The High Road to Taos
by Martin Edmunds
From the National Poetry Series
University of Illinois Press, 1994
Martin Edmund's poems in The High Road to Taos invite comparison to the celebrated prehistoric paintings of the Lascaux caves in France. Both include images on a huge scale, natural subjects, an undercurrent of strange spirituality, But they also leave the viewer with the sensation that the scenes and emotions they illustrate have long been dry. The reader is forced to wonder, "Has the passion, like the paint, faded with time, or is the artist receiving too much credit?"
The High Road to Taos, Edmunds's first collection, was chosen by poet Donald Hall as a 1993 National Poetry Series winner. His poems have previously appeared in The New Yorker, Southwest Review and anthologies of young poets.
Edmunds repeatedly confronts his readers with the same images, until they seem to be pictograms rather than unique visions. By the end of the volume, Edmunds has only succeeded in teaching his symbols for regret and desolation. The reader fears this may be all that Edmunds has to teach.
The work collected in The High Road to Taos, like the book's cover, has been treated with a wash of red tones. Invariably, it is the red of poetic melodrama: rust, dead roses, dried blood and red earth. These shades have long been standard images for poetic reflection, leaving to Edmunds only stains on memory.
When using a voice of chronological distance Edmunds' words are impotent. In a short poem, appropriately titled, "Weathering," the persona speaks with regret to his lover, "Remember last August, my desire/dying down like roses from toothed leaf to bud." Yet later in the poem, the speaker insists to his lover, "I want you." At this point the reader may be tempted to respond, "I don't think so." But perhaps a fistfull of red-dirt and a few dead roses would more adequately convey her regrets in the poet's own language.
Edmunds employs a variety of more erotic images in contrast to the high road of his title. As the name of the collection suggests, the poems in The High Road to Taos come from a writer on a journey of the spirit. The combination of eroticism and spirituality has inspired artists of all mediums, from the earliest stone carvings depicting voluptuous earth goddesses to the recorded pinings of Madonna. However, Edmunds's poems very rarely succeed at effectively merging his erotic and spiritual longings.
His personae worship women, sending out hosts of souls, spirits, and metaphorically disembodied hearts on pilgrimages to find their goddesses. The effort is futile, as the speaker in "I Have Tried to Find You" recognizes. (Please see poem below).
His heart is sent back after one such mission stained with red clay and cracked from the harsh sun. In Edmunds' voice of lament, he wishes he were green. He desires a different more alive form, to be "green rain on grass. "It may not be easy to being green, but it's better than being red in Edmunds's desert.
Edmunds's passion, painted in memory and reflection, soon dries to an uninteresting shade of melancholy. His inability to seem wholly present in his own memories weakens the collection. To move a reader, the poet must seem able to move himself, if only to show signs of life.
Although he falls short when invoking high passions, Edmunds invoking high passions, Edmunds proves a competent tour guide through more earthly terrain. His travels lead readers through the desert communities of New Mexico, and allow them to wander briefly into Egypt and Russia.
Edmunds's time travel is more successful when he ventures into the present tense of childhood, speaking actively instead of reminiscing. When he takes full possession of a subject, to the extreme of metamorphosis, the poems find their strongest voice. This strategy also lets Edmunds play with the vocabulary and mythology of several cultures.