'This Is a Californian Feeling': Poet Tess Taylor Captures Life on the Brink in 'Rift Zone'

5 min
Tess Taylor poses at the entrance to El Cerrito Foundation Memorial Grove. (Chloe Veltman/KQED)

Shortly before the state of California ordered its citizens to retreat indoors, I met up with poet Tess Taylor for a hike on a steep hill near her home.

It was one of those perfect California days: warm; dappled sun; early spring flowers popping.

Everything looked and smelled tangy.

"There are so many smells to love here, like rosemary or Ponderosa pine needles in the sun," said Taylor, as we hiked up the steep gravely trail to the summit. "All of these are very specific California smells."

California poppies and a fire hydrant — among the many signs of natural and manmade activity on our hike. (Chloe Veltman/KQED)

But every few steps we saw signs of mankind’s interference with nature: chain link fences; “No Trespassing” signs; the scarred remains of an old quarry.

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"When people came to California and were settling it, they just kind of ripped this hillside open," Taylor said.

The aggressive contrast between California's beauty and its many natural and manmade hazards forms the backbone of  Taylor’s poetry collection, "Rift Zone," which is out this month.

She wrote these poems before the coronavirus pandemic made life even more precarious for Californians. But the poet’s words speak powerfully to the present moment.

Taylor — whose resume includes reviewing poetry for NPR's All Things Considered, winning national awards and appearing in The New York Times and The Atlantic, among other publications — grew up in the town of El Cerrito, just north of Berkeley.

The poet Tess Taylor released her poetry collection "Rift Zone" this month. (Taylor Schreiner)

"I moved into one of these little bungalows and went to the elementary school across the street," Taylor said. "Everybody that we knew was a retired shipyard worker from the Richmond shipyards."

She left for college in the 1990s, and then settled for a while in New York.

"I had grown up thinking, I'm done with El Cerrito," she said. "I'm never coming back."

But after about 13 years, the Golden State did lure Taylor back. By that point, she'd gotten married and was pregnant with her first child.

"Suddenly, all I wanted was to be home in California near a lemon tree. That's what I dreamed of," Taylor said. "And so we did that."

Those sunny California lemons still smiled on the tree. But Taylor also saw life here had gotten a whole lot tougher, especially for those less fortunate than herself.

"Jammed on a freeway forever and ever," Taylor said. "So much inequality. Watching people be unable to continue to make rent."

"California Suites," a cluster of four poems in "Rift Zone," speaks to the whiplash Taylor felt upon returning to her home state.

Suburbs reveal thoughtless paving; drains
gargle now where salmon spawned.
Plum blossoms eddy
next to candy wrappers.
Between storms, the light is mercury.
Huge wet sets hillsides careening,
hurtling down what fault line just thrust up.

Taylor said she wrote "Rift Zone" during what she saw as a decade of state and national upheaval — years marked by devastating wildfires, escalating gun violence, the persistent lack of a social safety net and the profound, disorienting feeling of insecurity that comes with all of that.

The book jacket for "Rift Zone," Tess Taylor's new poetry collection, published by Red Hen Press. (Red Hen Press)

"The feeling that we are living on a fault line, that we are living in a time when things feel like they're wrenching and twisting," Taylor said. "And this is a Californian feeling. But it's also a world feeling, our national feeling of being on the brink."

Standing at the top of the hill, the landscape unfolded before us: shipyards; an oil refinery; trains whistling through the suburbs; the waters of the San Francisco Bay; far off in the distance, a view of Mount Tamalpais.

We took it all in, then set off on our way back down.

If it weren’t for the coronavirus, Taylor would be on a book tour right now, traveling to appear at 45 events across three countries. When we recently reconnected over video chat, she told me these have all been canceled or postponed.

"It's like a big sandcastle: 10 years of work and then just watching it go away from you in a way that you sort of can't control," she said. "And in another way, it feels like, how dare I grieve this 10-year book of poetry when there are so many other things to grieve?"

Our conversation sent my thoughts back to the day of our hike.

Before we set off, we stood gazing up at a pair of enormous redwood trees in the poet’s backyard.

"There's nothing quite like measuring your life against a redwood tree," Taylor said. "It really sort of puts everything in perspective, doesn't it?"

Those redwoods figure prominently in "Rift Zone." And in the ensuing weeks since Taylor showed them to me, their symbolism has grown even more, as in this extract from "California Suites":

Your new house is younger
than your mother.
At your bottle brush,
native hummingbirds.
Behind them, two huge redwoods wait.
In redwood years, these trees
are babies. They overlook
your fragile real estate.

Taylor said the redwoods in her backyard are only around 80 years old. In 1,000 years, they’ll still be standing — barring chainsaws and blights. And the events of 2020 will be buried deep in their rings.

To find out more about Tess Taylor's "Rift Zone," or to buy an ebook or paperback copy, click here.

Here are the four entire poems that make up "California Suites," from Tess Taylor's "Rift Zone":

CALIFORNIA SUITES

I. Rainy Season

Season of mud, of swollen gullies,
storms lashing off the Pacific, flinging
wet across our solstice months.
We call this bitter damp the winter
but it is different than rosy cheeks or blizzards
or catalogs of kids in reindeer sweaters:
Our winter turns the hillsides emerald.
Suburbs reveal thoughtless paving; drains
gargle now where salmon spawned.
Plum blossoms eddy
next to candy wrappers.
Between storms, the light is mercury.
Huge wet sets hillsides careening,
hurtling down what fault line just thrust up.
Now ferns glisten, redwoods blacken.
Now cold buckeye seed & lemons come.
In rain, streets grow riverine,
ferrying our cargo to the ocean.
O cold spray & green reclaiming:
In you, we are all tributaries.

II. Sempervirens
-California Redwood

We have no old cathedrals here
except for redwood groves
that wait in parks
behind brass plaques. Signs
date the oldest to Columbus or
William the Conqueror;

new roads wind to suburbs
that replace them. The plaques
are odd, as if we lack
another way to hold in mind
their presences—
eons

passed in widening,
hosting murrelets & owls.
They carve the real estate
of centuries. They calendar
the former climate’s fires.
White settlers

cut them down
& made them cheap
& turned them back
into a luxury.
Now we stroke their burls
with short-lived hands.

They model wise economy.
Each ring is still a living record,
a transitive, ongoing,
giant conjugate for being
rhyming out
inside its own slow time.

They widen now
as ripples do
on deep & pooling streams.

III. El Camino Real

The corridor parades its stucco newness.
What king was it that built this highway?
Jornaleros in wide bucket hats

wait for hire beneath the onramps.
Blocks fill with retirees from somewhere colder.
Chapped garages hold canned food & water

hoarded against sure disaster.
In sharp heat, the lava gardens bleach.
The man a few blocks over with his lettuces,

raw twang & melanomic skin
saw me walking with my infant son.
He said hey lady, keep in mind

I have a gun. You can take my lemons if I offer,
but steal em—bam—you’ll know who’s boss.

IV. Escrow

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Flood, earthquake, fire.
Your house may end in mudslide,
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you may live downwind of poison breezes
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You must assert you have
considered agricultural toxins; the risk
inherent in tectonic plates.
Signing on the dotted line allots you
a postcard plot of Golden State. Will
it be cancerous? God-willing
not to you. Your new house is younger
than your mother.
At your bottlebrush,
native hummingbirds.
Behind them, two huge redwoods wait.
In redwood years, these trees
are babies. They overlook
your fragile real estate.