The Blood of a Tourist, by William Taylor Jr.


The Blood of a Tourist, by William Taylor Jr., is a relentless collection of poetry. Set decisively in the Tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco, California, the work captures the free-floating, existential angst most of us feel, hopefully infrequently, and cages it between two covers in forty-seven poems. We know we’re in trouble from the outset and intuit that this is not the sort of book we should read in one sitting—but we do.

The first poem in the collection, “The People You Try Not to Look At,” begins with the inclusive “you” and the “terror” of living:

Most everyone knows the terror
more than they will say

we’ve made a collective decision
not to speak of it

except in books
and poems

and other things we
cast aside

The “terror” is the basis for the fatalism we hear in most of the poems. Fatalism—acceptance, conviction—it is a sense that nothing will change, that the Tenderloin is one of the circles of Hell, and that we all have our own circle. From “The Dead and Living Alike”:

Last night they found a woman
tuffed in a suitcase drifting
in the San Francisco Bay.

I read the news
and consider the underlying
terror of life,

how it comes crashing like a wave,
pouring through the cracks
of our petty dreams

when we least expect;

The poem “The Things That Frighten Me” takes on the fundamental optimism of writing poetry, of art in general, relegating it to a merely defensive gesture:

She says your poems don’t
make you holy

they absolve you
of no crimes

they don’t make you beautiful
or clean

you’re just as bad
as the rest of us

just as ugly
in the mirror

just as mean

your poems
are just places to hide
from the things that frighten you

The poems move from “terror” to a certain numbness. “Things fall apart” daily it seems. From “Song at the End of an Empty Day”: “We watch things fall apart / through dirty windows / on abandoned afternoons.” It’s a Yeatsian doom incrementally realized.

The poems are full of an interesting futility in the streets and bars and bedrooms of this particular representation of life. “Lives Like Landfills” is just one of many poems that speak of helplessness in the face of a collective fate:

She lies on the bed and cries;
she tells me she is broken.

I understand
but don’t know what to do.

I suppose it’s like this

lives like landfills
of disappoints and regrets.

In “Here with the Rest of Them,” the speaker, in a bar at the corner of Turk and Taylor, “maybe you know it,” is offered heroin by a junkie because he looks the type:

I shrug and I smile
and guess maybe I do,
because I’m here
with the rest of them,

here on a Wednesday afternoon
in this place where life
is turned away at the door

and death just can’t
be bothered.

The only poem to mention an influence, “The Postcard (after reading Paul Bowles’s The Sheltering Sky),” shows a predictable understanding of Kit’s situation at the end of the novel:

At some point you realize
you’ve been gone too far
for too long
and you understand
there’s no way back

and you write this on a postcard
and you give it to a man
but cannot tell him
where you want it
to be sent

you hear the tiny clicks
of all the doors
that close behind you

one by one

Of course, in Kit’s case it’s a telegram, but where would we go these days to send a telegram? And in any case, the self-knowledge, the inevitable defeat, forced on us by the “you” in the poem, takes its toll. The sky is a frequent image in this collection: here “enormous,” there “heavy,” usually with an “indifferent” sun.

Unrelenting, dogged fatalism. Within this meaningless view of existence, however, Taylor’s speaker uses three temporary remedies: beauty, alcohol, and music. The speaker derives satisfaction, as well, from not deluding himself, but certainly resorts to these three for brief, recurring meaning. From “A Certain Light”:

In a certain light we may yet
be mistaken for beauty

and on such nights

the collective sorrow of the years
reflected in your eyes

still makes me swoon
like a drunken child.

Drinking, mostly wine, pervades the book. Traditionally the most immediate and perhaps the most durable answer to the futility of existence, alcohol plays a major, if subtle, role in these poems. Bars in the Tenderloin are recurring settings. From “You Sad Ghosts of Poets”:

I drink in an old
North Beach bar
surrounded by you
sad ghosts of poets

all your faded faces
staring from old newspaper
pages framed upon the walls

But drinking is not just for bars; it is also a viable answer. From “All We’ve Simply Thrown Away”:

The wine does what it can
but the sadness in our blood
is older than time.

Our damage shines best
in these small hours

and this is the beauty I want to remember.

While the title poem, “The Blood of a Tourist,” does not represent a major note in the collection, the identity of “tourist” adds another riff of failure to the speaker’s existence:

My silence brands me complicit,

ashamed I was never equal
to the blue of your eyes;

with the cold blood of a tourist,
I could only look away.

Tourists are not well thought of here. From “To Escape the Heavy Sky”:

death is driving every cab
and pushing every shopping cart

disguised as blank-faced tourists
on double-decker buses

and you go underground
to escape the heavy sky

Not all of the poems in this collection work, but they all contribute something to the whole. It is difficult to populate a book where every poem is as memorable as “Wounded Horses” or “The Virus” or “All Worn Out with Trying,” but Taylor has made a commendable effort.

We could call Taylor’s speaker jaded, but it’s more than that. He’s fatalistic; he has accepted the world as he sees it and copes with life with the few elements in which he finds value. This speaker is authentic and has no interest in moving away to become a tourist in his own right.

The Blood of a Tourist, by William Taylor Jr. Buffalo, New York: sunnyoutside, November 2014. $13.00, paper.

Douglas K. Currier is a poet and a former college professor who has published work in the past in a number of journals and reviews. His work appears in the anthology, Onion River: Six Vermont Poets (Book Rack, 1997). His reviews have appeared the Harvard Review and various publications in Vermont. He lives in Burlington, Vermont.

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