Book Review

How to Erase One’s Descent

“and only he who descends into the nether world shall rescue his beloved”
—George Oppen, “Of Being Numerous”

We begin with a problem.

As if attempting to descend into this text was not enough, and as if the coming explanation on how to erase one’s descent was not enough, we first face a problem of description: our usual words are not up to the task of review. Ex. the term ‘tour de force’, which would be a wholly applicable description—this text being an honest-to-god turn of strength, pressed and bound—except that to characterize this text as such would be to relate it to every other misrepresented or overinflated tour de force that came before it. But what else can be done for a work that arrives at a monumental achievement via a singular, original argument and yet simultaneously fails as a work of art on its own terms?[1] What can be done for a text that seeks to problematize even the simplest acts of language?

Let us try another way: there are some works that say very little, and there are some works that say very much, and still there are other works that say more than anyone could ever say about them, and so what is one to say? The Book of Fools rests in that final category; for this reason, we must plunge ourselves into the said and unsaid:

When I entered the room, it was like entering a painting. It was widely known
there were problems with the lyric, as it might be known there were problems
with a marriage.1
1 A loose translation might read: My mother wanted me to drive her out to the sea.

We come first to the said. As previously noted, The Book of Fools operates from a singular argument braided together through an endless array of narratives and forms. Perhaps more impressively, it does so by concealing this argument behind our expectations of how such a book ought to function (never mind the fact that it self-describes as “an essay in memoir and verse”). Due to Sam Taylor’s status as a poet, and due to the publisher’s positioning of the text[2] as “a sweeping elegy for our earth” written by an author “faced with the question of how to express the enormous ecological loss of our time,” one expects The Book of Fools to read as a collection of ecopoetry, and it does—except when it frequently does not.

This book does not act as we expect because the text is predicated on Taylor’s argument that there is always something hidden between the words we write and the words we leave unwritten. Furthermore, he believes that, if we can navigate into this space, we can observe this ‘something’ bubbling to the surface of our stanzas. How does The Book of Fools express this argument? Through the underworld:

The first time a girl I loved disappeared under the earth, I was frightened. The first
time my father disappeared under the earth, I was frightened. The first time my
mother disappeared, I was frightened. Frightened is a closed door where I have no
words. The words are under the earth. Or they may be under the earth. I must go
under to find if the words are there.

What is ‘the underworld’? For Taylor, it is another case of carrying a thousand threads: The Book of Fools offers concurrent definitions and illustrations of the underworld across its three acts.[3] Because we are unaccustomed to holding multiple truths at once, readers will gravitate toward the definition they know best. For most, this will be the Greek myth of Orpheus[4] and Eurydice—that is, the underworld as destination. But to arrive at any definition is to set a new point of departure; Taylor conceives of the underworld as, literally, the world (meta)physically below our own. In this way, it resembles the Hegelian Other: the someone or something shrouded by our sovereignty who rises forth when we least expect it.

Yes, the underworld is where Eurydice was lost forever, as well as where Persephone lives for half the year, but the underworld is also the sea dredging up our plastic from the deep; it is the portrait painted over by the great artist, or despair when it subverts our state of joy; it is a journey to the ocean shore for your dying mother; it is her echo in the recounting of this feat; and it is the language excluded by form—the words we inevitably cross out or the ones we self-erase.[5] This final underworld is the domain of The Book of Fools, a landscape so treacherous it requires its own glossary.

Without an understanding of the linguistic modality Taylor is theorizing, it is impossible to understand the magnitude of what is attempted in this work. How is the reader to respond to such ambition? Admiration, certainly; bewilderment, understandably. And what of the author’s response? The landscape is treacherous for all who walk it. Taylor ensures this by invoking Oppen: his charge is to succeed at the level of art. But it is precisely Taylor’s formal inventiveness that pushes him further from this level. Instead of leaning into one form of erasure—bolding words, say, to highlight another poem lying within—Taylor attempts seven different kinds.[6] How does one locate “the one thing,” if something is always waiting to distort it?

“I believe strongly in the full palette of aesthetic options and in the foolishness of declaring any style to be the right way or of limiting oneself before one even begins. That’s one of many reasons the manuscript is called The Book of Fools.”

Five years before the publication of The Book of Fools, Taylor detailed his theory of self-erasure in a conversation published with The Colorado Review. His reasoning is intricate and considered; his entry is through the lyric, which he believes is incapable of reflecting our experience despite our centuries-long commitment to the contrary. He subverts this ancient paradigm through self-erasure, a technique that opens numerous relations within the text. This opening threatens the perceived immutability of the lyric and allows us to challenge its binary structure. The significance of this subversion cannot be overstated: poetry need not limit itself to what is said or unsaid. It can instead express the said, the unsaid, and the said-and-unsaid, thereby making present what is unwritten. Taylor’s system of nonclassical poetics[7] is realized in The Book of Fools via typographical notations and elucidated through the aforementioned glossary. This is how form arrives at its destination: the text becomes the underworld.

Writing is largely the invisible art of weaving a great variety of sentiments, thoughts,
events, and observations into one material, one cloth. I must apologize, dear reader,
for the suspension of this practice. I have endeavored here instead to expose the
underworld where a text is forged, and the conflicting myths—aesthetic and
psychological—available within a single moment.

But as important as all this talk of form is, it misses the impact of what lands on the page. In what little space we have left, it is only right to recognize the talent Taylor displays at the line level: the way the text tracks his trip of driving his mother to the ocean (supplemented by his imagined conversations with her throughout the work); the vividness with which he writes about Matisse and Picasso; his deep disquietude for our environment and not simply for the fact that the city of his birth will soon be made uninhabitable, likely in the next eighty years; his vulnerability surrounding the deaths of so many of his loved ones; an essay on plastic that is so wildly good/insightful/unforgettable/etc. that he ought to have extended it and published it by itself, if only for this line: “When we invented plastic, we gave the power of artists to businessmen and the power of the gods to men who had never tasted the fruit of the heart.”

The Book of Fools is the distillation of these thousand narratives and their erasures; however, such a process always leaves a remainder. No one knows this better than Taylor who apologizes for refusing Oppen’s “level of art” in his “Fools’ Guide to Orpheus II.” But one cannot embrace the underworld—that is, embrace a new framework—without rejecting the old. Let us see, then, how many levels there truly are. For it is only by splitting them one by one that we can hope to grasp what is lying in between.[8]


From The Underworld

“The horses were original, at least,
until I reread Auden, and the orange tree
until Eluard. There’s nothing new.”
—Sam Taylor, “[Pagans]”

Not long ago, I had a conversation with a close friend (and literary scholar) regarding the question of originality in contemporary literature. The call came on a quiet afternoon. My friend was in an agitated state as he shared his concern that theoretical movements in the not-too-distant past have laid waste to our ability to produce original works; subsequently, the amount of original literature published over the last decade has been alarmingly thin. He was aware of the irony of the situation—we were certainly not the first writers to express these anxieties—but despite this awareness, he was unable to shake his fear that this moment in history is different. We spoke for about an hour. Eventually, his ennui was assuaged, but when we ended the call, the status of originality was still very much in question.

In the weeks since our conversation, a slight stack of books has formed by my desk. Contained within this stack are works I believe possess the quality or property (to the extent such things exist) of originality. They are books that make me feel less alone and, in many ways, more alive; books that are always waiting for my descent—my own private underworld. There, stationed by its gates: The Book of Fools.


[1] The terms are set in its third epigraph, borrowed from George Oppen’s “Of Being Numerous” (the importance of which will be taken up later): “One must not come to feel that he has a thousand threads in his hands. / He must somehow see the one thing; / This is the level of art. / There are other levels / But there is no other level of art.”

[2] This is not to criticize Negative Capability, who should be praised for daring to publish this work in the first place.

[3] Taylor loves his definitions. He wants as many tastes of the apple (or pomegranate) as he can. This decision succeeds because, unlike most poetic texts, it is the totality of these definitions that frames the work.

[4] About whom Taylor writes five guides and at least ten poems.

[5] The other aspect of the text that is both ever-present and excluded in this way (which we do not have the space to fully discuss here) is Taylor’s study of the fool. Sometimes the fool is Taylor; sometimes it is all of us (broadly speaking). The fool has their own glossary and guides—to rivers, to the underworld and to Orpheus. It is unclear exactly what Taylor is intending with this image, but the text does not exist without it.

[6] All but one of which are identified in the “Fools’ Glossary”. See: n.5.

[7] This phrasing is meant to encompass two separate meanings: the first acknowledges this system’s utilization of nonclassical logics while the second suggests its status as the first of its kind (or, at least, the most rigorous to date).

[8] The subsequent review was hiding behind the current text, obscured until it was completed. It is a review of a certain recognizable type, one that comes forth from time to time. Call it a kind of dispatch from the underworld.

About the Reviewer

Z. L. Nickels' writing has previously appeared with Crazyhorse, SPIN, The Massachusetts Review, and Rupture, among others. He is currently an MFA candidate at the University of Massachusetts Amherst while working on his first novel about the death of the Great God Pan.