through his early translation of Pablo Neruda’s “The Heights of Machu Picchu”—a translation that introduced a whole generation of American readers to that masterpiece. Yet Tarn was trained through his PhD as an academic anthropologist and has published over thirty books that are primarily literary. He has traveled widely yet is clearly a devoted gardener. He has studied the birds that share the planet with us, both in his backyard and in the faraway places where his work has taken him.
In his most recent major collection of poems, Ins and Outs of the Forest Rivers, he writes meditations on Renaissance art; prophetic cries of anguish against a culture that seems to demand endless war; laments for the millions of trees dying in our forests (“Our pines continue to die and continue to die— / funeral carpets of needles around their base”); and the title poem, which among other things is a narrative of a journey he undertook into the wild regions of Borneo when he was close to 80, a journey during which his guide died of a heart attack. None of this leads to easy explanations of the difficult questions of life, particularly for the artist or thinker “whose daily / work is close to prophecy, who feels it in his nerves / or in her muscles—where news travels up fast / and lodges in the eyes, all-seeing, all-pervading vision / of disaster.”
These larger issues, however, are always connected to the facts of this world. Nathaniel Tarn not only sees the smaller things, but he has studied them, knows their names and how they act. When he steps back to some kind of conclusion, it feels earned:
Let the bird joy, live, signify there is
some purpose in the purposeless.