new creation. Resuming the bird imagery, the poet says:

I should have been a butterfly-watcher
for they are out in the open
with their delicate touches of paint
in the midst of horror — whereas
the birds now, the birds alas…


Whereas the birds move on and on,
pierce the sky like arrows, never seem to fall.
Their death is a quiet one in the deep forest
as the death of the forest is not quiet;
the towering trees fall over and over.

— “Ins and Outs of the Forest Rivers,” pp. 101-102

These are erudite poems, in some ways difficult to enter, but once entered, riveting. In an interview “On Anthropology and Poetry,” that appeared in his book of essays and critical writings The Embattled Lyric (2007), Tarn complains that he can’t get anyone to truly engage with some material he has written: “I don’t think anybody who’s talked to me has looked at this thing and said, ‘Hey, this is interesting because…’”

Lest I err similarly by summarizing the book (not that I could do so easily), or by over-quoting (how can I not, when the poetry is so good?) or by merely adding more words of praise to the accolades he has received in the past forty-five years as a poet, I will say that I found the seven page ekphrastic poem, “Mathis at Issenheim,” mentioned above “interesting” because… it draws from the most compelling and influential notions of individual identity in our culture not as a way to rehash this material, or to take a position on centuries of cultural baggage, but to ask the question afresh within these time worn images. How hard is that? Nearly impossible, I would have said, before reading this poem.

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