by William Taylor Jr.
Reviewed by Kimberly Steele
“…and god is the darkness”
The streets of San Francisco, those filthy, eerie and teeming with life, provide the setting for William Taylor Jr.’s reverie on urban rhythm and pulse in The Hunger Season. Nothing surprises Taylor’s speaker, who is so intimately connected with the taverns and subways of Larkin and Polk Streets that he bleeds into them, thriving on all the things he also loathes about his city. He seems resigned to this fate, as though his mixed feelings are the inevitable result of a unique kinship and exclusive insight. The insights, not the city, become the focus.
Taylor starts off with an uncharacteristically short piece that brings the starkness of his subject matter to the forefront. “A Frida Kahlo Kind of Day” aptly represents the larger work, treating painful and ugly subject matter with a tone of unimpressed nonchalance. The poem invokes twentieth century Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, who broke her back as a teenager and spent her adult life in chronic pain. She famously tried to capture her suffering with visual representation; her works depict colorful scenes of intense, expressionless agony. Taylor tries the same with his poems, minus the vibrant colors. These poems are gray, black, white, and sometimes brown—the hues of the overcast and filthy, the ghostly and absent. Taylor revels in slow, excruciating torment:
a sky of broken Christs
hung from rusty nails;
songs of ruined lovers
borne upon the wind.
There is nothing tepid about this scene—it is utterly “broken” and “ruined.” Innocence is sabotaged. At the same time, the “universe,” which “embraces and devours,” is still “blessed” by the mangled Christs who oversee, but who mostly neglect. Neglect is an essential component of divinity, and Taylor likes to give the downtrodden and the neglected their share of righteousness. Using this motif of religious imagery in “The Same Fire,” Taylor emphasizes that
The thing to understand is:
we are the lion
eating the lamb
and the lamb
being eaten by the lion ….
The lion and the lamb are fairly tired religious images, but Taylor’s point is clear, and it is spare. Everything around us, including ourselves, is equally worthy of salvation and damnation. In “When She Lights a Cigarette and Asks,” the speaker clarifies this belief that “God is every splinter of light / in between all the darkness // and god is the darkness.” Every moment of life – good or bad, meaningful or pointless – constitutes a religious experience, which presents a problem: if everything is as valuable as everything else, everything loses meaning. His bewilderment is understandable when a companion “asks why I never / go to church.” The speaker is left to “only wonder where it is / she thinks we are.”
Generally, The Hunger Season is more like a black-and-white photograph than a Kahlo oil painting: always over- or underexposed. Despite some persuasive images, resonant language and an honest tone, Taylor’s message does not feel entirely fresh, and his insights fail to achieve revelatory philosophical depth. He sometimes captures the precise emotional effect he seeks with simple descriptions, as when he talks about “hope” being “cast aside / … // like Christmas trees / on January streets” or compares people in a crowd to “animals / but without / the grace.” But his perpetual focus on the same topic and unvaried poetic style make his message feel labored. He has a tendency to carry on too long, and to indulge in familiar, oversimplified sentiments. Many of the poems beg to be shorter, to finish stronger. I frequently had a feeling of completion before realizing that the poem continues onto the next page. Precisely what makes “A Frida Kahlo Kind of Day” stand out is its limited scope and ability to quit while it’s ahead.
But The Hunger Season is memorable as a an earnest celebration of life as a contradiction. With characteristic empathy, Taylor tries to provide a safe place for us to experience what he celebrates, which is
… to be content
in finding a place where time
for a little while ….
(from “The Next Song on the Jukebox”)
And in “At the Center of Us All,” he divulges a philosophy on life, which is “to forgive / as much and as often / as possible.” The obviously Christian sentiment sounds nice in the key of obsessed atheist.