“Plastic Ecologies, Plastic Lives: Sam Taylor’s THE BOOK OF FOOLS” by Patrick Thomas Henry

In his new hybrid-form collection The Book of Fools: An Essay in Memoir and Verse, Sam Taylor charts an eco-poetics that frames the remote atolls of the self against the present calamities of climate change. Taylor’s tools for this creative cartography are found forms, lyrical essays, visual experiments, and the accumulated detritus of culture, from antiquity to present. With invocations of the Orpheus myth, re-imaginings of Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse, elegiac meditations on grief and loss, and besmirched pastorals mourning the plastic-clogged oceans, this collection crafts a literary diorama from the firm stuff of poetic form, the familiar templates of myth, and the flexible bindings of language. In this environment, the past and present and future, ourselves and our others, co-exist in catastrophe and loss.

Taylor’s meditations on grief, the death of his mother, and the perils of pollution and climate change magnetize and orient this collection. Rather than foreground this conventional territory, though, Taylor instead signals that we’re in the midst of a crisis of representation. Our existing literary forms aren’t up to the task of depicting the ravages of climate change. The collection’s first poem, entitled “Journey,” sets the terms of engagement:

When I entered the room, it was like entering a painting: It was widely known that there were problems with the lyric, as it might be known there were problems with a marriage.

The strikethroughs are just one of Taylor’s formal ploys in this collection, inviting multiple readings of the same poem: we simultaneously enter a room, a painting, a lyric, a charged personal encounter, and an abstract rumination on form. This formatting recurs in numerous later poems, as evidence of the collection’s interest in revising (and rediscovering) the self.

Yet, “Journey” accomplishes more than a mere sign-posting of Taylor’s formal play. The struck-through sentence sutures lived movements, prosody, and the visual arts. The statement also performs a bit of poetic sleight-of-hand: this editorial strike elides the poem’s speaker, misdirects our attention to the formal limitations of the lyric, and likens our awareness of the lyric’s faults to the low-key awareness that a marriage is on the rocks. (From that crossed-out “I,” we might also suspect that this is the speaker’s indirect way of confronting the lyric and the marriage simultaneously.)

In this poem, as in the ecosystem rendered in Taylor’s book, the self, the lyric, mythology, art, and the natural world co-exist on the same fragile web of meaning, possibility, and precarity. For Taylor, this storm front of potential and conflict converges around a single word, which is both abstraction and material thing: plastic. In a lyric essay entitled “Intermission, and While Some Go to the Bathroom, a Short Lecture on Plastic,” the collection muses over the aesthetic and ecological hazard of plastic. Part etymology, part free association, and part rumination on the divine, the essay traces the term “plastic” from its origins in the Greek gods’ ability to manufacture humankind from clay, to its deployment in the “plastic arts” practiced by painters and sculptors, and lastly to its co-opting by capitalists. Ultimately, Taylor concludes that

The lyric is a plastic mode, but it is not made of plastic. It is made out of feeling, language, and the things of the world. It is made out of God’s heart, which we are eating, in a particular moment and always. A lyric does not tell the story of what happened, [. . .] because what happened is plastic in the hands of memory.

The structure of that lyric essay—and others in the collection, like the “Fools’ Guide to Orpheus (I-IV)”—is reminiscent of the trenchant, sharp social criticism conducted in the lyric essays in Paisley Rekdal’s Nightingale or Claudia Rankine’s Citizen. Similar to the moves in those collections, Taylor also turns to more conventional lyric forms to confront the possibilities and poisons of plastic. In a pair of rhetorical questions, “Aesthetics as a Matter of Life and Death” meditates on abstractions and bodily experiences by likening the span of a “man’s shadow” to a “clinging like plastic wrap / over the land.” The poem then invokes the image of an albatross feeding its hatchlings: the albatross “brought the bright morsels / of sea surf to her child’s / beak, and the baby, obedient, / squawking, swallowed, and was filled / permanently, a plastic Byzantium.” The line breaks here momentarily disrupt the image of the hatchling in its nest, leveraging the word “child” to amplify our response. By the poem’s close, Taylor has invited us to feel empathy for the albatrosses and their chicks, and to feel remorse for the plastic pollution choking the oceans: in feeding their young the residue of our fabricated “plastic Byzantium,” ocean birds and marine animals literally ingest the artifacts of our vainglorious, capitalist world.

Other poems, like “Plastic Is a Plastic Rhyme for Anything” and “Dancing of Our Own Erasure,” similarly mirror the creative potential of the “plastic arts” against the destructive capabilities of modernity. In the midst of such poems, Taylor also reminds us alike that the lyrical form is most potent when we embrace not only the lyric’s plasticity, but the protean qualities of all artistic modes.

For instance, the collection includes five untitled, reconstructed dialogues between Taylor and his mother, each of which is printed upside down. Taking in these poems requires a touch of malleability on our part: we must either decipher the inverted conversation, or flip the physical book over. Alongside the aforementioned use of elided text, the poems in The Book of Fools incorporate text that fades from a sea-bleached gray to bold-faced type, found forms, lists, prose poems, and even a few ASCII-style characters constructed of punctuation marks. (It’s not difficult to alter our relationship with forms and how we interpret them, Taylor seems to suggest, but it requires that we be elastic enough to do so.) It would be fair to liken Taylor’s use of the page not to the canvas or a “visual field,” but a touch screen—tactile, smudged with fingerprints, better because it’s been tapped and toggled repeatedly.

Taylor has applied the same, finger-touch precision to his renderings of Picasso and Matisse. In recasting these painters, it would seem that Taylor is aware of the quality that the modernist art critic Roger Fry, in his volume Vision and Design, attributed to Matisse: the “power” of “a peculiarly synthetic vision and a peculiar system of distortion, without which the outline would arrest the movement of planes too definitely.” Taylor’s Matisse presents a similar verve, directing us to ignore the crisis of representation and to experience the “line, form, and colors.” Taylor’s Picasso becomes an Orpheus with a paintbrush, capable of entering and leaving hell; in other instances, as in the persona poem “Picasso,” the painter grapples with the elastic nature of truth and meaning:

This painting, Woman Eating Sea Urchins, is no longer true. At the time, I erased the woman and left the urchins, but the urchins are no longer there. I will repaint her without sea urchins, without a sea. I will paint two urchins and a credit card.

Reproduction, fleeting truths, malleable and unstable forms: this Picasso allows the collection to exhibit—simultaneously—awe at a loved one’s presence and the sharp pangs of their absence from our lives.

Taylor’s new lexicon of the plastic arts tinkers even mythological figures, to pluck at the same emotional strings. The Furies compose lines for mothers and sons, in direct dialogue with Taylor’s own losses. Several of the poems riff off the figures frozen on pottery in John Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” or pit Orpheus against the plastic clogging our wallets and our daily lives—Visa cards, billboards, bottles, and more. In “The Late Style of Orpheus,” the eponymous musician takes his lyre to a “sea shanty, / a two-piece reggae band playing ‘No Woman, No Cry.’” The gods select Poseidon to haul Orpheus back, and Orpheus takes the opportunity to troll Poseidon: “How is your ocean doing?” inquires Orpheus. “You know what I really love? Cereal boxes. Shampoo bottles.” Christian theology is not exempt from this treatment. The poem, “If You Find Some Shard of Lost Knowledge Write It Down. / If You Find It Written Down, Bury It,” welds the narrative of Christ’s birth and the Holy Trinity to the tropes of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, so as to investigate the bonds between mothers and sons.

Not surprisingly, Taylor’s charismatic and evocative trek through the physical and artistic landscapes reaches its emotional apex in the poems in which Taylor’s poetic persona engages with the memory of his mother. “Portrait of a Woman Gazing at the Sea,” for instance, tethers the environmental message to a shared visit to the beach. After invoking Picasso, Matisse, and Monet, the poem frames the view from inside the car as “glass diagonally bisected / by the shoreline [. . .] / read by inveterate gulls.” This, of course, recalls the albatrosses from “Aesthetics as a Matter of Life and Death,” the tension of caretaking, the question of what parents and children know about each other. The poem drives this uncertainty in attempting to render the mother’s face: “nearly photographic, her freckled look- / ing out, not quite forlorn, more pedigreed / in depth, more amphibious than words.”

Embedded in the book’s concern over plastic is a passionate keening for the earth—and the lives—lost to the creep of plastic and the consequences of our impulsive desire to manufacture in this medium. (Indeed, it’s difficult to read Taylor and not think of Rachel Carson’s meticulous, lyrical analysis of DDT’s effects on the ecosystem in Silent Spring.) What The Book of Fools adds to our present discussion of climate change and climate literature is, though, an essential reminder that the present catastrophe is neither distant nor abstract, but that it has permeated the membranes of every cell in our bodies, every relationship in our lives, and every mode of representation with which we can document this fraught moment in history.

The Book of Fools, by Sam Taylor. Mobile, Alabama: Negative Capability Press, October 2021. 162 pages. $24.00, paper.

Patrick Thomas Henry is the fiction and poetry editor at Modern Language Studies. His fiction and essays have recently appeared in West Branch WiredLandLockedNorth Dakota Quarterly, and the Massachusetts Review, among others. He teaches creative writing at the University of North Dakota. You can find him online at patrickthomashenry.com or on Twitter @Patrick_T_Henry.

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