by NONA BLYTH CLOUD
Eleanor Ross Taylor (1920-2011) was born in Norwood, North Carolina on June 30, 1920. At the time, there were about 1200 people living in or near the town.
She once said in an interview: “I think the first poem I ever wrote was when I was nine years old and The Norwood News offered a prize to the student who wrote a poem they would print in the paper, and so I won.” In spite of that early success, Eleanor Ross Taylor wouldn’t publish her first book of poems, Wilderness of Ladies, until she was 40 years old.
Her poetry has been labeled “Southern” and “feminine.” Adrienne Rich said her poems “speak of the underground life of women, the Southern white Protestant woman in particular, the woman-writer, the woman in the family, coping, hoarding, preserving, observing, keeping up appearances, seeing through the myths and hypocrisies, nursing the sick, conspiring with sister-women, possessed of a will to survive and to see others survive.”
This is the first Eleanor Ross Taylor poem I read, and it’s stuck with me.
The fork lived with the knife
and found it hard — for years
took nicks and scratches,
not to mention cuts.
She who took tedium by the ears:
defiant stretched-out lettuce,
He who came down whack.
His conversation, even, edged.
Lying beside him in the drawer
she formed a crazy patina.
The seasons stacked —
melons, succeeded by cured pork.
He dulled; he was a dull knife,
while she was, after all, a fork.
Taylor offers us a new version of one of the oldest stories.
The serpent in my Eden
He slithered into meals;
of course, my bed.
Wrapped himself tighter, tighter,
all around me,
ejecting sweetish venom
in my head,
no simple adder.
That stupe’s gone, he said,
love me instead.
She graduated from the Woman’s College of the University of North Carolina in 1940, and worked as a high school English teacher, then was admitted to Vanderbilt University in 1943 to work for her master’s degree. At Vanderbilt, fellow writers Caroline Gordon and Allen Tate introduced her to novelist Peter Taylor. Six weeks later, they were married. Eleanor Ross Taylor followed her husband as he went from one writer-in-residence program to another in North Carolina, Ohio, Massachusetts, before they settled in Virginia. She did very little writing during the early years of their marriage, kept busy as wife, mother, and homemaker, packing and unpacking.
No, soul doesn’t leave the body.
My body is leaving my soul.
Tired of turning fried chicken and
coffee to muscle and excrement,
tried of secreting tears, wiping them,
tired of opening eyes on another day,
tired especially of that fleshy heart,
pumping, pumping. More,
that brain spinning nightmares.
disconnect, unplug, erase.
But here, I think, a smallish altercation arises.
Soul seems to shake its fist.
Wants brain? Claims dreams and nightmares?
Maintains a codicil bequeathed it shares?
There’ll be a fight. A deadly struggle.
We know, of course, who’ll win. . . .
But who’s this, watching?
I think a lot of families, and not just Southern ones, have an Aunt Estelle.
When to Stop
Never knew when to stop, my Aunt, Estelle.
A girl, called to recite
(a thing she did quite well)
she waxed so eloquent,
went on so long,
her Papa growled, “Oh, let up, Stell!”
Kept up, past forty,
singing lessons with Miss Gottschalk;
at seventy-five still clings
to artless, low-cut blouse,
lipsticks the retrograding mouth.
I’ve seen her (in-laws
envying her prelude seafood stems,
half-scornful of her postlude fingerbowls)
presiding at her table,
erect and smiling, answering
her husband’s snarl
with a quick nimble joke
that gave us all escape.
Now he has nothing more
to say to her, to tired-out us,
or to the world,
when he just leans his forehead
hard upon his hand, and
dully forks and chews.
A living silence, she, erect and smiling,
giving his sleeve a quick caress,
eyes like a cherubim’s,
chats on voraciously for two.
Writing can be both torture and balm, even if the words are not intended for others to see.
Too much like myself,
it listens critically.
Edits, though seldom rereads.
In the margins: here incoherent.
Like me, it mumbles.
The more I “Speak up, girl!”
the less it says outright,
wants in fact not to say.
Contrary to belief, the word diary
means undivulged; clues trail
the pages and the trail breaks off,
scent’s lost. Wandering is
the only way out of this place.
Yet the helpless subjugation
to the daily task,
the need for trysting-place,
love for the white-hot page
that drains the wound, seals it.
It was while Peter Taylor was teaching at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro that she met poet Randall Jarrell, who became her critic and sponsor. When A Wilderness of Ladies was published in 1960, Jarrell wrote an introduction for it. She went on to publish four other poetry collections.
Three Days in Flower
Monday he went away.
The moon was in her sign,
the weather smiled,
she cut Jacques Cartiers,
pink as in holiday.
From a champagne flute
they waved intimate,
she dreamed in their arms,
cloud and city,
one wrinkled, mauved,
one sang alone,
one threatened suicide
on glass-topped table.
He flew home.
Fathers and Daughters . . .
Remembered the day we met
And only I
The day we said goodbye:
“Last day of June, our first blackberry pie,”
He always said.
A wood fire in the summer kitchen,
The hottest day…. A squall in the bedroom.
I can’t remember.
The December cube of clay,
The storm the day before,
How the bare trees
Played Giant Step in the dawn wind,
On the other bed, rhythmically
Touching her knuckles to the wall,
My mother slipped forever into fantasy.
Remembered the spoken hate
(Its change too sheepish to impart)
Saw daggers still growing
In bristling clump out of my heart.
I beg you, kids—no memorials, please.
Don’t write poems to me. Don’t bother.
What we said we said. What’s unsaid lacks ears.
In this I’m like my father.
Trying to Get Through
I make a knife of words.
I sit here waiting.
I play with crumbs.
Her eyes that should look
straight at me are
toward the window, glazed—
Not armored. Only armed
with pots and pans.
Not out of arm’s reach,
beyond curtains of doorbells,
She puts up ironwork
in her eyes; it draws a bolt
over what’s real—
then looks at me.
I wish I’d brought my saw.
Peter Taylor and Eleanor Ross Taylor were married for fifty-one years. He died in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 1994.
Where Somebody Died
The self refuses to appear
in this bare place.
It fears that mute chair
and the still window.
The sunlight scares it.
There might rise up a sound.
The door doesn’t like to move,
and the crow out there
hesitates; he knows
a hole flown into by mistake
would make a bite of him.
What was sits standstill in the chair,
hangs, stunned, against the dry-eyed light.
Nobody in sight.
Inanimate things, still lifeless.
This room’s so empty
I doubt I’m standing here;
there can’t be room for me
and total emptiness.
Only some far-off sounds persist.
The brute truck
over the interstate.
The flames in the incinerator
chewing his old vests.
Her talent was finally recognized with a series of awards and honors in her later years: 1998 Shelley Memorial Prize from the Poetry Society of America; 2000 Virginia Prize for Poetry from the Library of Virginia; 2000 Aiken Taylor Award for Modern American Poetry. In 2009, she was granted membership in the Fellowship of Southern Writers, and in 2010, won the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, awarded to a “living U.S. poet whose lifetime accomplishments warrant extraordinary recognition.”
Homesick in Paradise
You, light of sunset firing my back fence;
you, wren advising wrens where to bed down,
bypassing, as they close, baled lilies;
stars, inching in,
you, scalloped pillowcases;
you, pale lamp and fat paperback:
no otherworldly life
replaces you, my dreams
of flesh and bivouac.
Eternal peace won’t stop
my looking back
wild bouts of bliss.
No purity makes up for mongrel wags.
How’s cloudless sky to thrill
one hooked on storm of human kiss?
On up this stairway in the flickering light?
A handrail? . . .
Squeaky hinge? . . . Up, up . . . ?
Goodbye! My ticket’s stamped: tonight.
Eleanor Ross Taylor died on December 30, 2012, in Falls Church, Virginia, at the age of ninety-one. Its about 350 miles northeast as the crow flies from where she was born, but a journey of immeasurable distance from the nine-year-old girl whose first poem appeared in her hometown paper.
Captive Voices: New and Selected Poems, 1960–2008 (Louisiana State University Press, 2009)
Late Leisure (Louisiana State University Press, 1999)
Days Going/Days Coming Back (University of Utah Press, 1991)
New and Selected Poems (Stuart Wright, 1983)
Welcome Eumenides (George Braziller, 1972)
Wilderness of Ladies (McDowell, Obolensky, 1960)
- Eleanor Ross Taylor
- Fork and knife
- Corn snake
- Body and soul separating
- Old woman wearing lots of jewelry
- Jacques Cartier rose
- Unmade bed
- Eighty-year-old woman
- Traditional-style living room
- Garden path late afternoon
Word Cloud photo by Larry Cloud