by Shelly Taylor
A review by John Findura
Tarpaulin Sky Press. 88 pages. $12
I was on a train somewhere between Trenton and Baltimore when I reached this section of Shelly Taylor’s Black-Eyed Heifer:
On the outskirts of the limit line’s an old wooden covered bridge, creaks & echoes mack dab in the middle. I might load you up & take you there, were you of the things that stand freely & grope. Searchplane? Searchplane. Every which a way I know I want only from my own.
In some kind of déjà vu it brought me back years ago when I took a train from Newark to New Orleans. Because of the excessive July heat, the train managed to break down, lose its air-conditioning, and pull into New Orleans Union Passenger Terminal a mere 36 hours after leaving The Garden State. Along the way we picked up a rag-tag band of travelers—some on business, some on vacation, some just completely lost, and two girls in their early-20s with a two-month train pass who were traveling the country by rail.
One of them, with dreadlocks and a nose ring, was originally from Portland, Oregon. The other, the one with the bandanna and five-pounds of necklaces, grew up in Georgia. I know this because in the middle of the night I listened to them talking across the aisle. Their lilting, rambling murmur plucked me from my own whirling thoughts and into some strange, uncanny valley. The titillating thrill of eavesdropping balanced with my own self-awareness: there was something thrilling in sensing the shifts of culture and accents within one’s own country—in lives too close to conveniently categorize as “other.” It’s that experience that mimics what it feels like to read Taylo’s mixture of prose and poetry: a pageant of unclassifiable lines that seem as if they were just plucked from the humid ether.
Around 3am Bandanna-Girl starting telling Dreadlock-Girl about living on the family farm in Georgia. I’m sure she mentioned the town, and its name was probably something really pleasing to the ear, like Juniper Springs or Waterloo Hollow. She talked about how she had named all the cows and could describe each of their personalities. Then Bandanna-Girl started talking about the horses and how her mother would stand out on the porch and call to her and tell her to wipe down the horses, and she would carry buckets of water across the yard and pour it over their twitching muscles. Bandanna-Girl still had a thick Southern Peach accent and said things like “you know it’s time when it’s time,” a phrase which could make its home on any page of Black-Eyed Heifer.
Somewhere in the south, the air-conditioning went and the train stopped. The car was only half filled, but had the strong smell of people—not in a negative way, but in the way a pair of work jeans can tell you its owner’s occupation even after a thousand washes. Almost everyone was asleep. The couple in the two seats in front of me had passed out after trying to have covert sex under a blanket for an hour-and-a-half. But Bandanna-Girl was still talking about her cousin who used to build go-carts as a kid and when he was 16 he started racing stock cars, and she was mad because he made some money and his mother, her aunt, sold their two horses which Bandanna-girl had cared for. There was a single fly buzzing around us.
For 30 hours I was unable to sleep and listened to these two girls talk. In Mississippi we stopped for an hour at a small station and were allowed to walk around outside. It was morning—even so, the air was dusty and thick. When I re-boarded the train, two guys in their early-20s had taken the seats in front of Bandanna-Girl and Dreadlock-Girl. They both wore tee-shirts with no sleeves and green John Deere hats. They looked like they had been called in from the casting department.
They told the girls they were headed to New Orleans for the weekend and that they should join them. The girls politely demurred. The boys took out chewing tobacco and the girls went to the snack car. I must have fallen asleep because I came to with a jolt, the collar of my shirt soaking with sweat. The conductor shook my shoulder. I grabbed my bag and got off the train.
I never saw those girls again, but the memory of them, of their endless conversation, their subtle dismissal of these two boys, their sweaty, bare shoulders disembarking a too hot and too broken-down train in Louisiana—it comes back to me now.
As Taylor writes it:
When you need to know what you need, look to your ladies. Each one goes in & comes out alone. A man could never tell you this in this way.
This book is Taylor’s first full-length effort. And retelling my overlong, untidy vignette is the closest I can come to describing her work. The language, the imagery, the quiet suffocation of stagnant air and the smell of tired muscles: Black-Eyed Heifer is 88-pages of overheard conversations, snippets of thoughts, feet pounding on the wooden porch followed by the screams of horses.
Black-Eyed Heifer is also filled with a rural kind of dark wisdom—the kind of living some of us have forgotten, the kind with “Brown lawns, tumbleweed in the nosegay handle” where “the windows are boarded up” and a “Big truck hums the way a fine diesel should.”
Pieces of some type of shattered Southern Gothic spring up continuously, such as in this section, where the speaker admits:
I have dreams I watch over the dead bodies of people I’ve never met, all stretched out & I’m bodiless myself but there. Whether or not I ever meet these people the scenario is of a third-eye layout. The corner spec becomes the horse, draws up to the man with a lasso who is tipping his hat, giddy-up, whipping off for morning a large-scale fire on the tin< roofs the moon just left again forever.
With little plot to sustain itself, what is to be gained from Black-Eyed Heifer? Maybe a language. A language laid down upon a forgotten geography. Maybe a view into a slower way of life. Maybe a voyeuristic listen into a secret conversation on a train, or next to a derelict payphone down the street from the local Publix. This is the new geography and language of Yoknapatawpha County; in Taylor’s pages the words slowly grow over you like kudzu. Slowly, but inevitably, they overtake the soil, the roads, the train tracks, your whole country.
John Findura is a Pushcart Prize nominee and a guest blogger for The Best American Poetry blog; his poetry and criticism appear in journals such as Verse, Fugue, Fourteen Hills, Copper Nickel, No Tell Motel, H_NGM_N, Jacket, and Rain Taxi, among others. Born in Paterson, he lives in Northern New Jersey with his wife and daughter.