In Rob Taylor’s third collection, we learn of three losses: those of his father and brother, to illness, and that of a young student who passed suddenly in her sleep.
Taylor’s explorations of personal grief are masterful. In “Speak When Illuminated,” he employs sly dream logic to blend this world with the afterlife, until the reader may hear their own loved ones knocking at the other side of the veil. A different piece, “The Future,” opens with a similar sentiment:
Reading a poem about the dead, I realize
that for the first time in my life I am far from them,
which means, of course, that they are very close
in the direction I’m not looking.
What creates this near-palpable sense of the dead’s presence? Love. Human relationships in Taylor’s poems are immanent. They’re touched and felt: “Stroking your back through a nightmare” shows us a chain of care linking, through the ages, child to parent to parent’s parent. In “As the Dream Holds the Real,” we feel the speaker gouge his shin against an obstacle in the dark—biting back a howl—as he carries a fresh log to the fire, “so the baby / won’t freeze”. Even if it can be painful, love will not settle down into abstraction. It reaches its fingers into the world, pinches and pulls.
Because of this immediacy, when we’re pushed back into the realm of truth statements, they land with special weight. In “Poems,” the speaker is talking to his dying brother about his young son when he notes, “He likely won’t remember you…”. What follows is a catalogue of this lived-in moment, perhaps the last with his brother, which tumbles mesmerically through memories to the poem’s end. But that first clause, “He likely won’t remember you…” nails it all, with devastating force, to the walls of the heart.
All of this is to say that Strangers is not “just” about grief, any more than grief is “just” about feeling sad. Throughout, we see connections between people in all their tangled, tangling glory, the movement of love running down the lines like electric pulses. Taylor is a father as well as a poet, and in the birth of his son, we see hope. Not hope as a force that opposes loss, but one that matches it stride for stride, ineluctably linked.
When I whip around
I can almost see them:
my father, my son, together.
The future behind me.
Now the past.
— “The Future”
It’s all part of Life, big L, to be approached on different occasions with anxiety, gentle humour, sorrow, gratitude, fear, wonder—but never boredom, never disinterest or detachment. Love is immanent, and so is everything else. In Strangers, Taylor welcomes us into his world with open arms.