Nathaniel Tarn, The Hölderliniae (New Directions, 2021)

Two lives, side by side, separated only by language, culture, and 200 years. In this double portrait, one lives at the beginning of a dream of what renewal — both personal and cultural — poetry might yet achieve; the other lives at the dark end of such great hope. The first life is that of Friedrich Hölderlin, the poet who, at the beginning of the 19th century, revived the classical past and, to address our alienation from our world and from each other, posited a philosophically attuned nature worship. The second life is in progress, and currently being conducted by his “brother of two hundred years,” Nathaniel Tarn.

But this book-length poem is ultimately neither biography nor autobiography. It’s a 30-part meditation, in incantatory cadences, upon ecstasy and suffering. It’s an ode to how we are, all of us, ripped in two and inexpertly mended by fate, left to live “a torn existence in a torn heart.”

Milton once called on Blake. Dante took Eliot aside. And Lorca abided in Jack Spicer. In poetry, the dead drop in on the living. What invite was issued by Tarn? What inspired a German Romantic poet, noted for his odes to the Greek classical world, to the glories of mountains, rivers, and pastoral landscapes, to visit modern-day New Mexico? Tarn’s two most immediate earlier books? They are harrowing updates on much that Hölderlin held dear. Ins and Outs of the Forest Rivers (2008) and Gondwanda (2017) examined drought, deforestation, politics; they are clear eyed, less than hopeful, but nonetheless offer hymns to the persistent grandeur of the natural world despite the wounds we wreak upon it.

In short, humankind’s new and more cordial relation to the natural world has yet to occur. But Tarn persists in imagining it possible. Even amid invective against defilers and polluters, amid turns of thought immensely skeptical, his poem sings of higher orders of self-understanding. In the spirit of Hölderlin, as well as Wordsworth and Blake, Tarn has for decades dedicated extraordinary imaginative effort to elaborating a vision of the earth as a deified female presence. The Hölderliniae is in part a paean to this goddess, made under great duress, sung, in part, from a volcano’s edge:

Empedokles stands on the rim, the home of fire itself, looks back
and then looks down at his fair earth. In thought, in meditation on
the earth, the I who’d followed in the father’s paths recalled his
mother’s milk, his mother’s smile. I thinks that, if men could kill
these famine filled religions and give allegiance to one single
Goddess, the man-made storms, menace to earth’s very existence,
could, through one mode of labor in devotion, succor the planet.
Then the great open field of man’s endeavors would at long last
live to the very time when planet after planet joined in a marriage
dance and all the universe’s races could live in endless peace. Out
of his memory stood forth the She, the goddess Gaia accepting at
long last this man’s devotion to his mother’s kind. A rest be history.

In the dark of our moment, Hölderlin inspires anew. Read closely, taken to heart, he could forestall the rapidly approaching environmental end times. Tarn calls upon him as a guide through the nightmare of what has been made of the world so beautifully imagined in his long-ago hymns to a harmonious creation. But Tarn also perceives how longings for a better way to be in the world are what destroyed Hölderlin: are what provoked alienation from family, amorous disaster, ridicule by peers, penury, and finally, madness.

For Hölderlin then, and for Tarn now, poetry, a poetry with visionary ambitions, written at deep personal cost, heroically arising from unhappiness, is the means to imagine a more balanced and just world, and to find within ourselves the strength to live within it.

While The Hölderliniae is a moving tribute to a poetic brother, told in powerfully imagined moments and including translations of essential Hölderlin texts, the author’s ultimate accomplishment is the dexterity and lyrical exactitude with which he unfolds his own life, its interiority and history of amorous catastrophe, his political passion and perilous moods. Passage upon dazzling passage interweaves Hölderlin’s and the author’s lives.

Tarn touches deeply yet lightly upon his life as a child refugee in England during the Second World War, as an anthropologist in both Burma and Guatemala, as an émigré to the United States, as a son, lover, husband, and father, Although beset by “existential depression,” he was uplifted by an overwhelming passion for the natural world. The Hölderliniae is the Tarniae, an epic of a beset quest for self-understanding. The poem is an inspiring and at times devastating tally of what the call to a life of art demands.

For his entire writing life, which now spans over 70 years, Nathaniel Tarn has pursued  the highest possibilities of poetry, as nothing less than a union of history, imagination, critical thought, a lived life, and spiritual revelation. This masterful poem, Tarn’s summa poetica, was written, not in retrospect, but in the fury of a still-unfolding fate. It is extraordinary, the passion that is the music of these pages.

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Joseph Donahue

Joseph Donahue's most recent volumes of poetry are Wind Maps I-VII (Talisman 2018), and The Disappearance of Fate (Spuyten Duyvil, 2019). He is the co-translator of First Mountain,...