Phil Taggart’s new book of poems, Walking the Dog in a Time of Rage, is a mosaic of at least 4 different narratives. Each enters and exits a multitude of times and, together, they exemplify balance and restraint, in this time of overflowing emotion.
The motifs that Taggart works with are his own walks to strengthen a recovering ankle, the fantastical (and yet profoundly appropriate) commentary of Mothra and the Luminous Twins, the wisdom of three ancient Satyrs, and the current atmosphere of politics, illness (and bottled-up frustration). If that sounds like a mish-mash of a too broad expanse of issues, know that Taggart, employs his expertise, negotiates the tight-rope walk with aplomb.
In one of his most piercing poems, “He’s Okay,” Taggart narrates an interaction between himself and a homeless young man at a gas station. Taggart recognizes the young man’s pain and leads him to resources that might help. In this piece, the tone, not the plot of the poem is most important.
As he did in his previous collection, Rick Sings, Taggart's work identifies with this unhoused boy, takes him in hand, the way one might any teen, regardless of their housing status. He writes:
He walks over stands near me
sort of like a boy does to his father
when needs and can’t ask
And in three lines, the young man goes from being a stranger to someone the reader can identify with intensely. This is not some grimy figure, some distant creature set apart from the world. This young man is someone’s son, could have been Taggart’s son, could have been the reader’s. That silent need creates such a tension in the poem that the possibility of hope feels more satisfying and conclusive. Taggart has identified this young man as in search of something innately human, something the reader knows. He’s not looking for a handout, but the opposite, clinging to what’s left of his dignity and yet needing and not asking for help. Taggart provokes deep emotion with a facility that leaves the reader dizzy
Another way that he keeps the reader off-kilter is through the structural choices he makes.
Taggart’s poems sprawl across the page, as much space lies between phrases and words horizontally as vertically. The way that Taggart dresses the full page in words creates a visual of balance that the reader can settle into, and can begin to rely on. A distinct rhythm.
Having created this comfort, Taggart uses interrupting his flow in order to catch the reader off guard or keep them on their toes. The reader might imagine a teacher, which Taggart happens to be, flashing an image at his class, in order to keep the students focused as he educates them.
Taggart breaks his lines, chops off their tails or begins them and then abruptly interrupts. A good example of both the poet’s structure and his interruption can be found in his poem “I want to be Sedated,” which reads:
“rage and fear turned off social discourse no
discussion no compromise this
is a riot in slow motion”
The irony in these lines, while humorous, comes not from the words themselves, but from the visual of them and their decapitated state. The word “this,” on the previous line, serves to create a momentary tension in the reader, who knows that something significant is being introduced, but cannot be certain of what until the next line holds. The rapidity of that drop after the “this,” where the eye hurries determine what comes next, the content of that third line, which slows everything else down with its expansiveness, demonstrates Taggart’s intense skill in controlling pace. He leads the reader through a poem, and creates balance through interruption that might, at first, be considered jarring.
This is not unlike the book in general.
Walking the Dog in a Time of Rage is, in many ways, a study in restraint. Taggart may have a choice word for the MAGA flags and the neighbors who fly them on their big trucks, he may have the instinct to fight back, as in the titular poem, but he holds himself in reserve, plods on to strengthen his ankle, and saves the commentary for the mythological characters.
This review has highlighted poems from the realistic and political thread of this collection, but anyone would be remiss not to comment on the inclusion of fantasy into the book and the way in which Taggart uses the presence of the mythical figures of centaurs, Mothra, and the Luminous Twins, to comment on the meat of the urgent current issues discussed in the rest of the book.
Their personalities and interplay add a farcical aspect to the collection, but their concerns in the quiet moments that are their response to modern reality cut the reader deep and cut the issues to the quick in a way that, should he have spoken to the reader directly in a manifesto-type of poem, might have been easier to ignore. By including the fantastical, Taggart invites the reader into the realm of play, a moment with their guard down, into which he infuses truths. It is masterfully done.
When looked at as a whole, Walking the Dog in a Time of Rage, does create an image for the reader. The image Taggart has pieced together through his often humorous or playful poems might only be visible upon reflection. What appeared to this reader was a vision of the current moment, drawn tense by the things not said and the actions not taken (especially in reference to the climate). Taggart’s compassionate eyes remind us that we may have run out of time:
Oh Mothra, preserve us.