Black-Eyed Heifer by Shelly Taylor

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Black-Eyed Heifer
By Shelly Taylor
Tarpaulin Sky Press

Shelly Taylor’s debut effort, Black-Eyed Heifer, is a mosaic of form and language, childhood and adulthood, the American South, horses, gravel roads, and light. It is a riptide pulling its readers out into the deep, powerful currents of nostalgia. It is unrelenting.

There is the sense that Taylor is overwhelmed, not with the requisites of poetry—her talents are obvious and well realized—but rather, with the sudden immensity of hindsight. This is partly due her gaspingly lyrical style, which effectively conveys the act of recollection. She seems taken aback by the untamable sense of her own nostalgia. That untamableness is what makes her book so appealing.

Taylor’s collection of poems and prose is essentially an investigation of the self: the spaces she’s inhabited, the people she’s known, and who she was. Despite the personal nature of these works, Taylor captivates her readers with heavy, flavorful wording, as evident in one of her prose poems titled “Not yet quite (quote) a blossom”:

She must have biked the convenient stores town wide, lost wider in
the cataloguing, raspberry slush-puppying around the gas tanks: my lemonhead money,
an old book about rabbits pocketed.

Later in the same prose poem, she continues with a series of abstract memories that seem barely lashed together:

Oh the rocks were red & nutty you though you must be, sky topple & the memory is as is; it is not so; but realer; skin, skin; & the horizon line turns orange then pink for the
picturing us.

These moments demonstrate the frenetic nature of memory. They soon flood the page, spreading out as prosaic chunks of text. Their delivery is also more spontaneous—that is, more fluid—than her poems with recognizable enjambment.

Surprisingly then, Taylor’s poems are the more concrete parts of her book. Her poems have a slower, more reflective tone than that of her prose. In these moments, she dams up her memory and pauses for rumination. Of course, this does not mean that the poems are more carefully crafted than the prose. Rather, the poems simply seem less wild, as is the case with these lines in “Three versions”:

                                  Mama says
     through the line, all women look
     before the key is purchased—he laid his money down
     more than a few times—so I, too remember
     parking lot to lot. She went also,
I imagine, before the rifle. All that
I am thinking has been done.

Obviously, Taylor does not limit herself to one type of line. She reveals herself as a bricoleur. What makes her book distinct is its variety. A quick flip from cover to cover dances her words across the pages. She tends to juxtapose square blocks of prose with a couple of lines centered in the middle of the next page, while an enjambed poem trickles down the side of the page after that. Her sprightly treatment of form and line is one of the strengths of the book.

It is easy for the reader to become lost in the book. In fact, Taylor does not include a table of contents. Many poems are left untitled. Some poems’ titles are phrases that read like stimuli for what follows, while other titles are single or compound words. Her poems tumble onto the page—perhaps there is no way she can categorize them. The reader must surrender to the flow of her memory, and that is part of the fun.

Black-Eyed Heifer is a personal journey through Taylor’s identity, but that does not detract from its attractiveness. Throughout the book, readers are reminded to reflect on their own history. Despite its delirious and colorful nature, this book is comforting. For anyone drowning in nostalgia, this book serves as a reminder that there is always someone else thrashing around out there.