Review by Lindsay Kathleen Turner
Selected by Marjorie Welish as the winner of the 2008 Omnidawn Poetry Contest, Michelle Taransky’s first collection of poems, Barn Burned, Then, takes its title from a haiku by Masahide: “Barn’s burnt down / now / I can see the moon.” Structured into two sections, “Barn Book” and “Bank Book,” Taransky’s work places us immediately and fully into the space created by loss and its aftermath: lines are spare and usually quite short, images are as bare and fragile as the half-burnt rafters of the half-present barn, and throughout the book a certain repertory of words—drawn from both financial and agricultural registers—repeats and recurs, as if the repository of language itself had, along with its storehouse, gone up in smoke.
Indeed, the operating principles behind Taransky’s poems seem themselves to be informed by an economy of loss, by the tension of scarcity. Meanings are questioned and revised as line follows line, and in the absence of an abundance of words, many of Taransky’s are called upon to operate in several possible positions at once. Take, for example, the opening of the poem “Barn Burner, If”:
What lies down here
Does not call for
Its facts of carve
and split something […]
Here—as with the book as a whole—the meaning of the lines shifts dramatically depending on whether or not we read continuously from the title into the poem, as grammatical structure invites us to do, or whether we discard this structure in favor of a standard separation between title and poem—and, thus, a stable statement of “its facts” rather than a situation of if/then contingency. But even the “facts” seem undermined by the sort of anthimeria characteristic of Taransky’s work: the evocative “facts of carve” becomes the destructive action “carve and split,” and we are left with no “fact” at all to fall back on.
But it’s not only the meanings of words that Taransky works to destabilize; on both semantic and grammatical levels, the experience of reading Barn Burned, Then is not unlike the attempt to keep one’s balance on a galloping horse described—or, more accurately, replicated—in another poem in the collection (titled, joltingly as well as perhaps jokingly, “How To Keep / Your Balance / On A”). Returning to “Barn Burner, If”: the poem ends with the conclusion of the conditional construction begun in its title:
… Blaze the
I don’t stop for
Then the yearling
Here the conditional is strangely doubled, however: the blaze, already figured by the book’s title as occasioning force, is now what follows an empty space and is contingent upon the “if ovate” as well as the previous “barn burner.” By the end of this spare poem, it is impossible to determine where the if/then construction begins or ends, which “if” follows which “then,” which force affects which entity; the space of the poem is one in which grammatical structures serve to question the ideas of causality and contingency they evoke. In other words, the emptiness opened by the loss of the barn becomes the site of an intense and unresolved investigation of language.
The examination of the space of loss at the core of Barn Burned, Then, however, is not solely a problem of language. If the poems’ structural and linguistic ambiguities function to further their creation, their semantic ones point to something gone awry both inside and outside the book. The fact that certain words are called upon to sustain multiple meanings is not only an act of semantic disturbance; it is also a chilling way to evoke a certain cultural moment: the literal destruction of farms, barns, homes, and lives in the wake of contemporary economic failure.
In the “Great Foundation I Dug Out,” Taransky writes of
dead barn swallow—
now full of change
it is an anvil
stuffed with wild
weeds I saved to open up
In these eight short but impossibly knotty lines, it seems that both language and economics have collapsed into each other, and collapsed in general: the destroyed barn names its now-dead denizen, the natural “change” from life to death bears both the echo and the weight of the nickels and dimes that could have saved but have in a certain sense destroyed both swallow and barn, the bird itself becomes a kind of repository, a fragile “safe,” and the speaker’s “account” is in the end both a financial and representational problem. Indeed, a partial list of the words that echo, doubled and redoubled in meaning, throughout the book points to the extent to which writing and language are implicated with a destructive economic system: change / exchange, prints / imprints, counts / count / account, tell / teller, bank, safe, note / notes. Elsewhere in the book, in the same way that the verb “to tell” (a story) becomes (bank) “teller,” the verb “to add” (as one would one’s life savings) becomes, terrifyingly, “adders”: the close association of registers is clearly no benign condensation.
Barn Burned, Then is, then, ultimately both a politicized examination of language and a linguistic—and remarkably lyrical—examination of the political. This double action is not ultimately surprising, given that Taransky locates herself clearly and deliberately as drawing on the work of both Language poetry and of Objectivism; the first section of the book begins with epigrams from George Oppen and Charles Bernstein. What is perhaps more surprising is the quietness with which Taransky mounts her critique—remarkable given the scope of her project and especially refreshing in a first book from a younger poet. Even as it multiplies meanings and referents and further pulls apart a world already almost destroyed, the book rarely fails to evoke a certain closeness and smallness of scale that remain accessible through and to the poems: take, for example, the end of “Barn Burner, If” (“Then the yearling / loses touch”) or the delicacy with which the barn swallow cited earlier appears and falls.
It might be possible to trace this intimacy of the concrete back to Williams, or back again to the haiku tradition already mentioned. Barn Burned, Then also brings to mind the work of Lorine Niedecker, a poet deeply and personally impacted by economic depression and loss of home and property; what Rachel Blau DuPlessis wrote in The Kenyon Review (spring 1992) of Niedecker’s work—that in it “the haiku-lyric… may even offer its own barbed commentary on monstrous, overweening cultural ambitions”—seems equally appropriate to Taransky’s. But in any case, Taransky’s book is less an illustration or evocation of other schools or other writers, or even of its moment of political and linguistic crisis, than it is—in the wake of destruction—the construction of a solid and satisfying “statement // to take the barn’s place.”