Eleanor Ross Taylor Essay - Critical Essays

Taylor, Eleanor Ross

Taylor, Eleanor Ross 1920–

Eleanor Taylor is a Southern American poet.

Maybe the spirit of the times is catching up to Eleanor Ross Taylor, and "Welcome Eumenides," her second book, will find readers waiting for it. Her first, "Wilderness of Ladies," published in 1960, recognized by a handful of people including the late Randall Jarrell, has remained an underground book, fierce, rich and difficult, though it seems less difficult with every passing year, just as Emily Dickinson does. In that book are two poems I've carried about with me for a decade as a kind of secret knowledge and reinforcement: "Woman as Artist" and "Sister." They, like many of Eleanor Taylor's poems, speak of the underground life of women, the Southern white Protestant woman in particular, the woman-writer, the woman in the family, coping, hoarding, preserving, observing, keeping up appearances, seeing through the myths and hypocrisies, nursing the sick, conspiring with sister-women, possessed of a will to survive and to see others survive. (The Southern black woman and the Southern white woman share a history and a knowledge that we are barely on the edge of exploring.)

"Welcome Eumenides" reaches out from this scene yet has its roots there. The South is the only part of the United States to have lost a war and suffered the physical and psychic trauma of military defeat; this is another kind of knowledge that Eleanor Taylor, as a Southern woman, possesses….

[The] truly remarkable poem in the book, one for which it should be read even if it did not contain other strong poems, is the title poem, "Welcome Eumenides." Out of the world and the wars that men have made she conjures the voice of Florence Nightingale, reliving her days and nights at Scutari, the death-ward of the Crimean War, with glimpses back into the family-centered, trivializing life of 19th-century English women of the leisure class. (Many lines and phrases of the poem are directly quoted from actual notes Florence Nightingale left behind her.) In this heroic, oral poem, densely woven and refrained, Eleanor Taylor has brought together the waste of women in society and the waste of men in wars and twisted them inseparably….

What I find compelling in the poems of Eleanor Taylor, besides the authority and originality of her language, is the underlying sense of how the conflicts of imaginative and intelligent women have driven them on, lashed them into genius or madness, how the home-nursing, the household administration, the patience and skill in relationships acquired at such expense in a family-centered life, became an essential part of the strength of a woman like Nightingale, but at tremendous price. "Welcome Eumenides" is a writing-large, in terms of a celebrated and powerful woman, of unanswered questions that hover throughout Eleanor Taylor's poems, and throughout the history and psychology of all women. (p. 3)

Adrienne Rich, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 2, 1972, p. 3.

Mrs. Taylor's world is anything but bright. Her poetry [in Welcome Eumenides] has warmth yet lingers on one as a freezing snowfall clings to branches. There is an intense reality in her images, a firmness and strength to her style. She maintains all the qualities necessary to welcome Eumenides. (p. cxxiv)

Virginia Quarterly Review (copyright, 1972 by the Virginia Quarterly Review, The University of Virginia), Vol. 48, No. 4 (Autumn, 1972).

Taylor's poems [in Welcome Eumenides] draw blood; they have knowingness which distinguishes a real maker of poetry from someone with talent who aspires to the role of poet. The first hints of this always come with sudden stabs of language. Eleanor Ross Taylor brings off lines that sound like no one else's. You recognize a real poet by certain cadences before you even grasp the "meaning" or the "subject-matter"…. [Her poems] reveal an ear for rhythmic free verse, an eye for piercing description, and that remarkable gift for condensation which makes a good poem like a little container of pure energy which explodes when the reader's eye focuses upon it. (p. 79-80)

[Her] subjects are always bigger than the immediate excuses for her poems. None of her poems is occasional.

Her great theme is loss; loss of comfort, loss of blood, loss of children. In her poems about women, she often seems to be concerned with the stripping away of outward roles that hide a woman's true identity even from herself. The role of mother, the role of wife, all the evasions a woman's life provides. Florence Nightingale is the perfect speaker of a dramatic monologue about the condition of a woman's soul because she has consciously renounced all these evasions ("To hide in love!") and crying "No More love/No more marriage!" she has sought a larger and less personal sort of love, and with it, the discovery of her own soul. The poem recalls some of Shakespeare's soliloquys. Its fragmented style—somewhat reminiscent of Browning, somewhat reminiscent of Eliot yet totally Ross Taylor—seems haphazard at first, but later emerges as a fugue of all the poet's obsessive themes. (pp. 81-1)

Erica Jong, "Three Sisters," in Parnassus (copyright © by Parnassus: Poetry in Review), Fall/Winter, 1974, pp. 77-88.

Eleanor Ross Taylor lives in the South, not the South of Governor Wallace crowning a black homecoming queen, or the South of missile centers and crazy police, that "one big armed camp down there" as radicals like to say, but a South that still seems miraculously "rocked in homespun," where the floors of the houses still smell "seasonround of guano." It's a land where an unhappy moment in a garden at evening can appropriately be called "starfall on savagery," where a "Flagg Bros. store / With new glass front" or "Falcons and Mustangs" can be dismissed as "bourgeois rot," where whenever the things of the earth or the heart are ripe you have to pick them, give them—where, too, Whitman could say, as he did say obstreperously up North, "I wear my hat as I please, indoors and out," and be cherished, not for being a nut, but for the spontaneity of his observation, the spunk of his conviction. During most of my hitch in the army I was stationed in Georgia and Mrs. Taylor's South was not the South I found. But if it's not there in fact, it's there on the page.

Her poems, however, do not affect to "laugh at disillusion" as Whitman the irreverent bachelor did: managing alone is impossible in Mrs. Taylor's world. Her characters may be separate or inconstant, a mother may moan the loss of her son, a wife may giddily shout, "A husband, more or less! A family, more or less!"—still these people and their lives are always at the farthest remove from isolation. Kinships, legacies, ghostly estates, "a changing and pacing in the rooms of next year" or the year after, a perennial opening and closing of accounts, the injury rates in human affairs—these are the rhythms that shape her world. A throb of pathos, a current of universality seem to run through the poems where we catch all the moments that lie behind us or all the moments that await us, as in a wedding or a funeral, where Mrs. Taylor's men and women weep for all the brides that have ever been, for all the dead who were once alive.

Far from being sentimental, though, her work, both in spirit and interest, is strict and classical, fastidious even in its verve. It comes out of and sustains, as Randall Jarrell once observed in a marvelous essay on her work, the traditions of the Puritan South, a world as "dualistic as that of Freud." Yet it is full too of the folkloric or prosaic habits and rites, or the gratuitous, contingent aspects of one's humanity—one's compromised humanity especially. If some of the poems seem governed by a gossipy generalized texture, the small, lyric, slightly querulous, at times somewhat histrionic voice of the poet can always be felt. For Mrs. Taylor is a little like a Southern belle who has uncharacteristically read all the big books, thought all the gray thoughts, who is a bit fearful perhaps of expressing grief or depth or the cruel chemical wit of which she is capable, yet who, against "cyclonic gust and chilly rain," expresses them forthrightly anyway.

She seems to me better at dramatic monologues, which make up most of her earlier book, Wilderness of Ladies, than she is at dramatic reveries, which make up most of … Welcome Eumenides. Either way, though, her poems depend on a sense of character, a coherence of manner and motive, as much as they depend on anything. If they are not readily quotable, demand the full strength of the full context to be faithfully represented, still her virtues can be enumerated easily enough. In "Victory," one of the best of the new poems, she has a novelist's eye, Faulkner's in miniature. In "Buck Duke and Mama," one of the best of the older ones, she can incorporate bits of stray humor, idiomatic quirkiness, the sort of catchy effect you get in Welty or O'Connor or in Peter Taylor, her husband, but it's always rare in poetry…. She can use words we all know—words like posterity, constellation, kinless, beseech—but rarely use because they might sound too awkward or too grand, but in her poems they almost always hit the proper note. Or she can employ a more exotic grammar—dominie, rheum, disfestooned—yet these do not misbecome her, as she might say, but have a natural sparkle, seem just. Her language always has something going on beneath its lines…. The meter has its own pace and duration, suggests, as an odd analogy, Schopenhauer's description of rhythm as melody deprived of pitch; her adjectives and verbs, especially those in her still lifes, project a strange delicacy and weight…. (pp. 21-2)

Many of the poems … seem to be wise in the way that the old proverbs are wise, poems that know it is better to be invited to herbs with love than to a fatted calf with hatred, poems that may regret life, indeed can and do make judgments against life, against people, but there's no hostility in them. And that's rare—considering life, considering people. The characters quarrel with God, are restless among themselves, but the flux has an unusual balance, like water, whose underlying characteristic is patience, so that the wearing away of the spirit occurs slowly, diffidently, the sea wearing away the rocks on a strand. The domestic details are often as exact as in Vermeer, the settings as shapely as in Manet—nothing grandiloquent, nothing askew (though much of the subject matter can appear almost willfully odd). And the figurative presences that shine in her portraits are often there in the manner of Manet saying that the real figure in the painting is the light—the light in Mrs. Taylor's case being the dignity and sympathy of her response, the clarity of her memory.

Of course her work is peculiar—sometimes too tense, too skittery. Welcome Eumenides is not as conclusive in its impact as is Wilderness of Ladies. A few of the newer lines tend to leap in the air without having first touched ground. Others are so wispy or so austere as to be almost obscure. Her poems in general, I guess, take a while to reveal themselves just as it takes the reader a while to surrender to them. But they are distinctly her own, unlike that of any other American writing. They set their own standard for honesty and wit, for rueful downrightness, for sparkle and restraint few other poets reach. (p. 22)

Robert Mazzocco, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1975 NYREV, Inc.), April 3, 1975.