Contemplating Jailbreak: Reflections on the Career of Eleanor Ross Taylor
I met Eleanor Ross Taylor in the spring of 1967. More exactly, I shared a table with her and eight or ten others at the annual arts festival banquet (actually the festival was exclusively literary) at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Neither of us later had any recollection of the other. I was an entirely forgettable twenty-year-old, an assistant editor for the undergraduate lit mag, allowed to rub shoulders at the dinner with some of the faculty and perhaps, although I don’t remember, with one or another of the visiting writers.
I am chagrined to admit that, to me, Eleanor Ross Taylor was only the pleasant but reserved wife of Peter Taylor, the distinguished fiction writer, who was to leave Greensboro later that year to teach at the University of Virginia. We probably exchanged no more than a dozen words, and I could not have identified her by sight a week later. My memory of our meeting is as much a matter of assumption in hindsight (we must have spoken a few words to each other) as it is actual recollection.
|Eleanor Ross Taylor|
I certainly had no idea that she was a poet; and although I had high hopes then for my own career in writing—“delusions of literature,” I sometimes said—I didn’t know any contemporary women poets. I could have named a handful—Bishop and Moore, perhaps a few others whose photos, along with those of many more male poets, appeared on the covers of Oscar Williams’s paperback anthologies. Although UNCG had only recently transformed itself from the Woman’s College of the University of North Carolina into a coed institution (in which females still outnumbered male students by roughly forty-five to one), Emily Dickinson was the only female poet taught in the English department. I can recall a single scheduled reading by a woman poet, and that wound up being canceled. From the sneers of some of my professors (in fairness to the writing faculty, it was the lit professors who sneered), I gathered that there were poets and then there were women poets, who didn’t merit the same status.
A year or so later, when the women of the Class of 1968—the first wave of the baby boom—tried to enter the job market and learned with indignation that our bachelor’s degrees cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa keys counted for less than how many words per minute we could type, the world underwent a seismic shift. But then, in 1967, although we passed around our copies of The Feminine Mystique in the dorm and groused about the “Suzy Homemakers” of television commercials and sitcoms, we didn’t have a clue about how institutionalized sexism really was and how it was affecting us at that very moment. We really believed that those women poets just happened not to be as good as their male counterparts. We, of course, were going to be different.
The women poets of my generation did wind up being different, of course, not because they were necessarily better writers than their predecessors but because some of them were good and the sheer numbers of female boomers demanding equality eventually began to have an impact on academia and publishing. The gender gap hasn’t disappeared yet, of course, but it has certainly shrunk since 1967 and even more in the years since Eleanor Ross Taylor herself was an undergraduate at the same institution where her husband taught when we had our not-so-fateful meeting.
Taylor, born in 1920 and married in 1942, had far fewer options than the boomers. Most middle-class women of her generation faced the binary choice of marriage or career. Very few managed both. Bishop and Moore never married, and their milieu in the more sophisticated Northeast helped them to make connections with other poets, editors, and publishers who were capable of appreciating their talent.
Taylor, by contrast, grew up on a farm near the little town of Norwood, North Carolina, fortunately in a family that valued education and literature. Although she has publicly denied feeling any sense of discrimination when she began her work as a poet, the South of her youth scorned uppity women who put their own careers ahead of their husbands’ work and their wifely responsibilities; and in practice she gave her children and Peter Taylor priority over her poetry. If, in James Merrill’s famous mot, Elizabeth Bishop maintained a “lifelong impersonation of an ordinary woman,” then Eleanor Ross Taylor went her one better. Her protective coloration sometimes amounted to complete camouflage.
Eleanor Ross Taylor and I didn’t meet again for thirty-five years. By that time she was a widow in her early eighties, the author of five books (four since our first meeting), and I was again a student, a fifty-five-year-old retiree and MFA candidate whose literary aspirations had been on hold for longer than Taylor’s, albeit for different reasons. In the interval I had gained a deep appreciation not only for her truly remarkable poetry but also for what her career had required of her.
At the time I was doing an internship for Blackbird in the semester that its first issue would appear, and I had been dispatched to visit Taylor at her home in Charlottesville, Virginia, to record an interview with her for that first issue. I was accompanied by a supposedly foolproof minirecorder and a heavy load of trepidation—my own trepidation, certainly, but probably also plenty on the part of the senior editors as well. All of us were aware that Eleanor Ross Taylor did not give readings, and we thought that this audio interview might be the only opportunity many of Taylor’s fans would ever have to hear her voice. (No pressure, Susan.)
Even though she had consented to the interview in advance, I imagined her taking offense at my questions and responding in monosyllables or simply not answering. After all, a poet of her abilities and accomplishments had every right to be eccentric and high-handed. Instead, she welcomed me warmly, offered refreshments just as my mother would have done with a visitor, and initiated a chat that became quite animated after I’d established my credentials by mentioning UNCG and our mutual hero, Randall Jarrell. (Jarrell died in 1965, before I could take a class with him; but his presence in Greensboro had a lot to do with my choosing to attend UNCG.)
After that, the interview acquired its own momentum, and most of my carefully prepared questions went by the wayside. Our conversation continued after the recorder was shut off and even after I drove back to Richmond that afternoon, in the form of sporadic correspondence. Taylor’s generation is surely the last to send friendly, curious, informative notes to even casual acquaintances, and I treasure those I have from her. (Was I perhaps kin to her piano teacher, a Miss Settlemyre from Granite Falls? Had I read George Garrett’s My Silk Purse and Yours?)
The Eleanor Ross Taylor of those letters and conversations is very recognizably the Eleanor Ross Taylor of her poetry, although the lively curiosity, the sudden shifts of direction, and the penetrating intelligence of her best work are toned down by social constraints. No doubt, like my mother, who also grew up in a family of farmers and teachers, on a farm some hundred miles away from Norwood, Taylor learned early to “make nice.” In her poetry, the wraps are off, but recognition of those constraints and restraints (and others) informs her oeuvre.
The title of her new book, Captive Voices: New and Selected Poems, 1960–2008 (Louisiana State University Press, 2009), captures Taylor’s vision of a universe where no one is entirely free and most are not too happy about it. The subjects of her work, mostly female, occupy circumscribed worlds, from the farms of her North Carolina childhood in her earliest work to the strictures of old age in her most recent.
Some of her characters accept their circumstances, although seldom with contentment. An old woman
sighed a mournful tune
Waddling about her everyday
Affairs of life and death
(Affairs of painful life, uncertain death):
“Wild loneliness that beats
Its wings on life,” she sang.
She thwacked a pone in two,
Her big hand for a knife.
A chain-gang guard, as confined as his charges, muses in an echo of Dickinson: “Here I stand! loaded gun across me— / As if I’d get away!” In a new poem titled “How to Live in a Trap,” Taylor’s speaker advises, “First, drag yourself and / that whole thing / down to a waterhole,” and later, “Refrain from gnawing” and “Tell yourself there’s a painting / in this somewhere: / Interior, Woman Singing.”
In the rather antic “Contemplating Jailbreak,” the speaker muses,
Through the bars?
saw my music?
scissors my embroidery?
I was making masks for a rabbit
using the bag the river came in
a few holes
marriage was an economy all around
how I got here halt four corners
halt again that’s another story . . .
The woman in this poem hasn’t yet made the break; she’s still weighing cost and benefit. But the final lines suggest a lifelong impulse toward escape:
my testimony is
in the beginning
my bed had
little round china rolling feet
At the same time, Taylor teases with the suggestion that a little self-imposed captivity is, in fact, not an entirely bad thing. A poem titled “Always Reclusive,” begins, “I’m constructing my own brierpatch.” “Hunters will come and shake my fence, dogs panting, / paws pointing,” she imagines. “I’ll like that. I’ll cuddle up / and turn the page.” Here the poet is Br’er Rabbit, the trickster, creating a room of her own (or a bolt-hole) where it’s worth the discomfort of brambles to keep the rather scary outside world at a distance. Taylor probably was, in some sense, “born and bred in the brierpatch.”
Not all restraints can be so casually endured. In the title poem, “Captive Voices,” the principal speaker, a white settler captured by Indians, observes of her fellow prisoners, “They always prayed at last. / If not to God, to death” and describes one man literally tethered while hot coals are shoveled onto his back. (“Then they scalped him.”) The speaker herself gets away at last by “crawling, I think, several miles, as I thought, east,” barefoot through the snow.
Some of Taylor’s characters manage to escape into different lives, only to find themselves living with a new set of restrictions. In “Welcome Eumenides,” the magnificent title poem of her second collection, Florence Nightingale roams back and forth in her mind between “the wards at Scutari” and “the corridors at Waverly,” between the narrow sphere of well-brought-up Victorian ladies—“. . . that you can join me on the twenty-seventh / (Crème Harlequin aux Meringues—or dariolettes?)”—and makeshift field hospitals:
And again. Please keep:
a. Toilets covered.
b. Windows open.
Orderlies: Eat not the rations of those men asleep.
For some of Taylor’s subjects, escape is no longer an option. A woman in Taylor’s Norwood, mourning her son killed twenty years earlier in the D-day invasion, prays, “Give my son another life— / A Norwood ugliness, a bourgeois rot, / Dust and concrete, Falcons and Mustangs, not . . .” Even life in the crassness of 1960s small-town America would be better than no life at all.
In this Calvinistic world, free will doesn’t find much scope. But Taylor herself ranges widely, both in subject matter and in tone and style. Her complex and meticulously researched historical poems, like “Welcome Eumenides” and “Rachel Plummer’s Dream” (based on the true story of a woman captured by the Comanches—Plummer may also be the speaker in “Captive Voices”), perhaps owe something to the influence of Randall Jarrell, including their erudition and their refusal to look away from the brutality of war and conquest; but they follow their own trajectory, more elliptical and fragmented than Jarrell’s sometimes wordy narratives.
Indeed, in both her writings and her career, Taylor manages to belong and not belong to that loose group of poets, now known as the Middle Generation, who flourished—and suffered—in postwar America. Taylor’s Middle Generation credentials are impeccable: She studied under Allen Tate and Caroline Gordon, who also mentored Robert Lowell. The Tates introduced young Eleanor Ross to Peter Taylor. Peter roomed with Lowell when they were students at Kenyon and remained a close friend of his for life. The Taylors and Jarrells once shared a duplex when both husbands were teaching at the Woman’s College of the University of North Carolina. It was during that period, around 1947, that Eleanor Ross Taylor diffidently showed her own poetry to Jarrell, who immediately became a fan and an advocate.
As Taylor tells it in an unpublished essay, her husband decided that Jarrell should see her work. She writes, “One day after I had shown Peter new [poems], he decided Randall should see them. I dared not. ‘Come on!’ He knocked on the door across the hall and announced, ‘I’ve taken the little girl by the hand and brought her to show you her poems.’” She recalls wondering,
Was it something Randall had feared? He immediately
began to read, his expression growing more and more
solemn, as my heart fell. I don’t remember his words, but
what he said gravely was that they were indeed very
complicated and very polished.
With Jarrell ’s encouragement, Taylor eventually began to publish in literary journals, but not at the expense of what she considered primary responsibilities to her family. Accordingly, her first collection, Wilderness of Ladies (with an introduction by Jarrell) did not appear until 1960, by which time her contemporaries were at the peak of their careers. Jarrell’s The Woman at the Washington Zoo appeared the same year. Lowell’s Life Studies had come out the year before, and both Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop had won Pulitzers by then.
But Eleanor Ross Taylor—who might equally have presented herself as an heir to the Fugitives, those intransigent poets of the rural South, including her teacher, Allen Tate—seems to have understood from the start that, as a poet, she could not unequivocally identify with a movement or collective aesthetic but must instead pursue her own, sometimes slow, always idiosyncratic path. It has been nearly fifty years since Wilderness of Ladies; her five subsequent books have appeared at long intervals (1972, 1983, 1991, 1999, 2009), and Taylor has consistently eschewed “po biz” and self-promotion. As for that relish for idiosyncrasy, it connects her more strongly with Emily Dickinson, another reticent and self-directed poet, than with any of the “canonical” Middle Generation. Each woman, in her own way (of course), is sui generis.
Taylor has long had an impressive circle of admirers. Richard Howard wrote the introduction to Welcome Eumenides. Ellen Bryant Voigt provides the foreword to the new Captive Voices. Dave Smith is her editor at LSU. In 2001 Jean Valentine edited The Lighthouse Keeper, a collection of essays on her work by writers ranging from Betty Adcock to Adrienne Rich. The Fellowship of Southern Writers staged a reading in her honor at Charlottesville’s Virginia Festival of the Book a few years ago. Despite the critical acclaim, however, it seems as if every reader who comes across her work considers Taylor his or her own private discovery. In part this is a function of her own reticence; in part because of the long wait for each new book. No doubt there are as many reasons as there are fans. If she were a movie, she’d be called a “cult favorite.”
Although Taylor the person may be self-effacing and although the new poems in Captive Voices and those in Late Leisure, her most recent single collection, generally run no more than a page or two, Taylor’s oeuvre is not shy, certainly not shy of ambition. Her work is, in many senses, large; it “contains multitudes.”
“The Ribbon to Norwood,” one of the most ambitious poems in the book, charts the journey of a woman, perhaps Taylor herself, back to her childhood home to visit her dying mother, describing both the literal bus trip through a snowy upper-South landscape and a metaphysical journey into the heart of the labyrinth, where death, “the devourer,” waits. The “ribbon” of the title is both the highway and Ariadne’s thread. The speaker travels through memory as well, reliving the earlier death of her father: “My father lights no fires,” she reminds herself early on. “I expect no hearth.” And later, “He died. / I neglected the vigilance / of my wish. He died.” The bus ride is long enough for many reflections. Green clumps of daylily, or hemerocallis (“beautiful for a day”), visible through the snow prompt the thought that
(We are beautiful a day.)
Only this ribbon of daylight
that spins the thread of generations. . . .
Taylor allows space for leaving aside private concerns to observe the roadside (“Frozen fog blobs the coves” “Woman advances with cane to mailbox”) and the other passengers (“Voices waking. . . . / Gobs of phlegm . . .”). Fragments of conversation catch her ear: “The practical nurses get / dollar-nour. / If you can gettum.”
One other modern poem operates on so many levels, with the self-assurance to attempt this range of tone and detail—and this leisureliness: that other notable bus journey, Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Moose.” This poem appeared in Bishop’s last individual collection, Geography III, in 1976, while “The Ribbon to Norwood” appeared in 1983 in Taylor’s first New and Selected Poems (that was its only title). The latter poem does not seem to have been published in a journal earlier, but the poem’s epigraph dates the bus trip itself to January 5, 1971. It seems likely that neither poet had seen the other’s poem before chronicling her own voyage into the interior. Quite possibly the enforced inactivity of a long bus journey gave both women a rare opportunity to pursue many strands in a single poem.
Despite the structural resemblances, “The Ribbon to Norwood” is entirely original. Bishop’s poem presents an encounter with mystery, with the Other, but the she-moose is more epiphany than omen. Taylor’s speaker, on the other hand, is always conscious that she is traveling toward death; the omens she encounters—“three gray sisters” seeing off their “aging niece” “a cemetery gorgeous with / dozens of dead red Christmas wreaths” a “bus station madonna” handing out fire-and-brimstone religious tracts (“I think she knows my problems”)—only reinforce that knowledge. Still following her thread at the end of the poem, she completes the literal phase of her journey with foreboding quite unlike anything in “The Moose.” She has stepped off the bus and deeper into the maze of memory and dread:
This ribbon I prepare slacks in my hand.
. . .
Why hadn’t we known
we would be coming back?
Here are the rubbed dust wallows,
the burrow coiling to the labyrinth.
Still traveling, abiding, I descend
and muse, a muse of sorts,
in my own plot.
We know what sort of plot the speaker has in mind.
Nor does Taylor’s work lack structural ambition and complexity. The literally enslaved speaker in “Captive Voices” works in counterpoint to disconnected fragments of what seem to be overheard conversations (“I ride my stationary bike, / and stay right here near my doctor”; “I thought I’d die while she ate that rice pudding”; “During the ice storm / We lost power five whole days. / Soon as they’d fix it, another limb would fall. / People suffered”). Taylor offers these other voices with irony, of course, but also suggests a different sort of captivity, to contemporary comforts and self-absorption.
Even in her earliest work, multiple voices compete in controlled polyphony. In “Sister,” two siblings “are ever strolling uphill to the old-house-place,” in a conversation that spans years and incorporates snatches of old quarrels and old songs:
When I was young, folks thought me pretty.
I took my charms up to the city. . . .
I didn’t like it there.
Oh, the poems Mamma burned in those days!
You made Mamma cry. Her tears fell in the dough . . .
I’m not well, that’s why. I told you so.
. . .
Lord, help me to be more humble in this world!
In that Great, Getting-up Morning, there will be another song!
Only line breaks cue the give-and-take of this interior conversation, which plays out in the simultaneity of dreamtime, where myths are born.
Individual lines and word choices also surprise and delight us with their unexpected aptness. A cattail gone to seed is “all silked out” a newborn poem arrives, “kicking iambic feet” “small green wheat” is seen “waverunning with the wind.” An adult speaker, homesick for her sister, announces, “I would have disfestooned my world” for “a cup of kettle-tea / And someone / To whom I could lie merrily.”
Often, Taylor seems to be having serious fun with her subjects and her language. In “Disappearing Act,” a recent poem, she asserts, half- (but only half-) playfully,
No, soul doesn’t leave the body.
My body is leaving my soul.
Tired of turning fried chicken and
coffee to muscle and excrement,
tired of secreting tears, wiping them,
tired of opening eyes on another day,
tired especially of that fleshy heart,
pumping, pumping. More,
that brain spinning nightmares.
disconnect, unplug, erase.
But here, I think, a smallish altercation
Soul seems to shake its fist.
Wants brain? Claims dreams and nightmares?
Maintains a codicil bequeaths it shares?
There’ll be a fight. A deadly struggle.
We know, of course, who’ll win. . . .
But who’s this, watching?
That closing question, wry and superficially whimsical, is characteristic of Taylor’s work. It signals the presence of a sharp-eyed inner editor keeping the poetic voice honest, reminding it—and us—of how little we can claim, or claim to know, with certainty. Taylor does not lack self-assurance as an artist, but it’s an assurance that operates against intellectual and artistic arrogance.
It’s hard, of course, to characterize Taylor’s work in its entirety. Yes, we can mention the wit, the intellectual honesty and clarity, the inventiveness and complexity, the combination of tough-mindedness and grace; but in considering the five decades of her published writing, we will always leave out some other essential quality. The one quality that should never be left out, however, is the absolute originality, the self-directedness of her poetry.
The last time I saw Eleanor Ross Taylor was in 2008 at her home in Charlottesville shortly before she moved into an assisted living facility. She was much frailer then than when we had talked six years earlier, but she was still taking a lively interest in poetry and the presidential campaign. Mary Flinn, my boss at Blackbird, was there, and so was Ellen Bryant Voigt, who was in Virginia to give a lecture the next night. I was a bit tongue-tied to be sitting (in the same room, at the same time!) with both Voigt and Taylor, but the conversation came around to the fact that this was the fortieth anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination, and we shared our memories of April 4, 1968.
My own memory was of the night after the shooting. The UNCG Arts Festival was going on again, and Peter Taylor had been invited back, this time as a distinguished visiting author. Rioting had started across town, and a curfew had been imposed, although attendees at the reading had special permission to be out. Taylor was clearly distressed. Before beginning his reading, he told the audience that he had to express his deep sorrow at King’s death and, with a breaking voice, the shame he felt that the assassination had taken place in his hometown, Memphis.
If Eleanor Ross Taylor was with him at the reading or the party afterwards, I cannot recall, and perhaps after forty years, neither could she.