In her first book, Genevieve Taggard writes poems
recognizable in theme: they are poems of a young woman in a poetry community
where she finds few positive female examples for writing or being, yet wishes
to write from her experience as a woman, wife, and mother. Although I have
read disparaging comparisons of these lyric poems to those of Sara Teasdale,
Elinor Wylie, or Edna St. Vincent Millay, including those made by the poet
herself later in her life, I find key differences: Taggard is not a member
of the middle class during this period of her life, as Teasdale and Wylie
were; she is political and feminist, but her politics are not Ridge’s anarchism
or Millay’s flapper version of the “new woman”; she is well educated, with
a degree from UC Berkeley; she is a versifier, but she is not a particularly
fine sonneteer or notable epigrammatist.
In For Eager Lovers, Taggard genericized
her unhappy relationship to Robert L. Wolf in a series of poems where a female
speaker alternately pleads to see the beloved / lover and begs to be left
alone, “Married,” “Leave Me Alone a Little,” “Black Laughter,” “The Quiet
Woman,” and “Unacknowledged Dedication” among them. Marital discord is depicted;
phrases including “thick vowels,” “black laughter,” and “words too thick to
say” are used in different poems to indicate words spoken in anger. In “Black
Laughter,” she writes:
See what a cripple our love is!
It is sullen; sometimes it makes walls of black laughter;
It is fond of words, fond of thick vowels,
It mimics thunder.
Between us it limps…
In the poem which follows “Black Laughter” in the
collection, “The Quiet Woman,” she seems to describe a woman having nonconsensual
sex: “If you knew…” how the narrator thought and felt, “You would not lean
. . . to kiss my body, quivering and cold.” In “Little Hamlet,” she switches
Over you, over you, over,
I hang like a wave, like a lover,
Like a scimitar edged with hate. . .
For Eager Lovers is, among other things,
a warning to young women. In the poems, Taggard does not show only romanticism
and the personal, as do Wylie and Teasdale. She is not interested in showing
the “suffering of love,” but rather, the ways in which personal or emotional
suffering imperils a woman writer. While For Eager Lovers is dedicated
to her then-husband, she writes, in “Unacknowledged Dedication,”
These were his songs. Now he has broken them.
All he has made, that he has also slain;
Seeing my beauty budding, broke the
stem . . .
Taggard’s first husband, Robert L. Wolf, was a poet
who never published a book of poetry. By contrast, during the period the
poems in For Eager Lovers were written, Taggard worked for a major
publisher of poetry in New York (Huebsch, which published Lola Ridge, among
others) and was a founding editor of a well-known journal, Measure.
Wolf seems to have been ambivalent about parenthood; Taggard supported the
small family so that he could write.
The poem “Everyday Alchemy,” one of the two Taggard
chose to reprint in Calling Western Union, to give the poem an impersonally
political context instead of the personal and political one here, is a poem
in which Taggard defines her metaphysic. Because Taggard edited an anthology
of metaphysical-influenced verse and was the first to argue that Emily Dickinson
was a latter-day metaphysical poet, critics suggest that Taggard was influenced
by the metaphysicals. Taggard explicitly uses John Donne’s extended metaphor
and unusual imagery in his love poems in For Eager Lovers. In “Everyday
Alchemy,” she sets out the binary relationship between nature and “worn men”
who will never know nature.
. . . There
Is all the meager peace men get—no otherwhere;
No mountain space, no tree with placid leaves,
Or heavy gloom beneath a young girl's hair,
No sound of valley bell on autumn air,
Or room made home with doves along the eves . . .
Nature has peace. Women can create peace, but not
for themselves. Men cannot know the peace of nature or create peace. In
“Ice Age,” in which Taggard extends her rhymed lyric across several pages,
she imagines a future ice age that will destroy the abundant and always tropical
and Hawaiian nature which is her moral good. In this cold dystopia, only
“singing” matters. As in “Everyday Alchemy,” men are the singers, but only
worn women can create, and only a little bit, and this creation ultimately
saps their strength:
Men will go on
Making vague love, kissing wan faces.
Trying to make
Children with women . . .
The poems in the pamphlet Hawaiian Hilltop,
published a year after For Eager Lovers, continue to develop these
ideas. Although Taggard does not identify either gender with nature, she
sets men in binary opposition to nature while she represents women and children
interacting with nature’s bounty.
Motherhood, in Taggard’s view, is embedded in the
fecundity of nature and the necessary communality of marriage. In “With Child,”
she identifies the period of pregnancy as one during which her body, not her
desiring self, is associated with nature, while her fetus, not her body, is
associated with beauty. The poem begins as Taggard distinguishes herself
from standards of beauty:
Now I am slow and placid, fond of sun,
Like a sick beast, or a worn one:
No slim and languid girl . . .
In the center of the poem, she carefully delineates
her relationship to nature and to the child:
Earth’s urge, not mine – my little death,
And the pure beauty yearns and stirs
. . .
It is important to note that, as on the page, in
life she never seems to have shirked her responsibilities as a mother. She
depicts the economic effects and social ramifications of childbearing and
rearing in her writing, but she always writes positively about and for children
of both sexes.
After Wolf was institutionalized and the couple
divorced, Taggard remarried. It is not until this remarriage, to an American
working for Tass, that Taggard became middle class, with teaching jobs at
small liberal arts colleges and a farm in Vermont to use during vacation periods.
Taggard displays a great deal of tendentious sympathy for working poor and
poor blue collar workers, as well as for urban immigrant women, but quite
little for the rural poor whites and white collar working class people of
her own experience.
* * *
There are three “girl poems” in For Eager Lovers:
“Tropical Girl to Her Garden,” “The Enamel Girl,” and “Tired Girl.” This
type of descriptive lyric of a part-icon, part-muse, part-self is fairly common
to find in twentieth century first books of poetry by women. This type of
poem represents an attempt to objectify poetry itself. However, the Lady
of Shalott, Laura, or any number of other female muses / female stand-ins
for poetry itself in poetry written by men are almost “ready mades” in terms
of objectification. When a woman is the poet, the objectified woman is an
aspect of self as well as a muse or poetry. This figure is most often a “girl”
– younger, dumb/mute or less intelligent, and less experienced – partially
because she is objectified. In some respect, these figures of Taggard’s are
her children – creations, and she is mothering these aspects of herself; she
very clearly repeats in the poems that it is men who “sing,” “name,” or write
poems – while the collection includes “song” poems with refrains and choruses,
most of her poems create worlds or instruct rather than identify or describe.
In “Tropical Girl to Her Garden,” the girl is nature,
speaking against cultivation. While the Hawaiian girls in the poems in Hawaiian
Hilltop are native “others,” this girl is an “I,” the narrator:
Withhold your hand!
My boughs are bent with gold . . .
. . .
My heavy fruit will fall without a touch
Only by speaking as nature can Taggard, as a human,
relate to nature, and only a woman, in her view, could relate to nature.
In “Enamel Girl,” Taggard discusses beauty and artifice. The girl who speaks
is afraid of beauty, which is always outside or “other” for a female. She
would be a fragile object among fragile objects, except that she has learned
she has power to destroy beauty. The “you” – addressee, lover, reader – has
taught her to fear her power:
. . .
. . . I wound a wing
With one caress, with one kiss
Break most fragile ecstasies . . .
Now terror touches me when I
Dream I am touching a butterfly.
and to fear poetry-writing. In “Tired Girl,” the
girl is in the third person. The narrator is asking nature to let the girl
rest or die (recalling the saying, “you can sleep when you’re dead”) so that,
reborn, she can become a woman like those in “Everyday Alchemy,” who, while
tired, can create “peace” for men, and also write:
After she ponders under silent hills,
Beneath your swarming bosom, Mother Earth,
She will have words for her beloved one.
The girl poems contain the same metaphysical meanings
Taggard began to develop in this first book and continued to develop throughout
her career. They display some of Taggard’s struggles to write as a female
poet with few female poet forebears as well as her struggles as a working
mother. She struggles not to romanticize her experiences. She addresses
different audiences in different poems. She attempts various forms of address
and depiction as she searches for a form and content beyond male standards
of “beauty” and civilization’s association of women with natural beauty and
untutored artifice. The poems are political and feminist, but they are also