Or Replica by Paige Taggart
Brooklyn Arts Press, 2014, 116 pp
Reviewed by Laurie Saurborn Young
In Dark Elderberry Branch, poets Ilya Kaminsky and Jean Valentine offer a reading of Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva, including her thoughts on translating Rilke: “translation has another meaning. To translate not just into (i.e., into the Russian language), but across (a river).” Rarely a simple substitution, translation is transport, a movement within, between, or over not only languages, but also states of mind. The poems of Paige Taggart’s Or Replica utilize the repetition of tightly controlled open forms as a method of conveyance between states of revelation and secrecy. Voice—a Chorus of Selves—straddles both distance and intimacy, translating each in terms of the other.
Or Replica consists of four, titled sections, which alternate between short, unpunctuated, lineated poems, and single-paragraph prose poems. Prone to rapid transition, yet capable of clear, narrative moments, episodes of linguistic dissociation are interspersed with plainspoken confession. The lineated poems tend more strongly towards the lyric, the cryptic, the internal, whereas the prose poems compose themselves around a more externalized narrative. While the content occasionally points to an unsteady autonomy, loss of control in structure is never an issue. Taggart’s words are carefully selected and deliberately stacked, as if rungs on a ladder or stones in a battlement wall.
The first section, “Mammalian Half,” touches on such subjects as alcoholism, the space-time continuum, powdered wigs, velveteen rabbits, and grandmothers. While the speaker makes some overtures to the reader, and does not shy from declaration, the poems are primarily of a private voice, sealed off, capable—or desirous—of being understood only in, and by, degrees. Shifting within the parameters of agency, denial, accusation and actualization, the poems address identity and heredity, physicality and history:
painted the mirror black
then did a front handspring
into the glass
into the lack of transparency
broken spastic ministries
collarbones of my aunt
butterfly rash of my mother
fragments and origins
never been see-through (22)
It is if, by obliterating her reflection, she is finally free to move past the borders of her own body and—through a type of genetic, matrilineal backtracking—occupy the beauties (“collarbones of my aunt”) and illnesses (“butterfly rash of my mother”) of her female relations. In the section following, “Sorry as the Flame for No Other Fire,” the speaker’s voice assumes a more clinically wistful tone, a carefully guarded nostalgia. One senses that the speaker recalls childhood as both dangerous and endangering, but that the same permeability giving peril entrance also allows for imaginative transcendence:
When I was eight, my friend and her brothers tossed me up in a blanket towards the ceiling and didn’t catch me. I broke my collarbone and immediately fell asleep . . . I wish I had been dropped on sandstone shaped like galaxies, my hip dented with the big dipper. (44)
As in the previous section, the familial bond remains a theme. Here, though, sibling relationships—specifically the relationship of the speaker with her brothers, and her friend’s brothers—are addressed. Because of her quick movement between worlds, the speaker gives an impression of disconnection, of being without place, despite the fact that she actually is grounded, the way planets are: by the gravity of connection to other bodies.
Following these narratives, the fragmented voice returns in “Gift Horse,” poems of increasing violence, emptiness, and power:
smack my shadow
and make-out with it
lipstick in vulva cove
on a spree for bad names
so I broke it off
you were a lot of other
“Smack my shadow”: Throughout the book, a tenuous relationship exists between the speaker’s I and an unnamed you, and here it gains a pronounced sexual tension. Sometimes trusted, sometimes suspected, the you remains a faceless, silent force. Yet given the structure of the book, its willingness to occupy multiple states of self, might this relationship, circumscribed by pronouns representing me and not-me, also represent the conversations and expectations one has with, and for, oneself? As Taggart writes near the end of the book: “There are two fishermen I’ve hired who could lift my bones across a falling ridge.” Two fisherman, two versions of the self: the living, and the dead.
In the final section, “Say Yes Will Still Go,” the prose poem form returns to reveal the most thematically cohesive statements of the book, two short phrases to which every poem seems to cleave—and cleave. “History is glubinka. Rebirth is naïve.” Glubinka can refer to the isolated provinces of Russia, the rural villages of the interior—the sticks, the outback, places where rivers can be impossible to cross. Placed in immediate proximity to the concept of rebirth, it is as if the speaker is saying history is inside the body, unreachable, devoured by memory, and that the idea of freeing oneself from this one-way trip inward is merely wishful thinking.
Transport requires space: a “that” which is traversed. Interstellar, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and environmental, the spaces within these poems are boundless. Catapulting among them, this speaker yearns for the impossible—to be injured by the stars and not human neglect, and to move back in time through those who came before. Trying to establish and maintain boundaries of self, while existing in a world that expects women to remain permeable, can leave a female poet with a lot of questions, ones she will have to fight to answer as she writes: “I’m angry at the world and what it is I don’t know that I should be doing.” Part exile, part citizen, these are the words of a poet wondering how—or if—she’ll find an answer.