APPROACHING KEN TAYLOR'S THE TASTE OF ME
[Testimonial, written March 4th,1999]
Flicking through the September of 1968 issue of New : American & Canadian Poetry, edited by his friend John Gill in up-state New York, looking for a context for Ken Taylor's publication there of the most memorable of his "Maurie" poems (Maurie speaks about a secret Australia while in Iceland), I chance upon poems by Michael Ondaatje & Raymond Carver. They're obviously on the first legs of their life-journeys, like Ken Taylor, still starting out. Those three, Taylor, Ondaatje, Carver, linked by John Gill's contemporary selection, appear to have the best poems in the magazine, and Ken Taylor's is magisterial on top of the eye for image and ear for phrase he shares with the others. I'm not about to draw any length of bow upon the coincidence of their co-publication, only the conclusion that the string of sex & violence which trails through that world at war, underlines & guarantees even the outstanding poems of the time, in books, anthologies & little magazines.
Times change, contexts shift, dissolve. Ken Taylor's place in the 1970s anthologies, Applestealers & The New Australian Poetry, was historically & politically right & proper. His absence from subsequent compilations is unfair & regrettable. But in the last year or so he's returned, almost inconspicuously --just another poet, as he was in John Gill's magazine, thirty years ago-- with a new poem in John Hawke's Nightjar (Newcastle Poetry Prize) anthology and an old one in Michael Duffy's Poet's Choice (courtesy of John Olsen's nomination). And now we have the prospect of a new volume, The Taste of Me.
Times change, contexts ditto, yet these new "love poems" turn about the same violence as disclosed in the Vietnam War 1960s. Not any local savagery perhaps, but rather a general state of threat & upheaval which, according to Ken Taylor, always besets the corporeal person in the material world.
If At Valentines (1966-69) is arguably his major poem, then Pictures from the Sea (1969), similarly designed as worldly narrative & visionary coda, is the next --and it's this marine repertoire, both port-side & oceanic, this sea of very particular matter & metaphor, which courses The Taste of Me. It's a reader's privilege as to whether a particular lovers' tryst or the human condition's intimate revelation is the central feature of this sequence of poems. In any case, they're irrevocably intertwined --as any deeply human experience causes all the world to be. What may begin as chanson inevitably spirals into heart-rending aria -- "late that year / he fell in love" on one side of the skin, "the simultaneous destination / of his death / and his beginning" on the other.
I'm very happy to commend Ken Taylor's new beginning, hoping it'll find a happy ending!
NOTE: Ken Taylor's mss was published in 2000 by Five Islands Press as Africa. He won the NSW Premier's Literary Award for Poetry with it in 2001.