Toby Olson

I’m sitting here looking at a copy of The House at Otowi Bridge: The Story of Edith Warner and Los Alamos, written by Peggy Pond Church and published in 1960, and I remember some of the circumstances in which this book was handed to me as a gift by Nathaniel Tarn. He had taken me to visit the ancient dwellings at Bandelier National Monument, not far from Santa Fe, and we had climbed a rickety ladder to view the ruin of a cliff dwelling. Later, we had entered the gift shop near by and he had purchased the book and handed to me. As I look at it now, only having recently read and enjoyed it, I recall our climbing that ladder, one behind the other, all the more vividly given the date below his signature. It was 1986. You might imagine two fairly mature guys acting a little like teenagers; he had to be close to 60, I was approach-ing 50. Now it’s twenty years later, and we’re both still traveling along and will, I trust, for a while more at least. 

But what of this particular book, one that I picked up again as I began thinking about writing something for Nathaniel at 80? Well, there are the locations. Both Nathaniel and Edith Warner had come from Pennsylvania to live in sight of Los Alamos. And both had come, one might say, for “the cure.” Warn-er’s illness was physical and Nathaniel’s might have felt that way, since he had been curing himself of another country and its poetry for quite a while. He’d become a citizen of the United State while living in New Hope (as I remember), then had traveled to an American heartland where the ancient qualities of this country were most apparent. He’d stripped himself of teaching and the East and had found what I assume to be his proper place, though place can mean a number of things, especially when it comes to Nathaniel and his travels, anthropology, and poetry.  

Of course Santa Fe has changed, as much as Los Alamos changed for Edith Warner. Still, she always seemed to see the spirit of the land beyond the growing monstros-ity of that “city,” and from his correspondence and his talk, always full of reports about expan-sion, new arrivals, and golf courses, I imagine Nathan-iel sees it too and lives in a certain peace in it.

The Hopi have a saying, quoted by Mary Austin in her Land of Journeys Ending, and this is found too in Church’s story of Edith Warner and is the epigraph to a poem I’ve written and now dedi-cate to Nathaniel. Much of that poem is here below.


-for Nathaniel

Straight as the Sacred Meal road over which the gods pass into the images of themselves.  

-Hopi saying

Something out of the corner of the eye

or in the eye;

something discovered in passing

[not nous of that passage]

within time spent in the concrete [a ladle,

a knife], recipes 

fallen down from a bookcase.

The meal of the day is flanken:

[Put meat in. And cover with water

or a little more than cover.]

blessings on the animal’s flesh treated

so well in the preparation. 

And carrots in the corner of the eye

in time spent in the passage. And dumplings

formed carefully in the hands.

[Cook until meat  

falls from bones. Constant skimming.]

And of course time passes in the treating

[turnips in the corner of the eye

rotting]; the animal passes 

to a final destination

[location possibly noted

in new growth], and we have come through 

yet again.  

[Put carrots and dumplings in. Continue

until all is ready.]

Something in the corner of knowledge

[in the nose in the passage],

which is not knowledge

[in the great passage] formed

carefully in the hands, but flesh of the animal

treated to carrots and destination

[the only passage], through yet again

to rise up in that new growth

in the garden [eggplant,

basil and broccoli],

something out of the corner of the eye,

received in the eye

[the nose].

Blood of the passage in constant skimming

which is not nous but coming through

yet again partially changed

until all is ready. Something [a side dish,

wine, a ladle] in a corner in living,

a woman’s knife and dumplings.

The meal of the days is discovered

in the corner of the eye’s passage,

in the flesh heated to release scent

of garlic for the nose

[in the corner where a woman stands],

for the palm cupping the ear

to the bubble 

[until the meat falls] 

which is not skimming knowledge.

Fallen down from a bookcase,

ingredients of the careful lesson

[recipes, a code, a knife]

gathered up from the floor of the dead

[location possibly noted]

given back into the corner of the eye,

not nous in the passage.

Seltzer on the table, a ladle, elbows,

compliments to the chef

[into a fanfare], treated

to carrots and destination.

And of course time passes

in time spent in the passage,

a simmer in the corner of the ear fallen

down from a counter,

recipes from a bookcase

there on the floor of the dead

flesh of the beast as a burnt patient.

The woman is carefully nursing,

down in the scent of garlic,

anticipated skimming,

putting the meat in [casual sacrament]

out of the corner of the eye, caught

partially changed

in the great passage [the only passage].

Cook until meat falls from bones,

until carrots grow vibrantly

dark orange color

in time spent in the concrete

[wound that will not heal].

. . .

It was a little more than twenty years before we’d traveled to Bandelier that I met Nathaniel Tarn for the first time, and I remember us at lunch with Jonathan Williams at his rented place in Aspen, Colorado, enjoying the cooking of Ron Johnson (who was for some reason absent) and talking about the poetry of William Carlos Williams. Perhaps Robert Vas Dias was there as well, but I’m not sure of that, though I am sure of our hike to a mountain hot springs along with a few other writers; maybe Gilbert Sorren-tino was one of us. Surely there is evidence. Both Tarn and Williams were adamant photographers. 

This was a brief, though for me intense, time. It was the 60s, and Aspen saw the passing through of many poets. Rexroth was there, Paul Goodman and others.  But it is Nathaniel and his love for American poetry, for flowers, mountain rivers, growths along the rugged trail that I remember most fondly. He was the purest of enthusiasts in a place already slightly jaded.  It would be a while before I’d see him again, at a party after a reading in New York City, and then a little later still, when Miriam and I were living in Philad-elphia and Nathani-el and Janet had taken up residence in New Hope, just a short distance away. It was not long after, possibly a few years, that Nathaniel, now retired from Rutgers, and Janet made their way to Santa Fe. We saw each other in the intervening years, both at our place on Cape Cod and most recent-ly when Miriam and I traveled to Santa Fe for a week’s vacation. This has been but a snap-shot of the record.

So time and place passed us by, but not unnoticed. And now I come to Nathaniel’s poetry, for after all that must be the central reason for writing this. I think of two oc-casions, one brief, the other extended. The first was a reading Nathaniel gave at the Univer-sity of Pennsylvania. I was asked to read with him, but cut my portion short because this reading was a celebra-tory one since it followed shortly upon the publication of Nathaniel’s Selected Poems. He gave a beautiful reading, but what strikes me in retrospect is the sense of other, in place and concern, that he brought into the rather civilized situation that is Kelly Writers House. The audience was respec-table, though small enough to be reached in an intimate way, and many seemed (I can only say) charmed by this anything but charm-ing reading. 

Then, just before that, and not quite twenty years since our trip to Bandelier National Monument and the Anasazi ruins, it was a drive from Cape Cod to Maine and that “Opening of the Field Conference on North American Poetry of the 1960s” at Orono, a place quite different in name and environment from Kelly Writers House, in another world near Bangor, Maine, where we set up camp in some non-descript motel.

It seemed a very long drive, and in the early morning of our first day, we set out at Nathaniel’s insistence, in quest for a Dunkin’ Donuts, where, I was informed, we could acquire good coffee even in this primitive part of the country. Then it was that my guide took us to a train museum he had undoubted-ly learned of from maps and brochures covering local lore. Only later in the day did we make our way to Orono, said name which I mistakenly thought might be related to the Orinoco Indian societ-ies in Venezuela, those who had discovered and used curare in their blow pipes causing paralyses. Orono, however, is a name without significant reference, though the conference did both promised and deliver some paralyses of its own. I remember Nathaniel approaching a well known gentleman theorist after he had delive-red a quite incomprehensible paper about something or other. Tarn asked the man about his arcane lingo, and was told jokingly something to the effect that “Well, they expect that here in Orono. I really don’t talk like that, but I have to do what’s expected of me.” A kind of adherence to local rituals, I supposed. 

So it went. A conference in which the field was open to some curious and interesting papers, though nothing that touched on the possible significance of the Vietnam War as far as I could determine. But then we didn’t hear all the papers. We spent as much time exploring the area as we did at the conference. We even took up afternoon travel to Bar Harbor, where we lunched, stroll-ed around, and purchased some going-home presents for Miriam and Janet.  

There was of course some poetry at the conference, poets from the West Coast as well as the East. Tarn read in his turn, and this time, hearing him in the company of the voices of other mature poets, I was struck by my inability to place his work as I could so easily do with them. I couldn’t place it in the 60s, nor in the East or West, not in the city or country, not even in America when it came to that. And it struck me that this was a quality that in other circumstances I would have thought of as suspect, though not in this case. I’ve thought of this quality often, but it was only the other day that I came upon a quotation that quite perfectly articulated it for me. What follows here is John Berger’s impressions upon hearing the poetry of Nazim Hikmet. He might just as well have been speaking about Nathaniel Tarn.       

“Hearing him read his poems..., I had the impres-sion that the words he was saying were also coming from the other side of the world. Not because they were difficult to understand (they were not), nor because they were blurred or weary (they were full of the capacity of endurance), but because they were being said to somehow triumph over distances and to transcend endless separations. The here of all his poems is elsewhere.”