Every so often there is a book of poetry that reminds us how well verse can speak history. The Forage House by Tess Taylor is one of those time capsules. Taylor, who is also the author of The Misremembered World, is a white descendant of Thomas Jefferson. When genetic testing confirmed that our third president fathered two families separated by color, she sensed that she would eventually sculpt a book from the scandal.
This book’s great beauty is its use of quotation. Taylor quotes diaries, wills, and newspaper articles, and evokes the silence of those not allowed to speak. Taylor’s creativity with line breaks and blank spaces—like a wide left indent before describing Jefferson’s “family / / made of structured absence”—respectfully points to the gaps in what we can know or guess. “In May Whitcomb’s Letters” is a transcription of a censor-mutilated postcard from a POW camp; this explicit reference to censorship primes the reader to interpret the power structures behind the volume’s later silences—for instance, this litany of ignorance ending “Virginia Pars:” “Don’t speak of race. / The record’s scratched. I don’t recall. I never knew. / / Anyone who’d tell you’s dead. And: No one would tell you.”
Though it is comprised of poems, The Forage House is more of a complete work than a collection: it’s best when read straight through. On their own, the poems are visceral, densely detailed, and frequently playful (“She just loves her crazed tureen” and “Upstairs a woman practiced primal screams”). Read together, in order, the details are illuminated by context and gain historical sweep. For instance, on its own, “Crazy Quilt” describes the narrator’s grandmother piecing together found fabric. Seen among the other poems, it could read as Taylor’s own peculiar ars poetica: she patches quotations, blanks, and context into a carefully tessellated structure, “destroy[ing] each blessed thing she’s salvaged / to harvest it as her exploding star.” In “Domestic Economy, the narrator “briskly…urge[s]” a friend whose house is filled with “Improbable rubble— / phone bills pills photographs broken pens— / / her scattered islands” to “Throw it away.” The weight of her admonition resonates powerfully with the book’s themes of abandonment and forgetting—particularly Thomas Jefferson’s abandonment of half his family—and with the title of the book, which comes from its poem “Route 1 North, Woolwich Maine,” about a junk shop.
The Forage House may be full of old knick-knacks (that “crazed tureen,” “Confederate soldiers in your grandmother’s nook,” neon signs for adult bookstores) and crumbly documents, but it’s hardly a junk shop: it has more of the curated mood of a small museum. It will be available from Red Hen Press on August 20.