This is William Taylor Jr’s third collection of poetry and his first published by Canada’s Epic Rites Press. The slim volume consists of forty poems some of which have previously appeared in small press publications such as Red Fez, Tree Killer Ink, Rusty Truck, Alternative Reel and others. This is a tight and highly unified collection of emotionally mature and deeply poignant poems.
Like Taylor’s earlier work, the poems are typically first person, confessional free verse narratives. His tone is highly conversational, and in several of these poems, we walk beside the speaker as he wanders around the back streets and cafes and bars, usually in the Tenderloin area of San Francisco where Taylor lives. The poet’s solitary meanderings often provoke deep meditations on the nature of existence and on his search for meaning- on what lies ‘at the core of things’.
The title of the book Broken When We Got Here suggests to the reader that the world was already stuffed up before Taylor and his generation arrived. Taylor is not trying to fix anything, he is simply trying to reflect on what he can learn from his experiences, to help him to continue on, despite the pervading stench of loneliness, sadness and despair he sees in the world.
The cover artwork is by Julie Sparenberg and features a close-up of dilapidated door, presumably the door leading to Taylor’s “bare little room.” The title poem interestingly appears on the back cover of the book and provides the reader with a sniff of what to expect in the collection. The poet expresses a sense of astonishment that his life has herded him “like a sad animal/ to a cattle car/ with little protest” to a room “with no space to move” and which opens to a world he does not “want to go”.
Taylor cleverly uses second person in the poem (and several others) to allow his readers to step into his world to enable them to empathize with his suffering and his general feelings of helplessness and revolt:
BROKEN WHEN WE GOT HERE
And you find yourself in this place
this bare little room
with no space to move
and a single door
leading somewhere you don’t want to go.
The days and the years have pushed
and prodded you here
like a sad animal
to a cattle car
with little protest.
It happened so suddenly,
you always imagined yourself
for such a fate.
But now you are here
and the ceiling looms
with no time left.
It seems rather late
to be thinking of escape,
but there must be a way.
(reprinted with the permission of the publisher)
In this poem, Taylor makes the realisation that he is a victim of the system but he openly admits he has been complicit in the chipping away of his own freedom. He allows us a glimmer of hope in the last line of the poem, with his aside that “there must be a way” to escape the restrictions of our fate which has surprisingly snuck up to us over time. The tone is uncertain and Taylor clearly has no answers. As you read further into the collection, many of the poems are about Taylor emerging from the confines of his room to actively seek out in his community the subtle shades of light and beauty which will enrich and transform his life.
In ‘Saturday Night, Small Apartment in the Tenderloin’ Taylor suggests that despite our very best efforts, we cannot escape from what politicians and other social engineers have designed for us. They will “cast us out/ of any soft place/ we’ve found to hide.” In ‘If We Let Them’, perhaps the most politically charged poem in the collection, he defiantly states that, “Those who own the world” will “do their best to convince us/ there is no magic // left in the world.” He appeals to the reader that this snuffing out of our personal freedoms by the powers-that-be must not be tolerated and needs to be challenged, “There is so little time to discover what it is/ to be alive/ if we let them.”
All Taylor, or most of us really wants, is a slice of freedom where we are allowed the space to think deeply about why we are here and for what purpose. This search for meaning for Taylor is ongoing and highly improvisational and full of false leads and agonising self doubts. In ‘The Thing That Hurts Most’, for example, he expresses a paradoxical desire to hold “on to everything” while simultaneously wanting “to dissolve the anchors and the chains” of his being.
Taylor’s intention in putting together Broken When We Got Here is perhaps made explicit in the opening and concluding poems of the collection. In ‘When We Try And Do Something Beautiful’, as in the crafting of his poetry, he compares it to “holding a fading sparkler”… “on an endless/ ocean of dark” knowing the euphoria of the experience, “won’t last/ very long.”
In the last poem ‘The Only Word’, Taylor writes that “even now the sadness/ can be pretty” and in a transcendental moment, as the sun sinks behind “an old grey building”, he feels redeemed, rewarded for his persistence to hang on: “in an instant life and everything/ feels suddenly like it’s been/ worth it all along and you can/ taste the moment/ on your tongue like candy.” The moment is fleeting for Taylor but it gives him, and hopefully his readers, the strength to carry on.
A central motif in the collection which is explicitly stated in ‘That Precious Dream of Something’ is that existence is a mixture of joy and despair and despite the terror of the void we “still... continue/ spellbound// by that precious/ dream/ of something/ beyond.”
In ‘Alive In The Midst Of It’, Taylor furthers this stoical optimism. On a lazy Sunday afternoon he thinks about his wife and cat as she stares out a window onto the street, “we suffer through so much/ to arrive at these fleeting moments/ of quiet joy// understanding/ in spite of everything. It’s a fair enough/ arrangement/ after all.”
In the more powerful poem ‘Souvenirs’ Taylor states that he is unsure whether “if it be joy or sorrow/ that waits/ at the core of things”. He only knows “that life is sometimes gentle/ in-between the meaner times.” The poem profoundly concludes:
there is horror to be sure,
but the sunlight never ceases to be glorious
and has infinite stories to tell.
In this vast and terrible darkness there are
flashes of beauty and grace.
If nothing else, they will make
to carry with us back home
to the void.
Taylor’s world appears to be coloured by a pervading sense of sadness and a deep inner loneliness- that “pure diamond” which “waits at the core of all things” (‘Even In Our Dreams’). Yet despite the despair of having to stare down the darkness of “the void,” it is the “unexpected magic” of light and music in our lives which enables him to continue.
In ‘And Now Awake’ the speaker awakens after a ‘long night’ of dreaming of death. He is temporarily disturbed but his mood lifts as he observes his cat asleep in the other room. Reminiscent of the English poet Philip Larkin, he is mesmerized and transformed by the play of light across the sky: “And through the open window/ the San Francisco sky, such a glorious/ shade of grey!”
Similarly, in ‘Tiny Moments of Light’ the speaker enters a bar full of old men on a Wednesday afternoon and joyfully watches a young woman dancing to jukebox songs. She dances “with a joy that proves/ some kind of beauty/ still exists/ in spite of everything.” The old men watch her and gratefully smile “thankful for unexpected magic// and tiny/ moments of light.”
This vision of transcendental magic is tempered with more sophisticated and complex images as in ‘The Fish Truck’ where the poet watches a truck transfer “fish of many sizes/ and colors” into roadside buckets. For a brief moment he understands his life and that of his fellow human beings with clarity, compassion and common sense: “I stand and watch/ and think,// this is how it is/ with all of us.// And the feeling/ is not exactly sorrow,// but more an acknowledgement/ of ordinary suffering, a general helplessness/ and a knowing there is nothing/ else to do but continue/ on my way// to wherever it is/ I think I am going.”
In Broken When We Got Here Taylor presents an essentially humanist message. In ‘As Magic As Anything’ he writes, “Jesus is not here/ to save you// anymore/ than the bartenders/ or the politicians,// any more than/ the drug peddlers/ or the girls in magazines.” In the key poem ‘As Magic As Anything’ Taylor asks us “to look to the indifferent sky” and to take his hand to embrace the “terrible freedom” given to us: “ it’s as magic as anything,/ as empty and as beautiful.” In one of the last poems in the collection, ‘Something Other Than Death', the speaker makes the realization that he is being killed "bit by bit" by a system which offers him little choice. The trick, he concludes, is “to convince ourselves// we are working towards/ something other than death”, to make us feel “that our time has not been/ wasted.”
For Taylor, singing is a spontaneous outpouring of the soul. He believes that most of us are too afraid to sing, too afraid to express our underlying emotions and opinions because we are trapped within this world which has been largely manufactured for us. Music as a symbol of creativity and spontaneous joy often appears in his work.
In ‘As If Life Were Never Born’ Taylor expresses a disquieting sadness as he wanders through the hard streets of San Francisco, “Every face I meet, looking/ as if life were never born;// the music of existence/ everywhere// and no singing!” In contrast, in ‘Cassette Tapes’, Taylor recalls an iconic incident from his youth in Bakersfield, California in which he sits in his car with a friend and they drink and sing together. The poem ends on a fatalistic but ironically defiant note: “we already knew that life/ wouldn’t hold/ much else/ for us than this/ and that just made us sing/ all the more.”
In ‘The Music In It’ the motif of music is further explored. The speaker openly admits that “it’s not been / much of a day” and “all grand things remain/ undone” but he has found a new café and has sat and observed people throughout the day. After a few pints he feels less angry and more at peace. He concludes: “The sky is soft/ and hints of rain; // it feels good to breathe it/ in and out. // Maybe there’s a poem here, after all.//It’s not been much of a day,/ but it’s good to find the music in it.”
More compelling is the poem ‘Even In This’ in which Taylor expresses a weary disillusionment and frustration not only in his life but in the "futile gesture" of writing poetry "in the name of beauty." Taylor concludes optimistically, that deep inside of him, within us, “there’s still a music/ worth hearing- even is this”- his poem- & we need to make the effort to consciously seek it out.
EVEN IN THIS
For RAY MCLAUGHLIN
The minutes are heavy things
sent to crush us with their weight.
The hours are a thick dark water
born to pull us down.
The days are frustratingly
useless, one much like another
with no end in sight.
We strain to hear the music
but can’t get our heads,
our hands or our hearts
The city made of concrete and
the people haunt it like ghosts.
Whatever love we’ve salvaged
feels forced and unreal,
like something sold to us,
like something we were told to buy.
We wonder if victory can exist
in the face of this;
yet even now
a part of me believes
in the nobility
of every futile gesture
made in the name of beauty.
Even now a part of me believes
that somewhere deep
within the belly of this
there’s still a music
even in this.
(reprinted with the permission of the publisher)
This is a slim book full of condensed wisdom. Taylor’s San Francisco wanderings have provided the catalyst for his considered contemporary humanist take on existence. The poems are acutely observational laments and emerge as a practical response to his street experiences rather than being overtly theoretical or didactic in scope. In my well- thumbed copy of Broken When We Got Here, the poems characteristically tread the fine line between the crushing weight of despair and a genuine expression of joy & renewal . Taylor infers that “in spite of everything” we need to give ourselves completely to the moment, to find “fleeting moments of quiet joy” within the “terrible freedom” handed to us. Ironically, Taylor in the end, understands that in our attempt to make sense of it all, there is no need "to soil it with our words."
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