Book of Fools
by Sam Taylor
Negative Capability Press, 2021

The music at the center of Sam Taylor’s Book of Fools is a soulful dance between myth and memory. In this work, Taylor’s Orpheus, one of several interacting characters, accompanies the reader through the gaps in the underworld and the speaker’s inner world, tinged with loss and longing but sustained by the central feature of the work: the lyric. The subtitle, “an essay in memoir and verse,” announces its layers before the reader opens this stunning mix of form and genre. The images, on glossy pages, with intricate spacing and line art articulate the text as a verb. It shifts from memoir to love letters from a son to a mother, from mother to son, and from lover to beloved. It’s a common theme, the death of mothers; in Taylor’s hands, this theme is scattered and re-collected making new shapes that only poetry can manifest. 

Taylor skillfully resists cliche in this memoir about loss. While the book is haunted by upside-down texts inhabited by the speaker’s mother, it is also sustained by hope which resides in the concrete language of the artist(s); Picasso, Homer, Matisse, and Keats all dash in and out of the structure of this hybrid text and Taylor allows the reader to inhabit and be inhabited by these multi-voices and their revenant musings. Taylor doesn’t shy away from the aftershocks that come, in wave after wave, after the loss of a mother and a beloved. Keats’ urn appears early on to remind us that the metaphor, unlike the lives of those we love, is permanent. 

One of the most captivating threads tying the work together is the play on “plastics.” In one of the earliest pieces, [ORPEHEUS], Taylor, in a mix of light and dark grey text, extends simile after simile comparing plastic to the lyric. The lyric is like plastic. Malleable. Re-formed.

Or like trying to swim back to a moment when the current keeps pushing you out to sea. Like trying to plug a leak in the wall of earth you drilled through. Or trying to pile as many people as possible into a cell phone booth formed by the word “you.” Like plastic that can be molded into any shape; at daybreak, at dusk, we melt the words down.

The lyric can be molded into myth, like the love between Orpheus and Eurydice, or it can hold Taylor’s delicate “[BORDER, HAIKU], and transform childhood into poetry: “The tragedy of childhood/is its plasticity, that it will assume any shape/impressed upon it, a word like “never”/dropped one part per billion…” Taylor’s lyrics move and twist, become unrecognizable inside “flash” essays and creative nonfiction. In another writer’s hands, the formal shifts could be dizzying but in Taylor’s, because of his use of repetition and refrain, they are music. 

In one of his most stately lyric pieces, [FUSELAGE], the speaker confesses “many of these details have been invented” and “ ‘A little bit’  seems a word cluster I grew up with.” Later in this revealing poem, Taylor declares, “Prose is what we add to myth.” Taylor’s redactions and strikethroughs, his mixing of white text on black background with traditional black on white and the multiple shades of grey all contribute to his formally inventive excursion back and forth from the ocean’s edge to the poet’s compromised memories. Lines fade in and out of the text and create passageways between reader and book.

In the sections of white text on black background, we find several iterations of the “Fools’ Guide to the Underworld.” Taylor infuses these interludes with footnotes, definitions, re/visions and direct narrative. From his “Fools’ Guide to Orpheus (I-IV),” Taylor’s speaker addresses the reader and the physicality of the book itself. “In the fool’s tradition of the blind leading the blind, I knew next to nothing about Orpheus when he began to insert himself into this book.” Taylor’s speaker continues, “The word text comes from the Latin word for woven, same as textile. The poet George Oppen described the task of the artist thusly: ‘One must not come to feel that he has a thousand threads in his hands. He must somehow see the one thing.” Amid textual versatility and braided stories told through multiple lenses, it can be easy to lose the central thread of Taylor’s Fools. But that’s part of the book’s dynamic; we get lost but Taylor, like Orpheus, searches us out and gets us to a space in which we can weave our own lyric with the speaker, his mother, Orpheus and Eurydice’s love, and the rhythmic comfort of the sea.

At the end of the work, the speaker notes that his mother’s ashes were still in an urn “in the family room of my sister’s house./(Why haven’t we bright her ashes to the sea?),” he asks. But notes a page later: “Less than a month after the last of these pages were finished…my sisters and I…found ourselves together at last on the Outer Banks and spread our mother’s ashes at sea.” Closure. The tide returns to gather what it left behind. 

I sought the same sense of closure after my mother’s death well over two decades ago. Taylor’s work caresses my own memories of loss; after my mother was cremated, my stepfather claimed he would take her ashes to her beloved Ormond Beach in Florida. But it’s unlikely he ever got around to it as it wasn’t ever likely to be his high priority. I will never know if her ashes are trapped in an urn or a box indefinitely or if they, like Taylor’s mother’s, found rest in the womb of the sea. 

In his “Fools Guide to Rivers,” the speaker observes: 

     Thus, it’s possible to see all life as a series of car rides,
          or as one long ride, with many disembarks
              for divergent ends and miscellaneous durations.

The reader functions as a disembodied passenger on these “disembarks” and as a partner on the journey. Sam Taylor’s book is an ecosystem of voices, styles, and stories, with touches of ekphrastic splendor. In one of the most delightful forays into ekphrasis, Taylor re/presents Picasso’s Woman Eating Sea Urchins (1946). The speaker relishes the realistic elements of the woman with her “pug nose, corkscrew curls, man’s cap, and the dirty apron in which she enveloped herself.” The speaker lingers there, “When it was finished, each day Pablo eliminated a few more naturalistic details until there remained only a very simplified form, almost vertical, with just the plate of sea urchins in the middle to remind one of what she looked like.” Taylor’s most striking pieces artfully eliminate elements until only the most primal remains.

The reader is pushed to ponder alternative avenues for their own journey. “There were problems with the lyric” functions as one of Taylor’s refrains and we are left questioning the problems and solutions to our own lyrics. Do we engage our lyrics? Cross them out? Strike them through with a scalpel? One message of Orpheus and Eurydice, like their close biblical cousins Lot and his wife, is not to look back. Yet, memoir, by definition, invites us to look back, and in, and through. Taylor’s inviting work doesn’t just ask us to blur the boundaries between memoir and lyric but to stretch our definitions into a new shape altogether.

Amy Penne
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