Rift Zone, by Tess Taylor. Pasadena, California: Red Hen Press, April 2020. 112 pages. $16.95, paper.
Given the way history is inadequately taught throughout schools across the country, it’s safe to assume that it would be a challenge for anyone to recount at least a half-detailed history of their hometown. For 18 years, I never knew that Harlon Block Park in my hometown of Weslaco, Texas, was named after one of the young Marines who participated in the second flag-raising photograph on Mount Suribachi in Iwo Jima during World War II. There are many people with similar experiences as mine, and anytime one dives into the past there is a risk of revealing more than one bargained for. But when it’s examined with the present, and when it seeks to be understood on a level that it wasn’t before, you arrive at something akin to Rift Zone, Tess Taylor’s third poetry collection. Lyrical, elegiac, and always willing to unveil what lies beneath the surface, Rift Zone powerfully engages with the past and seeks to unveil the complicated histories behind the places we call home.
There are moments that define certain periods in our life, and yet, despite how intimately we think we know them, we are always left with more questions than answers. The Columbine school shooting left the nation worried about the safety of students in schools, and in recent years the plethora of school shootings have left politicians and citizens alike contemplating and debating the reasons behind such tragedies. Columbine occurred in 1999, but Taylor takes us to 1988 in “Sixth Grade, 1988,” and describes an incident that had the potential to be worse than the speaker remembers:
No one explained the reasons
Dana found that spring
to bring her brother’s gun to school,
triggers that led her to threaten
to shoot you bitches.
We were bubbly, by the morning glories—
hadn’t scattered different ways.
We were playing tetherball.
Sierra Burch’s thin legs running,
a shrill voice yelling
call the teacher.
In high-noon California sun
Dana’s palm was shaking—
her face tight with fear or anger.
What was an otherwise typical California afternoon during recess turns into a moment of panic, which the speaker, being so young, doesn’t fully understand. Thirty years later, she realizes that the gun drills that schools now have has not only transformed her memory of childhood, but the fundamental ways in which the country responds and copes with violence. This reflection creates a rupture that shakes how the speaker views the past, and although she ends with an image of “Dana smiling,” the reality is anything but joyful. We see the way this break is heightened later in “Once Again at Nonviolence Training, 2017,” where the speaker acknowledges what is required in this new world:
Because the white supremacists are coming
because the threat
& if you don’t who will
& you never know what baton what chemical
we are marching.
The threat of violence in all aspects of American life is real, and even though we shouldn’t accept it, we also shouldn’t become complacent. Every place that we’ve come to know (church, school, work, grocery store) has been changed, and for better or worse, Taylor recognizes how we have been forced to change with it.
Everything around us is in constant flux, even if we don’t immediately see it. This includes the places we make our home. Throughout the collection, Taylor highlights the vulnerability of our most intimate surroundings. From “California Suites IV. Escrow”:
In every sale, a list of ways
your home could be destroyed.
Flood, earthquake, fire.
Your house may end in mudslide,
be damaged by a rain of golf balls;
you may live downwind of poison breezes
off oil fields, refineries, or croplands.
You must assert you have
considered agricultural toxins; the risk
inherent in tectonic plates.
Signing on the dotted line allots you
a postcard plot of Golden State. Will
it be cancerous? God-willing
not to you.
In California, as well as in other parts of the country, the ground can be taken quite literally from under you, which is a risk inhabitants take to claim a piece of land as their own. Although not directly implied, there is also the lingering threat of climate change that exacerbates natural calamities (think of stronger hurricane seasons, nearly unstoppable forest fires, cities whose fates lie beneath rising waters). God-willing, we are spared, but unfortunately we know the mind of God as much as we know with certainty what tomorrow has planned for us.
Elsewhere, the change is gradual, although still as tragic. El Cerrito might be a small town, with a population of only 23,000, but it has a long history of change. It exists as a “little hill” at first, then turns into a land that many lay claim to, until it arrives at a rather modern and convenient scene. From “Song with Schist & County Line”:
They plunked a BART station down
on the lumberyard.
The racist codes lived on
in escrow files.
A few families did
return after interment.
Unbuilt lots still gape
Along the Avenue.
On the hill, the Lions
light their hot white cross at Christmas.
Beneath it now we all
can buy cheap wine at Trader Joe’s.
On the surface, everything is unquestionably as it’s supposed to be, but Taylor understands that there is far more to the families, streets, and buildings that make up the places we call home, and if we don’t challenge ourselves to peel back the layers that we have grown comfortable with, we merely accept the status quo.
There is no way to predict what will happen tomorrow, but to understand what came before us and what is happening now can prompt us to desire something more for the future—truth, reassurance, a certain amount of joy that wasn’t allowed to be experienced before. As the speaker reflects in “Berkley in the Nineties,” “We craved transcendental revelations, / the radical & burning future,” and although the speaker might not have achieved exactly this by the end of the collection, she has learned from what the past has to say, and we as readers have gained new perspectives on history, home, and how to navigate an ever-changing world.
Esteban Rodríguez is the author of Dusk & Dust (Hub City Press, 2019) and the micro-chapbook Soledad (Ghost City Press, 2019). His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in The Gettysburg Review, New England Review, Shenandoah, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. He lives with his family and teaches in Austin, Texas.