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‘Do You Think You’ll Ever Stop Writing?’

Poet Rob Taylor contemplates family trees, death, form and silence. An excerpt from Event.

Rob Taylor 16 Aug 2022Event Magazine

Rob Taylor is the author of four poetry books, including Strangers (Biblioasis, 2021). He lives with his family in Port Moody, B.C.

[Editor’s note: This excerpt forms part of our spotlight on B.C.’s literary magazines. Today, we republish a piece by Rob Taylor, originally published in Event Magazine. Founded in 1971 and published by Douglas College, Event’s writers are regularly shortlisted for Canada’s top magazine-related honours, such as the National Magazine Awards and the Journey Prize. The magazine is edited by Shashi Bhat. Of Taylor’s 'Do You Think You’ll Ever Stop Writing,' Bhat writes, "Rob sent us this piece for Event’s annual Notes on Writing issue, where we invite writers from across Canada to reflect on their writing lives. I had just read his latest book and knew he would have something beautiful to say. This piece is one of my favourites from the past few years — it’s thoughtful and intimate and humble and smart. It does what I think the best personal essays do, looking both inwards and outwards, into the future and into the past.”]

       Writing something
        To leave behind
        Is yet another kind of dream:
        When I awake I know that There will be no one to read it.

            — Ikkyū (trans. John Stevens)

In May 2020 I wrote my last lyric poem. It was my first in over a year, coming to me unexpectedly during final edits for my fourth poetry collection, Strangers — a book I’d written slowly over the preceding decade, which maps my life from age three to my son’s third birthday.

Entitled “Are your flies grass, like mine?” the poem riffed on Japanese haiku master Kobayashi Issa’s poem, translated by Robert Hass: “last time, I think, / I’ll brush the flies / from my father’s face.” Issa’s poem is drawn from his Journal of My Father’s Last Days, which documents Issa’s attendance at his father’s side immediately before and after his father’s death. My father died when I was 11; my making sense of his legacy is the invisible (and, often, visible) thread running through all my books. With Issa’s help, I too was putting my father to rest.

In addition to writing poetry, I am a frequent interviewer of poets. Around the time I wrote “Are your flies grass, like mine?” I began asking my interview subjects a question I would have only a few years before considered insensitive: Do you think you’ll ever stop writing?

When possible, I concealed my question behind a quote the interviewee had previously given on the subject, such as Steven Heighton’s “the natural medium of the achieved spirit is silence,” in his Workbook: Memos & Dispatches on Writing.

My subterfuge, of course, went further: I was asking these poets a question I was avoiding asking of myself.

My father was born in 1915, my grandfather in 1871. I’ll give you a moment to process that (my elementary school teachers rarely did, twice sending home my family tree projects with failing grades).

When I was born, my father was almost 70 and my grandfather, who died in my father’s first year, had been dead longer than most newborns’ grandparents had been alive. So my paternal lineage reaches back like few others, and also barely at all. My father had no time to inherit the wisdom of his father, only enough to be held a while as an infant in soon-forgotten arms, and I had little more: When you’re 11, a father’s more myth than man.

Many of us have felt the clarifying shock that comes with losing a person of formative importance to us; how easy it is in those moments to separate the vital from the frivolous. But this clarity arrives misshapen when that formative person dies in your own formative years. The loss zooms you ahead too quickly, into a pre-teen midlife crisis you spend the rest of your years resolving. I sometimes envy friends who lose their parents in midlife, as one is supposed to. I envy them for the obvious reasons, but also because these friends got to spend their early years industriously accumulating comforts, convinced that in the end they would provide them just that. By the time they become disillusioned, they’ve all but paid off the mortgage.

Though it took a decade to manifest, my father’s death propelled me into the life of a poet: a minstrel wandering the master’s fields, singing while there’s still sun.

There were good reasons for my becoming a poet, reasons I stand by. Chiefly the opportunity for communion with my fellow human beings, which I both give (as a writer) and receive (as a reader). In this I am following the path my father, a United Church minister, lit for me. But he also left a shadow from which I haven’t fully escaped: death and the false rescue of “eternity,” in my case embodied in literature. Sappho’s resilient fragments, Shakespeare’s sonnets, Shelley’s “Ozymandias” — the poem, for now, doing for its author what it mocks in the statue. Singing and singing without sunset.

Though I deny it if asked, I want to last — for my children, but invariably more so for me. On a subconscious level a fear of death drives my art, as it does for so many (Miroslav Holub, in the Times Literary Supplement, described poetry as “almost the instinct against death crystallized”).

I’ve made a little machine of my life — this relentless writing of poems — which helps me avoid thinking about death at all, the machine too loudly whirring and clanking in its making of death-obsessed poems to notice the real thing’s nearing.

My mother is still alive. Thirty years younger than my father, she’s approaching his age at death. Her condition, though, is far different. She was diagnosed with dementia soon after the birth of my son in 2015. Her losing her language and memory as my son acquired his is the preoccupation of the closing section of Strangers, which includes “Are your flies grass, like mine?” My own mind, too, feels in flux, as any parent of young children can attest. With the chronic sleep deprivation that comes with early parenthood, the mind slips more and more. Whole years disappear, an infant’s first as much a mystery to parent as child. I believe my mind, unlike my mother’s, will recover. I believe that in the near future I’ll be able to hold together multiple abstract thoughts over extended periods of time, as I did in writing my lyric poems. What I am less sure of is whether I will want to write them.

When I wrote that last lyric poem, a shift was already underway in my writing. Haiku, once a target of derision in my poems (“I can’t help but hate/haiku. They end abruptly/just as they’re getting,” I wrote in my 2011 debut collection), had become my closest companion. With the exception of “Are your flies grass, like mine?,” since the birth of my daughter in 2019 I’ve written haiku exclusively.

I’ve found myself moving toward the form out of necessity. Haiku invite the documentation of one scene I can hold in my unsteady mind, editing it as I spoon applesauce or push the stroller — “too cold to write down/the poem about clouds/keeps changing,” read one of my early efforts.

But more than these practical restraints, I feel compelled toward haiku because it represents a narrowing — a simple moment stripped of the musical concerns that plumped my lyric poems. Looking back I realize that even those larger lyric poems were part of a longer narrowing away from my father’s sermonizing and my own youthful rhetoric. Poems, with their line breaks and blank space and open-ended logic, bring us, as Matthew Zapruder puts it in Why Poetry?, “up as close as possible to silence, absence, nothingness, so that we can start to feel what it means to live our lives so close to the abyss.”

Lorna Crozier, in one of my recent interviews, reinforced this idea: “One of the reasons I love poetry is that it bows to silence.” Alice Oswald presses it further: “Poetry is only there to frame the silence.”

Zapruder is wrong, of course, in saying that poetry brings us “as close as possible” to silence. We can go further; we can leave poetry behind. I see now that each form I’ve practised has been a step toward dismantling the frame and letting silence spill everywhere.

In the titular essay of Tim Lilburn’s 2008 essay collection Going Home, he describes building a root cellar at a time when he was at his “most confused with the land”:

I began the whole thing on little more than a whim late one afternoon when I started to dig into the south face of a low hill behind the house; I kept digging for three weeks, into the time of the earliest frosts, until I could no longer throw the dirt high enough to make it over my growing mounds.

I remember thinking little of this section of the essay when I first read it, shortly after the book’s publication. Now, near Lilburn’s age when he instinctually dug his root cellar, and equally confused, I can think of little else. “I used to sleep in the buried house on hot nights through the following summer,” Lilburn writes. “I was looking for dreams: it was a place to wait.... I later saw it, after I’d done all the work, as some sort of listening post a distance out in the unknown terrain, the land that baffled me and the other world beside that world.” I sometimes think of my entire writing career, and especially these last two years, as early, earnest shovelling toward my root cellar, dark and quiet under the earth.

Why does it matter to me that there be a silent place at the end of my writing life, when the great silence will inevitably arrive as it does for all things, Shakespeare and Shelley and my father’s sermons alike?

I think I am trying to rescue that 11-year-old boy who was so feverishly determined to last. To reach my hand back and place it on his shoulder amidst the sobbing. To let him finally breathe deep the damp air.

In my interviews, each time I quoted a poet back to themself, their answer was the same: No, I’m still writing despite what I said back then, and no, I don’t see an end to my doing so any time soon (“I can’t imagine reaching a point where I’m not still trying to figure things out verbally and/or talk myself through the harder nights,” Steven Heighton, told me).

I suppose I should have expected this, as I was interviewing them about new books they’d just released.

But also, time transforms us over and over into our opposites. You dismiss a form until you write nothing but it, an image until you can’t escape it. You fall silent until you’re ready, again, to speak.

In some regards, my move to haiku is a persistence toward, not a resistance away from, my 11-year-old self’s desire to last. It’s me finding a way to keep blackening pages despite my temporary limitations. “Are your flies grass, like mine?” will likely not be my last lyric poem, nor the last time I brush the flies from my father’s face.

But perhaps, here in early midlife, it’s enough to press up against the vast silence and rest there a while, cradled like a child.


ARE YOUR FLIES GRASS, LIKE MINE?

       Last time, I think,
        I’ll brush the flies
        from my father’s face.

            — Kobayashi Issa

You show me a photo of your wedding party
and name nearly all but the since-divorced spouses,
yet still I wake at four a.m. and scrawl
Are your flies grass, like mine?,
though flies these days are photographs
papering the dying and the dead.

Dad is almost all photo now
and cassette recording, tapes stretched
and slurred and sputtering near-transparent:
sermons and, once, his voice guiding me
through an Early Reader — me insisting
the ‘g’ in ‘laughed’ is hard, him lagging
and lagging until I lagged, too.
Or was that voice you? Twenty-five years
I’ve had you carry him inside.

Mom, I’m sick with flies and grass
and photographs. When I gasp at four a.m.
I need you out there gasping, too —
the name of yet another great aunt
rescued, written down,
to be recited (finger dusting face)
to your lagging son this afternoon.

Published in “Strangers,” Biblioasis, 2022. Copyright © Rob Taylor, 2021. Reprinted by permission of Biblioasis.


[Author's note: This piece was published in Event prior to Steven Heighton's unexpected death in April. I dedicate this essay to Steve, who taught me so much about both writing and silence.]  [Tyee]

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