Around the Press in 80 Books: The Flying Change

In celebration of LSUP’s 80th anniversary the staff selected 80 of our most memorable titles. Adding to our “Around the Press in 80 Books” blog series, Digital Initiatives and Database Manager Bobby Keane writes about The Flying Change.

flying change (noun) – a movement in horse riding in which the leading leg at the canter is changed without breaking gait while the horse is in the air

I am 38 years old. Teetering on the edge of middle age. At a point in my life where I have lived long enough to know some things about life but not long enough to know how little knowledge that actually is. Long enough to know that change is life’s only constant but not long enough to completely abandon the possibility of permanence.

Henry Taylor was approaching his middle age when he wrote the poems that are collected in The Flying Change. These poems show that the poet understands that he is soon to have more years behind him than are left in front of him. He acknowledges the inevitability of old age while still clinging tightly to the present.

Sometimes when I cup water in my hands
and watch it slip away and disappear,
I see that age will make my hands a sieve;
but for a moment the shifting world suspends
its flight and leans to the sun once more,
as if to interrupt its mindless plunge
through works and days that will not come again.
I hold myself immobile in bright air,
sustained in time astride the flying change.

I have lived long enough to have made thousands of memories and long enough to have forgotten thousands more. Long enough to have met hundreds of people and long enough to have forgotten their names and faces. I can see the face of my high school Latin teacher but I can’t recall her name, even though I spent three years sitting in her class. I remember the name of my girlfriend in fifth grade and the fact that she had blonde hair, but I wouldn’t recognize her now if we were in the same room. Taylor captures the jarring experiences of being faced with the limitation of memory that comes with getting older and the frustration of almost remembering something or someone.

At times it is like watching a face you have just met,
trying to decide who it reminds you of —
no one, surely, whom you have ever hated or loved,
but yes, somebody, somebody. You watch the face
as it turns and nods, showing you, at certain angles,
a curve of the lips or a lift of the eyebrow
that is exactly right, and still the lost face eludes you.

While I have lived long enough to have experienced many things I can’t fully remember, there are some things I will never forget, no matter how much I wish I could. Taylor’s most powerful poems focus on these types of memories. In “Landscape with Tractor,” the speaker describes coming across a dead body while mowing a large field. He recalls the shock of the finding and then laments the fact that from now on, every time he mows that particular patch of grass he will always see her there. In “One Morning, Shoeing Horses”, the speaker says that he is always nervous while shoeing horses because he remembers a day, 10 years before, working alongside a blacksmith who accidentally got his wedding band caught in a driven nail. His yelp of pain spooked the horse and the blacksmith’s finger was torn off of his hand. In another poem about a catastrophe brought about by spooked horse, “Barbed Wire,” Taylor describes the horrifying scene of a horse flinching while it was trying to eat some grass on the other side of a barbed wire fence.

Not all of the poems in The Flying Change are dark, however. Some are funny and introduce us to colorful characters, such as the man in “Varieties of Religious Experience”:

This old day-worker, cleaning up
the grounds of an abandoned church,
getting ready to paint & put in glass,
said somebody from away from here
had bought it & was going to start
using it again. Well, it had been
a Methodist church, were these Methodists?
He believed it wasn’t anybody like that,
no sir, he said; it is some of these
holy-sanctified God damn people.

The Flying Change is a strong, strong collection of poems and well-deserving of the Pulitzer Prize Henry Taylor won for it in 1985. The praise of another Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, Maxine Kumin, sums it up perfectly:

Like the well-schooled horse changing leads in mid-air, Henry Taylor makes us perceive the grace of that moment of suspension. For him it is a moment of acute recognition of our mortality, our connection to the past, our need to love.

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