Out of the dust: Tess Taylor’s poems for a modern California

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In 1936, Dorothea Lange left her home, which lay nestled on a quiet street in northeastern  Berkeley, and set out toward Highway 101. She carried with her notebooks and a Graflex Series D revolving back camera. Commissioned by the Farm Security Administration to raise public awareness for the destitution facing rural farmers, Lange traveled down through California and toward the southern plains of the United States.

These were Dust Bowl years. Unceasing winds carried black blizzards across the United States’ prairie lands, through the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma, across the western half of the New Mexico and Kansas southern border. Families salvaged what they could — some food, a blanket — piled into jalopy cars and drove away from their buried tillage toward uncertain fates.

Dorothea Lange photographed their exodus, a desperate migration that would become the largest in the United States’ history.

Now, more than 80 years later, another Californian is following in her footsteps. Tess Taylor, an acclaimed writer who was born and raised in the Bay Area, has spent the last year traveling back to the places in California that Lange once photographed. From her travels, she has written a book of poetry, “Last West,” that will be a part of the Museum of Modern Art’s “Dorothea Lange: Words & Pictures” exhibit this upcoming spring.

“I looked at archives of Dorothea Lange’s work at the Oakland Museum (of California), and I realized there was this phenomenal trove, not of her photographs, but of her notes,” Taylor said. “When she was getting ready to take photographs of people, she would go up to them and talk to them for a little while before running back to the car and writing down what they’d said.”

The patchwork portrait Taylor weaves of the United States, with a dust-painted skein and inherited bodkin, asks questions of equal nature. “What is your name?” her poetry seems to wonder. “What do you do here?”

Taylor was surprised by how poignant she found Lange’s short, scribbled entries to be. They somehow managed to be both questions of the quotidian and questions addressing what it is like to be alive: How much money do you make? What is the weather like?

The patchwork portrait Taylor weaves of the United States, with a dust-painted skein and inherited bodkin, asks questions of equal nature. “What is your name?” her poetry seems to wonder. “What do you do here?”

After reading Lange’s notes, the idea of going out with a notebook to the same places Lange visited in California began to preoccupy Taylor. And so, laden with notebooks. Taylor traced Lange’s route, winding through Coachella, Calipatria and Holtville and back up Highway 99 and toward Edison, Tulare and La Loma. Tess’s poems tell modern stories of change and dissonance: children playing in a batting cage straddling the U.S.-Mexico border, a hotel trade flourishing as people wait to see their families at the detention center, crumbling trailers next to forthcoming housing developments, school children helping pick fruit in a field.

“I did drive a lot this year,” Taylor said, “long roads, deserts, odd beautiful raw corners of California.” She wondered if revisiting where Lange traveled and the violence she caught on film — mass homelessness, internment, poor labor — could be helpful in relating to the world we live in now.

The California that Taylor saw, she said, is very much the aftermath of the place Lange photographed almost a century ago. In the 1930s, the United States found itself facing economic ruin so profound and ubiquitous that the entire era was awarded the epithet of the Great Depression.

Taylor asks us to consider: What will this time — now — be called in future years?

“What should we call this era when there are a literal mile of tents outside Sacramento, when 46,000 people are living without shelter in the Bay Area? When elderly people are sliding into homelessness and most of us in this area (and possibly this country) live in longstanding, attenuated precarity?” Taylor said.

In Taylor’s poetry, Lange’s scrawl sits next to these observations of the contemporary United States.

“I’m interested in the way that historical consciousness can remind us that the epidemics we’re facing now are so deeply a part of who we’ve always been,” Taylor said. “Not in a deterministic way. But in a way that allows us to see this sort of through-line of our difficult American project.”

In Taylor’s poetry, Lange’s scrawl sits next to these observations of the contemporary United States.

Taylor moves along this historical through-line throughout her works. Her 2013 collection of poems, “The Forage House,” deals with Taylor’s personal reconciliation with historical consciousness and her investigation into her own historical identity as a descendant of founding father and slave owner Thomas Jefferson. “Slunk into your study filled with pedestals,” she writes in “A Letter to Jefferson from Monticello,” “translations of the Bible, Livy, Herodotus,/ porcelain head of Voltaire as inkwell, plans for/ an ornamental farm, Nouvelle Maison Carrée, feeling that Rome might yet exist, forum, project/ of appropriation: your America./ O hypocrite – you make me tired.”

Another of Taylor’s forthcoming books, “Rift Zone,” which is set to be released this spring, sees this through-line become a fault line. Weaving through El Cerrito, Calif., across the Hayward Fault, past Spanish land grants, mobsters, cathedrals of redwood groves, locations where school shootings occurred, Berkeley in the ‘80s, and San Francisco today — where “a barefoot teenager/ scratches his sores” — Taylor writes poems of a place that is dissonant. Yet she does so by writing of moments, focusing on place, presence and beauty.

In “Rift Zone,” Taylor writes of green summer aspens standing over roads built from the labor of exploited Chinese and Irish Immigrants. “I’m not sure the poem means to choose exactly how to feel,” Taylor explained in a follow-up email. “It was more about standing in a place that has always been a strange combination of beauty and violence, both of which we inherit in some broken, repeating, syncopated measure.”

Taylor’s poetry often captures moments that feel contradictory, like children dancing up against political borders while they play before dinner. This is important to Taylor — that poetry can allow us to think about things that are discordant and allow ourselves to feel a little bit destabilized.

“As a reader of poetry,” Taylor said, “that’s what I look to poetry for — this passionate rerouting of the body into this breath, and this complicated network of words that somehow resets me enough to be able to face the difficult world.”

Contact Katherine Blesie at [email protected].

Correction(s):
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Dorothea Lange left Berkeley in 1935. In fact, she left in 1936.

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Dorothea Lange lived beside Codornices Creek. In fact, she lived on Virginia Street, which is not near Codornices Creek.