OCTOBER 16, 2020
BEFORE COVID-19 GROUNDED our lives, and before Tess Taylor launched her newest book of poems, Rift Zone (Red Hen Press), via Zoom in a cemetery near her home instead of at 43 readings across three countries, she spent years on the road retracing the photographic trail of Dorothea Lange across California. This spring, Last West, Taylor’s book of “Roadsongs for Dorothea Lange” was published in conjunction with the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibit Dorothea Lange: Words & Pictures.
At MoMA, Lange’s photographs reveal the startling solitude of California during the Great Depression as well as its collective anxiety. In White Angel Bread Line, San Francisco, a lone worker turns away from the crowd; in The Defendant, Alameda County Courthouse, California, a black man clutches his head, his hand a devastated blur. From migrant worker camps to Japanese internment camps, the camera focuses on unemployed workers and interned children. The images’ familiarity and poignancy today exist in sharp contrast to the black-and-white photography of the era.
Unlike past retrospectives, this exhibit highlights Lange’s eye for language. In Toward Los Angeles, California, the billboard spelling out “NEXT TIME TRY THE TRAIN RELAX” looks down on two figures walking on an endless dirt road. Next to MoMA’s wall-texts reproducing quotes from Lange’s notebooks is the polyvocal journey of Taylor’s Last West, traversing California with the sharpness of a viewfinder.
Taylor, trained as a journalist, transforms Lange’s archival notes into a landscape whose past violences and songs still rupture the present. Chronologically sectioned into months, Last West covers the span of a year. “Dear Dorothea,” Taylor addresses Lange, “I wrote all year at rest stops / on roadsides at gas stations.” Despite the intimacy promised by the epistolary form, however, neither Lange’s nor the speaker’s voice takes up the center. Rather, Taylor makes the most room for the present occupants of the land — pulled into imaginary conversations with those from Lange’s recordings.
Lange, too, had traversed these lands year after year: “She came every year for a lot of the ’30s, we wonder if that’s because it’s confusing to figure out what crop would be ready when,” a voice tells us. It is through these faceless voices that we glimpse Taylor’s research process and Lange’s generational legacy, and thus, a sense of California’s distinctive collective history: “You’re looking for the woman who shot the photo. / Yes. We know about her. My parents talk about her.”
Fragmented and sparse, Taylor’s and Lange’s notes unite a multitude of voices onto the same plane. Observations parallel migrant working conditions across the eras: “2019 headline: IN IMMIGRANT CRACKDOWN, MORE CONVICTS USED IN FARM LABOR” sits next to “1937, man: I wouldn’t undertake to farm this land no more.” Lange’s notes become its own record of Japanese American internment: “Fukuoka Franklin 3 sons in navy all born in NY / Haino Kasha chemist,” while Taylor observes a detention facility she visits, “Above the facility: The flag of California; the flag of the United states.” It is often unclear whose notes we are reading, and the voices, too, are similarly anonymous, but Taylor places us amid them, asking us to listen, with agency. “Find the old people. They would know,” she writes, resurrecting narratives from our collective memories, “Find them: Ask them to remember.”
Taylor has an eye for hidden histories, and the way unreconciled violences of the past continue to shape our collective and individual consciousness. Her debut, The Forage House (2013), a finalist for the Believer Poetry Award, took her to Monticello, where alongside archaeologists, she wrestled with the complexities of her familial lineage and her role as a white descendent of Thomas Jefferson. For Taylor, personal histories are deeply anchored and necessitate urgent confrontations.
A decade ago, Taylor returned to El Cerrito, the small California town where she grew up. Rift Zone, published this April, covers the same ground as Last West but turns a critical and searching eye toward her hometown. “What does it mean to photograph home?” Taylor asks through Lange’s words in the opening poem of Last West. With unflinching resolve, Rift Zone pans California’s geological, historical, and legal fault lines, showing how the Bay Area’s socio-political schisms are rooted in — in fact, born from — a volatile landscape, reflecting the precariousness of our wider moment.
The poems in Rift Zone exist in a moment before rupture, an overhang of historic land fractured by histories revised and erased. Taylor magnifies these tensions when she recalls the instabilities of her adolescence. Moments from her upbringing in a suburb “clean as a lobotomy” take place against the vastness of geologic space-time — “the Earth’s mantle, rock moving.” Of the muted violence in the seemingly bucolic suburbs, she writes, “No one explained the reasons / Dana found that spring / to bring her brother’s gun to school.” Greater violence seems just beyond reach and inevitable. Later, she writes of her teenage years’ dawning socio-political awareness, “We could say systemic racism / but couldn’t name yet how our lives were implicated.” The precipice of “yet” is ascribed to her present self, revealing another kind of self-awareness: “O my god that was embarrassing.”
However, environmental precariousness is not a metaphor in Taylor’s life: “I live on faultline which most days feels like nothing / except in sidewalk crosshairs,” she writes. By naming the impending disaster and the frailty of our feigned comfort, Taylor recognizes the larger stakes of her personal reckoning, and affirms her probing commitment to unearthing buried histories, to awaken the everyday ambivalence to our reality.
Defamiliarized by her homecoming, Taylor sees anew: “(I only lately learned this — / latest in the line of histories / they don’t teach // I didn’t know).” Beneath the known world, she unearths violence and erasure against the Indigenous, Black, Mexican, and Japanese communities in a land where “the hacienda stood as it had stood / as three nations claimed it.” The land is not innocent — racial histories are inexplicably entangled: “Dorothea Lange traveled from Berkeley / to photograph migrant workers / & the Portuguese farmer Balra / sold his ranchero up the hill — / it became split level tract homes / the Japanese were not allowed to live in / ‘nor any person not of the Caucasian Race.’” Legal erasures of Japanese Americans by the state is embodied through citations: “( had to purchase land / under the names / of their American-born sons).”
The multitude of voices quoted and referenced in these poems offers glimpses into the richly layered histories Taylor spent a decade researching. Even language unravels its origins, making and remaking itself: “He does not know dinosaurs or that pajama / is Hindi via the British; / or that this tree is a paleolith, / or that this state was Spain.” Taylor’s probing openness to unsee, unlearn, and relearn her own history reorients her relationship to home. She is forced to confront the stakes of rewriting the past into poetry while holding her own gaze complicit.
Throughout the collection, Taylor asks, to whom are “silent” histories silent? Before a landscape of grief, Taylor stands still with this realization: “What did I not know / was already happening.” Later, she continues to reflect on the complicity inherent in not knowing: “they never spoke of it — (to me).” “Whose fault our fault,” she writes, referring to her whiteness, and with that, fault lines transform into human faults.
The process of holding oneself accountable, interrogating and unearthing “what did I not know,” is a process that necessitates an “unstable ground” on which the self is made uncomfortable. In her ars poetica, “Etymology with Tectonic Plate,” Taylor writes:
rework these lines, chart
lost pangeas, worlds
emerging at the brink or try
to trace the crevices of mind
to lineate a song
in a harsh climate
This poem illuminates the tensions Taylor holds in her writing: the historic yet emergent loss, an impossibility to lineate, make sense of, and sing amid the greater harshness. A fault line, then, is at once a figure of destruction and a revelation. Its ruptures are simultaneously destructive and productive. “What is life for but explanation?” writes Taylor, as she pursues the uncomfortable and unsettling truths of her home.
JinJin Xu is a filmmaker and writer from Shanghai. She has received honors from The Poetry Society of America and the Thomas J. Watson Foundation. Her chapbook There Is Still Singing in the Afterlife was selected by Aria Aber for the Own Voices Chapbook Prize and is forthcoming in November.