“Tag,” The New Yorker October 6, 2008
“Tag” is a relationship poem in two parts. Part one, titled THIS, is a 17 line stanza followed by a one-liner; part two, titled YOUR, is one 11 line stanza built with a few particular oddities that distinctly separate it from the former.
The overall gist is this: it’s the first full month of Spring, and the speaker (let’s say a woman though nothing in the poem necessarily indicates it) bears witness to the world in rejuvenation; however, she feels separated from it, unnatural in her feelings, which seem locked not in rebirth but in (re)loss. The images of trees and their “red branches,” “green shoot areas,” and a “river, that one” are stand-ins for the new life of the new year. Water’s flowing; flowers are blooming. And these items of nature have fought hard for “their scraped-out place” in the world with an appetite for more than just survival. Carson begins the poem (the THIS excepting) with “Insatiable April,” and the poem’s tone is set: the world of nature is taking over with a hunger that cannot be satisfied. It’s impossible not to think of Eliot’s The Waste Land here: “April is the cruelest month, breeding / Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing / Memory and desire, stirring / Dull roots with spring rain. Memory, desire, cruelty—these are things with which “Tag” will become concerned.
Interestingly, Carson’s speaker would seem to share this hunger, this longing for new life budding out of the old, but her appetite is discreet from Spring’s. She says, “I have longed for people before, I have loved people before” and “I walk and walk with cold hands . . . . [there is] nothing to carry longing away.” The word longing bears with it a sense of loss that insatiable desire doesn’t; the former suggests a need for something the speaker never had, perhaps, or cannot regain, and the latter suggests a need that is being met, that is being regained…it’s just never enough. In the poem, there’s never enough dirt and water for the world of Spring although it gobbles all it can. The speaker, on the other hand, isn’t gobbling anything, her loss total. A few details illustrate this difference, one being the speaker’s cold hands, a clear reference to the past since the poem is set in April. She’s stuck in winter while the natural world turns red and green with Spring’s vitality. She’s at odds with the world, with moving forward. She says, “I surprised a goose and she hissed,” directly relating this conflict. The bottom line is Carson’s speaker is an isolated woman. Why? She explains she has “loved people before,” but “[i]t was not like this. // Give me a world, you have taken the world I was.”
Carson’s lineation and phrasing adds to the drama a bit, too. The odd, stand-alone tags THIS and YOUR don’t clearly reference their objects. The stanzas themselves, particularly the first, are built with short fragments, sentences, and the occasional splice—a variety of incongruently phrased phrases. As well, every line in the poem’s first half is endstopped, placing each on its own level whether or not it resonates with those immediately above and below it. Most of these stops are periods: total.
The poem’s second half begins sort of the same way and in places has the feel of fragmentation and incongruity—largely caused by the dashes, the opening parentheses, and brackets—but what follows is built as a long sentence with a few awkward enjambments and a few hard, dash-indicated endstops. Lines and ideas flow into and out of each other here, and it’s difficult to tell how what pairs with what. Grammatically, the “Feigned leap” that begins the long sentence describes the “I” that is the sentence’s grammatical subject, which is poetically strange and difficult to interpret, though a feigned leap does seem to fit the speaker who isn’t leaping into the river or Spring or anything else, who is stuck in the source of her loss.
The teeny inklings of narrative in the first half of the poem have disappeared in part two, as well: no sense of setting, no sense of immediate action. This is very much an internalized, thinking speaker we’re dealing with now. The brackets demonstrate in real-time her loss for words, among other things: “river glimpsed through bare / [waiting] / [some noun] for how thought breaks up around you not here . . . “ The speaker seems literally to be waiting for inspiration, and readers get to fill in the missing pieces, as bracketed, when she comes up short. Are these bare branches she’s looking through, an analogy to the winter of her heart and mind? “Thought breaks up,” she says, “around you not here . . .”
Thus, the signs of the day—“what Hölderlin calls die Tageszeichen”—are unhealable wounds, scars that cover up unrelinquishable pain from a loss so total the speaker’s no longer capable of recognizing what should be fully recognizable, her lover’s handwriting, a signature (pardon the pun) trait. The real signs of the day—the nature imagery in the first half—are hidden to her. As well, she doesn’t know to whom these mentioned addresses belong, which only adds to her loss. Whoever they were, there were others . . . lovers, friends, who knows.
In some ways, she’s become IT, so to speak, the loser. She’s been tagged, labeled, and with her lover out of the picture, she has no one to touch.