The Book of Endings
Some time while you read this page
or the next one, a species-
like you, with your grandmother,
your dozen eggs, your walk in the park,
a species as vast as your life
and the lives of all your ancestors
chasing bison across Old Europe
or huddled around a fire-will disappear.
A species that has found its own
ways of eating, of moving, of
hiding from predators; a species
that meets itself and makes love
in the bark of a tree or on the leaves
of the canopy or in the humid dirt.
And it has come with us for millions
of years, for millions of years,
it has watched the night
and day follow each other, it has breathed
with the frogs, it has wrapped
the stars around it like a blanket,
a patterned music, a map.
At the beginning of this page
there may have been three or four left,
but now there is only one.
And if you read this page again,
it will be another one, another species,
another story of four billion years
telling itself for the last time.
Wherever life began-a word, a wish
breathed into water, a seed falling
through space-it was all of us
there-as it is now
in this unknown last one.
It has bored into wood, it has carried
water on its back, it has drunk
the dew from its back in the desert,
it has fed its young with strips of
leaves, it has built homes out of bark,
it has carved the sky into a song,
it has spoken in ways no man has heard.
It has emerald wings
it has sapphire wings
it has wings of night
you will never see it
it is already gone
From my life as a Christian peasant
I cross my forehead and chest solemnly after kneeling.
From my life as a Sioux, "All my relations."
From my life as a Jew, I curse God in the daylight,
then steal back at night to kneel in the moon.
From my life as dust, I call all things father
and no place home. From my life as water,
I can rest only in the lowliest places.
From my life as a traveling salesman,
I can't stop talking or dreaming of maps,
but from my life as a stone, I have yet to speak.
From my life as a Russian streetsweeper
I eye women carrying bags of groceries
with suspicion. From my life as a clergyman,
all the tears of a body, more than the sea.
From my last life as rain, this endless longing
for the roots of the earth and a woman's shadow.
And, again, from my life as dust, this muted yes,
this meaningless assent to all things.
The Book of Poetry
A friend, in Thailand, helping to build straw bale homes
was riding with four Buddhist monks on the back of a truck
piled high with musky bales. "I love water buffaloes," she burst out
in broken Thai. The monks laughed. I guess that is
a strange thing to say, she thought, but insisted.
"No, really, I really love them," trying to unfurl herself
clearly, practicing the Zen Garden of making conversation
with only a few words. "They are so beautiful, so strong.
Don't you love them?" But the monks just kept laughing.
Every traveler in Southeast Asia has her own story
of tonal confusion: the same syllable spoken different ways
becomes four, six, seven words. In China, Ma
means mother, but also hemp, horse, scold-depending if
it is flat, rising, dipping, or falling. Sometimes context helps,
as when ordering food: No one is likely to confuse
"I want to eat" with "I demand an ugly woman,"
unless one is dining in a brothel, and even then "I want eggplant"
though mistoned "whirlpool shake concubine twins"
is likely to produce only strips of sauce-smeared nightshade.
Everyone in China wants to know what you do.
It's not easy, even in English, for a poet to say that.
When they asked, I said first, "I write," wo xie,
or sometimes, after I had learned the word, "I am a poet."
Wo shi shi ren. Often, I was met by puzzlement,
strained foreheads, awkward laughter, Chinese people
glancing at each other for cues, uncertain how to react.
Not so different really from the response in America.
"A poet" I'd repeat. Wo shi shiren. Then,
"I write poetry," trying to make the most
of my minuscule vocabulary. "I write books of poetry."
Wo shi shi ren: literally, I am a poetry person.
Wo means I; ren means person, or man.
Near the end of my travels, someone told me
shi-which is pronounced "sure" and means poetry
in the high flat tone, as well as the verb "to be"
in the falling tone-also means shit
in yet another tone. So, all along I must have been saying
I am a shit man. I write shit. And repeating it.
A shit person. I write books of shit. Understand?
To be-poetry-shit. Something fitting in how these words
were assigned the same syllable, the same address.
Later, looking the word up, I discovered for each tone, shi
was ten or twenty words, a whole apartment complex
sharing one mailbox. Corpse, loss, world, history, time, stone,
life, to begin, to be, to die, to fail, to be addicted to,
rough silk, persimmons, raincoats, swine, long-tailed marmot,
clear water-all crowded into the same syllable-sure,
sure, sure. It was also coincidentally the word for yes.
So, perhaps I had said something else entirely
I thought of all the combinations I might have said.
I am a shit person. I write life.
I am a death person. I write being. I shit history man.
I history being person. I write time. I write books of failure,
books of corpses, books of loss, books of yes.
I am a being person. I write to be.
I am addicted to being a man.
I write books of shit, books of clear water.
I am a poet.
It seemed all the world could, even should, have one word
for everything-table scales, taxis, bicycles, stones, cities,
time and history and death and life. It was all shit.
It was all poetry. As for my friend, she found out later
water buffalo was a variation of the word for penis.
So, "I love penises" she had confided to the Buddhist monks,
the truck jostling, the potholes throwing her knees
against theirs. "I really love penises," she had insisted,
looking into their celibate eyes. "Penises are
so beautiful, so strong. Don't you love them?"
Since the syllable for monk is also the syllable
of my name on fire in a world of loss, I will answer. Sure,
I love penises and water buffalo and the smell
of wet hay, and vaginas and sautéed eggplant and concubine twins,
and I want to tell the Buddhist monks, and the Chinese bureaucrats,
and the official from Homeland Security
who stopped me in customs to search my computer, and my mother
the Szechwan horse: I am a shit man writing books of stone
and the clear water has failed, but I am addicted
writing yes in a city of corpses and swine and persimmons,
here at the end of history, now at the beginning of time.
-from Nude Descending an Empire
BIO: Sam Taylor is a U.S. poet and word-based artist, whose practice ranges from traditional and experimental poem-making to work that marries poetic craft with contemporary art. He is the author of two books of poems, Body of the World (Ausable/Copper Canyon Press) and Nude Descending an Empire (Pitt Poetry Series, forthcoming), and the recipient of the 2014-2015 Amy Lowell Poetry Travelling Scholarship. His work most frequently explores themes of mysticism, sexuality, ecology, politics, suffering, and the mystery of the world. He is also an Assistant Professor in the MFA program at Wichita State University, where he teaches workshops and courses in poetic craft, modern and contemporary poetics, and ecology.
A native of Miami, Florida, Taylor has also lived in Texas, Virginia, California, Kansas, and New Mexico, where he served for three years as the caretaker of a remote wilderness refuge that was snowed-in during the winter without phone, electricity, or internet. He cites this experience of living so long apart from all the meanings people have created as an essential foundation of his work.
Taylor's work has appeared in such journals as The New Republic, AGNI, Michigan Quarterly Review, The Hudson Review, Orion, Narrative Magazine, Poetry International, Beloit Poetry Journal, Cincinnati Review, and Poetry Daily. A former Michener Fellow at the University of Texas at Austin and a Henry Hoyns Fellow at the University of Virginia, Taylor holds two MFA degrees, as well as a B.A. in English Literature from Swarthmore College. He has been awarded residencies at the Corporation of Yaddo, Djerassi, The Studios at Key West, the Vermont Studio Center, the Brush Creek Arts Center, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the Santa Fe Art Institute, and he has received the Dobie Paisano Fellowship, the Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Prize, and the Florida Review Editor's Prize.