blackbirdonline journalSpring 2017  Vol. 16 No. 1
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Review | 7000 Sparrows by Duffie Taylor
Groundhog Poetry Press, 2016

spacer 7000 Sparrows (Publisher, year)

I will start in the middle.
I will start as a story starts
where life starts
or rather, is placed:
like a dot on a map

The beginning is never the beginning
The beginning is the point of verging—
the collision—
where lines cross

So begins 7,000 Sparrows, Duffie Taylor’s extraordinary first collection of poems. It bears no relation to other debut collections: it is infused with sorrow and compassion, and there is nothing tricky, nothing showy. Even Wallace Stevens showed off. Robert Lowell showed off and kept showing off. Stevens and Lowell wanted attention for their poetry. They were, of course, marvelous poets who deserved attention, but Taylor does not want attention; she pays attention. This means her brand new book is for the ages, which is to say, it will last.

7,000 Sparrows pulls us straight in via a prologue that states the world began with a word, as the Bible has it. It is preceded by an epigraph from Rumi that informs us we are in a place where there will be no passing of judgment on anybody by anybody. This itself is unusual: to be told that we are now in a safe place. (Some poets come at their readers as if to mow us down.) Another place is also specified: Bezwodne, a village in Eastern Europe. There are references to a brother and a mother named Bella who may or may not be ancestors of the author or a loved one. What we know, because she tells us, is that this is a beginning. And so it is a prologue to what follows.

In the next section of the book, titled “Dominion,” we learn that RafaĹ‚ Lemkin was born in Bezwodne, and his mother’s name was Bella. He was a remarkable man, speaking nine languages and reading fourteen. He had some close escapes from the Germans. It was Lemkin who came up with the word “genocide.” And it was he who drafted the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. An expert in criminal law, he taught at universities and was nominated ten times for the Nobel Peace Prize. (That is surely another mistake made by the Nobel Prize Committee.) This information is conveyed economically in “Dominion,” in which the poet argues with Lemkin. “Circumstance,” she tells him, “wards off sin / better than any virtue.” That is an excellent, if cynical, motto, unexpected in a young person. In reply, Lemkin argues: “that is not a truth . . . / that is a fear.” Someone then says, “We really belong to death already / and every day: / a miracle.” I believe this last sentence is spoken by Lemkin, but it’s possible that the speaker is the poet, or even God.

“Dominion” leads us to “Eloi,” a meditation on words that morphs into a frank scene of the Holocaust. Cattle cars and naked humans treated worse than cattle: with a few stark words Taylor sketches the entire horror and the aftermath of the horror. This poem is not easy to read, but it must be read. “[W]e, pressed to a cattle car, / defecating amongst one another,” she writes, and she must have been there in her mind, in her studies, for we know it is true.

“Jerusalem” is a natural next move, but the poem extends to other locations: wherever men have raided earth and its precious metals and minerals. Taylor catalogs the crimes just as Lemkin did, but with even more passion and further reflection. “Oh Lemkin,” she writes,

the Israelites went forward
Moses with his staff went forward
yet you could not part
that pathway of bondage
your heart perched and clung
in that windowless vortex of sea

The next section’s title is “1001 Nights.” The Armenian Genocide figures in here, as well as Turkey, Egypt, Auschwitz again, Africa, Srebrenica—where thousands of Muslim Bosniaks were killed not very long ago—and Ohrdruf, where Bach studied for a while, which later became a Nazi concentration camp. “Armenians, Turks / standing in front of the same market / gathering grass from fields to eat.” In “1001 Nights,” she writes,

In Amasia
the women were separated
bound in groups of five
carried away at night
taken out on barges
then sunk

We are now at the section called “Corruptus,” which raises the question of how we—we, ourselves—can avoid sin. But there is no answer to this question. Nor does the poet pretend to answer. Instead she offers realism:

At one time I was laughing and laughing
I couldn’t stop laughing
I was with the wounded blood everywhere
and a shoulder
hanging off a grenade a mouth split open

“Reductio” follows “Corruptus.” In this section, the speaker blames herself for being young and healthy: “it is to my thoughts / my suffering I return.” She says she has “gone years my entire life maybe / without ever experiencing real hunger.” Does she want to join the dead? Surely not. Indeed, thinking about the dead, she speaks of her mother. Is this really her mother, her mother dying? It could be. Or possibly that is simply the way she moves back into the catalog of death. It is a transition. For one small moment she speaks of herself, and then what she has read and seen returns and she undertakes to remind us of the murdered in Kosovo, of the dead Albanians, of the women raped in Nanking. No, she is not to be blamed for being young and healthy, though we may worry that she will be overwhelmed by so much death. Then again, being young and healthy are the conditions that can keep her from being overwhelmed.

The last section is “Sunyata,” in which the speaker concludes that what she can see of death is only a fraction of the whole. She does continue to argue, however, sustaining her conversation with Lemkin, and her argument remembers Bonhoeffer’s resolve to assassinate Hitler. We must, Bonhoeffer says, accept the guilt that accompanies our actions. This speaker accepts her guilt—which is nothing more than knowledge—and intends to continue writing what she must write. Here she brings in Wittgenstein, who began as a lover of logic and who thought his first book solved all philosophical questions. In time, he turned toward art, music, and to a degree, religion. Our poet writes,

Though [our words] might float along
what Wittgenstein might call
the border of nothingness
they are our wild and ridiculous attempt
to hook the earth

Which is to say, we choose poetry over philosophy in the end. “Our words” include the poem that the poet is writing. And at the end of the collection Taylor calls on a Gertrude Stein-ism (“a word is a word is a word”), but that infinitesimal moment of levity leads to the last line—“that tender branch.” This echoes Stein once more and simultaneously defines “the word” as “that tender branch.”

This book is profoundly serious. I hope this review helps to show how profound it is. Everyone should read it.  end

Duffie Taylor is the author of the poetry collection 7,000 Sparrows (Groundhog Poetry Press LLC, 2016). She earned her MFA at the University of Massachusetts–Amherst.

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