Broadstone Books, 2023
104 pages, $18.50
Review by Myra Malkin
The Last Train is Mervyn Taylor’s ninth collection of poetry. The more I read him, the more I feel that his whole body of work is really one book, a single, richly variegated poem. That single poem is like the giant shade tree in “Another Part of the World” (from an earlier book, Voices Carry): the samaan, or rain tree, that “spreads / and spreads. . . till we all can fit in its shade.”
There are relatively few poems about the poet, you think at first, few descriptions of his feelings. In “Beginning Again,” we see him seeing himself: “me, at an upstairs window, watering / plants, pulling a page that has gotten / stuck in the printer.” Then you see that his feelings are filtered through the rich world around him: landscapes, objects, the people with whom he shares “a common place,” and the people whose “voices carry.” He says in “The Years”: “I brought you to see where we / started from . . . . Would you / like to hear all their stories?” Sometimes he writes about poets—whose readings are always interrupted by rambunctious life, as in “Reading in Bars”:
. . . a near-naked girl
danced on the bar, while in a
backroom, we waited for them
to turn down the music. Every
time the door swung open, there
were her legs, lifted to the ceiling.
Derek Walcott once said of Taylor’s poetry: “always the precision of trying to know exactly what is being experienced and the meaning of that knowledge.” Much of the feeling in these poems has to do with pleasure (friends, love, words, skies), but also with the ephemerality of that pleasure. He goes back and forth between Trinidad and New York, his home-places, and, either way, the journey is both a departure from home and a return, a rehearsal in its way for grief, aging, and death. Coming back—to scenes that have stayed the same, to people who are still, amazingly, there. Coming back—to find that buildings and people have metamorphosed—or vanished. In “The Years,” we hear:
look slightly away, as if not to
let me see how the wind turned them
while I was gone.
He describes a distance that vivifies, a vividness that distances, that undoes the perfunctoriness of ordinary looking. In a poem about his father’s death, “My Father’s Last Night,” the last line is: “His hands / on the bedspread waited to be still.” In a twelve-line poem, “Canticle,” there is a brown heifer in the first stanza. The last stanza returns to this image, in a way that makes the poem’s straightforward night feel hallucinatory: “Out on the road, a car / sings by, its lights / picking up the cow, which / has grown tremendous.”
It is other people who seem to press hardest on his feelings. He describes people with a tender unsparingness, with a feel for the garment or gesture or turn of phrase that encapsulates someone. In “The Poet Plays Pool,” the speaker and his friend stop at a little bar where there are no balls to go with the pool table. The friend explains the game and mimes difficult shots. Then they leave and the car won’t start. “Putt-putt, the children tease, putt-putt.” The friend loses his temper and “curses the barmaid—Mum, / how come these damn /cues have no tips?”
Many of the poems have the punch of a sudden memory or joke. It is as if the scenes Taylor describes were akin to the amulet-like objects we keep around us: photos we thumbtack on the wall, or a carved animal someone gave us. A poem that in terms of “plot” seems simple or anecdotal may have surprising force. The background is the flux of everyday life—but the people on the stage of these poems, like people who have died, have a new absoluteness: this is how you should have seen them when they were across the room from you, when you could feast your eyes upon them.
In the middle section of the book, Taylor takes us to Jamaica, where friends live, where Anthony McNeill was from, the poet-friend to whom the book is dedicated. In these poems there are seductive place names, but we rarely see things from a tourist’s perspective. We experience the in-between moments: friends’ interactions, car troubles, upset stomachs, delays. Little particulars, moments that loom large to us as we live them, but which normally get replaced in our memories by generalized snapshots. “Goshen” records a not-for-a-postcard incident of travel: “In the bar four men played mento, / the music from which calypso / derived. I was sick from all that / pepper shrimp in Negril.”
Throughout his book, the language is conversational, but underneath the clarity and directness there are pentameters, trimeters, and ballad meters—which mostly don’t align with particular single lines. That strong underlying rhythm contributes to the poems’ musicality.
Although the book is full of quotidian events (meals, the barber shop, the prostate doctor, parties), there is no dearth of larger darknesses. There are references to a fire in the Bronx, disaster in Haiti, the deaths of Daunte Wright and George Floyd. Those larger events are experienced as personal, as if the ones who died should have been under the samaan and didn’t get to be, or didn’t get to stay there. Even in idyllic places, darkness is there at the edge. In “Montego Bay,” he says: “We burned / ourselves brown / that day, the wreck /of a vehicle /on the white sand / reflected in the hotel’s / windows and / in your eyes.” Every act of violence is an act against all, as in “Aripo Heights”:
where the brassy smell of snakes
warns which path not to take coming
down the mountain, while killers
pass with another soul they tortured,
flinging her remains off the edge
of our world, our common place.
In an earlier book, Country of Warm Snow, a poem speaks of “our money-god the last to come, the one who /called for children to be put in cages, that un-god,” and heartbreakingly contrasts “the other god we meant, the one/ who fixes what we break.”
It is hard to stop quoting. I will end with a poem called “Method to His”:
Your brother typed
on a typewriter
with no ribbon,
a sheet of carbon
to see the words
which were blue
Myra Malkin is the author of No Lifeguard on Duty (Main Street Rag, 2010) and Sunset Grand Couturier (Broadstone Books, 2022).