|The Lam's Tough on a Goil:|
The Mirrored Goods of Knowing and of Saying
On The Works of Paula Tatarunis
1952 - 2015
by Wendy Videlock
n his introduction to Simone Weil's "The Need for Roots", TS Eliot tells us, Agreement is secondary; what is important is to make contact with a great soul.
Having twice won the Massachusetts Arts Fellowship and having placed some 200 poems in prestigious venues, Paula Tatarunis, a medical doctor, photographer, essayist, and prolific poet, woke one morning and quite suddenly quit the publishing biz, explaining to her husband, Who the hell am I to call myself a poet?
Withdrawn from the circuit, she continued to write—blank verse, sonnet crowns, sapphics, sestinas, free verse, essays, narratives, and verse dramas— until her death at the age of 63.
Who the hell was she, indeed.
All day they stream past, petitioners
for understanding, accolade, critique.
I read them all, a vast anthology
of jumbled genres on a common theme: affliction. So I parse,
I graph dysrhythmias, dysmetrias;
I eavesdrop on caesuras for unsaid
murmurs, gallops, rubs, snaps, flutters, clicks. The perils of
misreading harrow me—
beware the treacheries of metaphor!—
the elephant that squats upon a chest
is not a burning heart or waterbrash…
(from "Schools", Poetry, May, 1999)
Tatarunis's relationship with poetry is rife with contradiction, self-consciousness, and an intolerance for anything resembling self importance. In the hands of a lesser poet, the trope might ring false or come off pitifully ironic, but here we have a poet who renders the tendency a virtue. Or perhaps we might call it a kind of toothy calling card.
In a poem entitled "I"m Me and You're Not, Ha Ha", she begins, Welcome, patrons and supporters of the narcissistic arts. Later, from a series of poems she calls "Qaben, Meeting of the Waters" she opens the floodgates with a simple, Welcome to my ditch.
PT's scholarship, rich vocabulary, and penchant for allusion and pun might tempt readers to classify her a poet's poet. Such classification wouldn't do justice to her range or impulse. This is no bloodless academic taking the occasional stroll in the woods. A deep love of the natural world and a freakish fascination for popular culture infuse the poems, are as much a part of her lexicon as say, Tetelestai, archnodactylous, or syllogomania. In "Wallflower in the Amazon", a poem which presents itself a travel poem but becomes an ode to the awkwardness of intelligence, (wherever you go, there you are), she treats us to the exotic beauty—and hilarity of revery:
…Oh, I recognized voracities, invaginations, efflorescences,
even lianas, beaks, and pharynxes.
But everything was star crossed, oestral and vaguely encrypted,
and I had no words for the particular way
the hot brown water purled between roots and banks,
nor for the tattered, green fornix quivering overhead.
Even the shadows were sphinctered, shuttered, irised,
and it was amazing to me how the text lifted from the runway
and cleared the treetops every time.
Evenings, when the expatriate river guide
made small talk by the campfire,
I explained about distributing 2-D glasses
with a quasi-evangelical fervor,
citing the MOMA, Louvre, Jeu de Paume, Prado,
repositories of the seemingly infinite capacities
of surfaces, citing the often life-saving utility
of being able to turn 90° and disappear at will,
citing how much the recti and versi of one slim volume can contain,
and yet remain so slim that "volume" seems
The flight home was long.
I had more than enough time
to read through Das Wohltemperierte Klavier twice,
both books, cover to cover (Ed. Bischoff, Berlin, 1884)
then to flatten myself out again like a mercator projection,
all north, all head,
and resume my love affair
with the vanishing point.
To discover a poet of Paula's mastery and thematic ambition is to recognize one's own relationship with the vanishing point as mere flirtation. She stands at the prow of no ship, school, or affiliation, yet points with some authority to a hyper-realistic world we can't help recognize as our own. Discomfort, she seems to say, is the price of admission. There will be teeth. There will be squirming. From a poem for her mother, entitled "Stone Dove":
The leaf-strewn sunlight,
filtered through the branches of the towering trees
she had asked me to remove,
(those are maples, trash trees, weed trees,
their shade is spoiling my garden paradise)
animated it, but nothing holds that still
unless it's dead or playing dead.
It fixes my kitchen window
in its sharpshooter's laser
gaze—pinpoints me heartlevel
while I dishwash. I know
it's no peace dove, no wedding flock escapee,
no simpleminded pigeon, bobbling and googooing for snacks,
no dingy, unpleased holy ghost:
no, it's a mourning dove
and it's got me in its petrifying sights.
We are in good hands here—and we won't be treated with kid gloves. The personal poems and commemorations present themselves as meditations grounded deep in the earth. Whatever rises from this soil will be drenched in sensory experience. Here, too, she refuses to wave a flag in the bright Appolonian air:
How quickly the ordinary resumes—
one day you're counting backwards toward the saw,
headfirst, the mouse is screeching har dee har,
you're strapped down like the cat in the cartoon—
the next you're licking yogurt from a spoon,
admiring Boston from the fifteenth floor,
half remembering how, the night before,
the surgeon burst into your groggy room,
his hand thrust out toward me, your jangled spouse,
then wrapped a tighter turban round your head.
You tried to make a joke about his tie
where Santa grinned in place of Mickey Mouse
but I could only think of what you'd said—
that you'd been half convinced that you would die.
That you'd been half convinced that you would die
should not have come to me as a surprise
since I'd been putting pennies on your eyes
for weeks myself. But what about that lie
you told, that flippant answer to my shy
inquiry ? Such an elegant disguise,
donned for my sake ! And if I recognized
you, I held my tongue. Like a good spy,
or an O. Henry wife who sells her hands
to buy some shoes for the two feet he sells
to buy some gloves for her. Could it be true ?
Of anybody, we should understand—
between them both they made a fractured whole.
Sometimes I think the unspoken is our glue.
from An Ordinary Crown, ( for DK )
Neither will we be spared the many registers available in the realms of creepiness, bawdiness, or
startling humor. When asked to recall a memorable Tatarunis line, Robert J Clawson responded:
In a poem about medical school, we're told the students are working with their first cadaver. The instructor hands the speaker a colon.
"I wobbled in a fume of pickled stool."
This has to be one of the best fivers I've ever encountered.—RJ Clawson
This is indeed a knowledgeable poet for whom the human body—and its biology—won't be casually dismissed. In the files her husband uncovered after PT's death, he found evidence that she published a few dozen poems in JAMA. Well into PT's literary hermitage, in an entry called "Long Legged Beasties", she says:
The body is a treasure trove of comedy. There are rich veins of hilarity in orifice-based bodily functions: eating, fucking, pissing, shitting, barfing, belching, farting, sneezing, and even the slightly more sublimated nose-picking. Not to mention the vaudeville of pratfalls, nudity, vagaries of body size and facial configuration, pies in the face, banana peels under the shoe, all sorts of yukking it up from the puerile to the sophisticated to the downright cruel: Aggression, vulnerability, absurdity and anxiety—incarnation is a laff riot!
In "Neither Nor", which describes a late winter photography session, she tells us:
It's a most congenial landscape, of course, for those of us liturgical melancholiacs who are coming out of hibernation for our yearly heyday: Lent. It's the season that allows us to revel in the dark side—sin, grief, loss, abandonment, betrayal, shame, temptation, silence, reclusiveness, doubt—and not seem like party-poopers. It's the season that's totally off Hallmark's radar. The long expanse of liturgical green will end Wednesday, and the ecchymotic, penitential purple will come out. The crown of thorns will take its yearly place on the altar, and the alleluias will go to ground. Lent comes late this year; daffodils will be sprouting in the midst of the gloom. I will, I am sure, wince at their untimely yellow. I always want to cling to winter, to the darkness, to Lent.
When I get this way, which is often, it is good to take to the woods. The woods cut me down to size. They put me in my place in a way that has nothing to do with Biblical or dogmatic constructions of gender.
Almost breezily, she notes:
I have a chip on my shoulder the size of the King James Bible.
In the prose as well as the poems, we find Tatarunis's distinct affinity for the language of specification, amplification, and sensation. She will not be limited by idiom, and takes full advantage of the vast diversity, and subsequent power of language, itself. These skills, combined with a tendency toward melancholy, ruthless self reflection, and a wicked sense of humor, can be overwhelming to the senses and the psyche. Or refreshing. Or necessary. Perhaps particularly relevant. It can be said with certainty this is not a poet for the faint of heart. From an entry entitled, "A Weed of Such Virtue":
The shortest day. I crawl ashore after months of being submerged in the vast, cold, murky ocean of work. The switch from gills to lungs is as painful as always, and the stiff flippers resist resuming their earthbound tasks. And there, leering at me from the woods, is the red-clad pedophile, Santa, stroking his vermin-infested, egg-nog clotted beard and beckoning. He's carrying an 80's style boom-box playing an endless tape loop of a country and western version of The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year.
I worked, yesterday, at the office with the Big Windows.
The day before I'd left the other, rockbound office at 8:45 with supper uneaten and hours of work still undone. My laptop had gone south—fatal system error, no less—10 days prior, Dragon and all, and had been restored to me Dragonless. My typing skills—a two fingered hunt and peck—are nonexistent: chopsticks, eyes on the keyboard. I'd been hunting and pecking myself into a stupor for days.
I have been dropping by the God joint in recent weeks, drawn in by Advent, candlelight, the old songs, the variegated Body making its way to the rail, the mysterious fume of wine on the tongue. But then there are the texts, many of which resist mere interrogation, and require water boarding or extrajudicial assassination, but some of which can stir the heart in ways that only music can, wordless and visceral.
The struggle with religious is always stirring in Tatarunis's considerable body of work. In the end, she seems to have leaned toward concluding that religion is a quagmire of contradiction, but secular life even worse. In "Ye Watchers, And", a poem set in the crowded stands of a basketball game, we find ourselves in a state of suspended animation, caught perhaps, between the twin mirrors of affection and cynicism:
…Our fingers freeze. December, the North End,
blue noses and blue teeth clamped to each ear.
Watch, damn you, listen, look, it's Advent, pre-
game, countdown to the show, our spectacles
are fogging over with desire. For what?
We wish we knew. This twilight doesn't gleam
for me or thee, but overhead where God
(in ages past) hung helpless, now there hangs
the Jumbotron, panoptical, shilling
whatever—fish, flesh, flash—its roving eyes
devour on our behalf. (Behold ! Be whole !)
But look—no, look !—it's you and you and you
elect in that big eye, all four facets !
I watch it watching you as you watch back,
its temporary apple; a flush of joy
crimsons your cheeks, your smile illuminates,
astonishes: how beautiful you are,
all of you, guests of the big screen, worthy,
if only for a moment, to be seen
just as you are, embraced, and then released.
It doesn't take long to realize that this toothiness is no literary affectation, no charming little quirk, but rather a life-long exploration on the ways and means of vanity, humility, and the lulls in between. From "Squirrels":
…We, who boast of souls, can't countenance
the gray and small, the commonplace and humble.
Yet watch the squirrel flow along the fence,
feet grazing the pickets, impossibly nimble—
he does not amplify his self-display
in social media, or leverage
his brand, consultant-honed; does not employ
a life coach, guru, shopper, trainer, mage.
Undisturbed by thoughts of betterment,
he gazes back at me through window glass
with such a pure and cold indifference
that it could swell and fill the universe,
replacing profit, noise, ambition, greed
with something truer than the love of God.
Shall I compare her to a summer's day? To Wallace Stevens? To Larkin?
To Bishop? To Frost? To Emily? Wilbur? Stallings? To her beloveds: Simone Weil, John Berryman, or Thomas Merton?
Comparisons seems obvious, and entirely inconsequential.
When I get religiously out of sorts (as I have been most religiously of late) I find myself turning back to Thomas Merton. He is, as Alan Ginsberg said of Walt Whitman, my "courage teacher." In his journals he documented in great, intimate detail how he lived out his complicated and often conflicted vocation: monastic, solitary, writer, contemplative, pacifist, public figure and cloistered religious.
Tatarunis's lovers' quarrel with the world took many forms, and she cultivated a deep and difficult inner life, but it is her stark intimacy with the world around her which catapults her out of the cerebral, or difficult poet category, and into a league of her own. It is a rare pleasure to encounter consummate wonder, devotion, and humility paired with an irreverent, cynical and progressive nature. These things suffer no incongruity in PT's work, but rather present themselves crucial to one another. In a poem dedicated to her uncle, she describes being taught as a child "to overturn the granite roofs//of sleek newts and speckled salamanders,/to read fish in the twitch of the outcast line/above the bob's uneasy tic and stammer,//and to find in the feathery bloom of gills/and coiling pink of the sharp, split splay/and irridescent splatter of the gutted,/a text of blood and papery, fine scale." She finishes the poem in a breathtaking turn:
When we embarked upon the final trip
we navigated a new fluency
backward past the Saxon and Romance
to a tongue so close to Sanskrit I could see
it pushing out of silence taking green
shape on wandering, deflected paths
through treacheries of body, soil and sun.
There I learned to break a word in half
to get its sharp, insinuating smell,
and to suspend my mind as if in a dim prayer
or patience, gray and willing as water,
for the flash and fall of the smallest silver scale.
You gave me this double sacrament:
the mirrored goods of knowing and of saying.
Thank you, loving priest of world and word.
You bestowed, and still you are bestowing.
It's quite impossible, by way of brief introduction or review, to do justice to the body of work which Tatarunis has left behind. There is much to be said on the mastery of craft alone, or the intensity with which she explores greed, corruption, injustice, gender, nuclear proliferation, war. As well, there is much to admire in the personal poems, the historical poems, the persona poems,
the downright slapsticky poems, and the odes. What we have here is merely a glimpse.
poised like a writer's cramp,
overhangs a pismiry rogation
of pilgrims on a green bridge. Look—
a parasol or two, a red chop,
something like Golgotha or Fuji smoking
on a jaded horizon. Their song, halfway
between a boatman's yo and ho,
part miserere nobis, part deo gratias,
hovers on the wind.
is slippery. The stuck hand
drips something like sweat or musk
and the boards, steeped in it,
glaze and slicken above a fathomless
and auricular forebog
the color of phantoms and quicksand.
Sentence, reprieve; datum, deodatus;
if you remember anything from this sermon,
let it be the hard and practiced pew
knuckling you and your backbone awake.
I was introduced to PT's work more than twenty years ago, in a dark corner of an early internet, where a sluggish dial-up AOL was the way in, just about everyone used a pseud, and a few dozen wayward poets gathered to share poems, argue politics, and rake one another's works over the coals. Tatarunis called herself "Dr swan". She was humble, helpful, direct, gracious, funny, hip—and the poems were searing, skillful, poignant, funny, difficult, exquisite. Years later, having long ago lost contact, a mutual friend forwarded a link to Tatarunis's blog, Paula's House of Toast. There I discovered the hermetic poet had plied her trade, indulging her intimacy with the world head-on, through poetry, photography, essay, social commentary, parody. There she exposed her fierce relationships with language, religion, science, big pharma, intellectualism, medicine, politics, art. Taking up macrophotography, the common forest weed became her beloved subject.
"Hello!" called the cyclist from the path. I lowered my camera and turned toward the voice.
"Are you birding ?" he asked.
"No," I replied, looking away from the fuzzy asters and devil's beggarticks and wild lettuce. "I'm weeding."
To date, House of Toast is the most comprehensive collection available of PT's works, yet it contains only about twelve years of her output, from around the time she quit mainstream publishing until her death in 2015.
To visit House of Toast, please see paulashouseoftoast.blogspot.com
Paula Tatarunis was born in Lawrence, MA, on February 9, 1952, the daughter of Dr. Alphonse Tatarunis of Naples, Florida, and the late Marcia (Lovering) Tatarunis. She had a younger brother, Steven Tatarunis.
Both parents were music teachers. She was raised in Andover where she graduated from Andover High School in 1969. She graduated from Wellesley College four years later, and entered the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester.
Trained in internal medicine, Paula's professional career as a physician began at the Massachusetts Correctional Institute at Norfolk where she was the medical director. After she left Norfolk Paula went to work for Hallmark Health, primarily as an urgent care doctor at their Lawrence Memorial campus in Medford.
She married Phillip Donohue in 1979. Michael, her son, was born in 1980.
She divorced Donohue in 1985, a marriage she called a 'poor choice'. In May of 1986, she married Darrell Katz, whom she referred to as DK, a jazz musician, composer, and teacher, with whom she shared an 'old dilapidated house' five cats, and a good life until her death from a brain hemorrhage/hospital infections in 2015.
University of Massachusetts Medical School, Worcester, Massachusetts Bachelor of Arts, Molecular Biology 1992-94
Wellesley College, Wellesley, Massachusetts 1977-80
The Cambridge Hospital, Cambridge, Massachusetts PGY-1, then PGY-3
Internal Medicine Framingham Union Hospital, Framingham, Massachusetts Flexible Internship 7/77-6/78 PGY-1 Medicine 12/78-6/79
Mass Council Fellowship, 1985
Mass Council Fellowship, 1988
Poetry Magazine, (Schools, Domestication, To a Sniper), Ploughshares: (Titzone), Rattle: (Atlas Scrubs, Some Birds), Feh! (Arse Poetica II) Edge City Review, (Infant), Quarterly West: (Wax), JAMA,: (To Market, To Market, Staghorn, Spleen no 76, 77, 78, Involutional Melancholia, Reproduction Number, Dyeworks, Migraine Nocturne), Pleiades: (Night Light), WHR Websters Humanity: (Medullary Obbligato), Body Electric: The Poetry of Medicine, Filling Station: (D is for Donut) Poems of the Christian Mystics, (The Death of Simone Weil), The Arts in Medicine, Poems by Physicians: (Blood and Bones, Regarding Arts and Letters, Ark),
Exquisite Corpse, Plainsongs: (Muffler), The Formalist, The Massachusetts Review, Quarterly West, Barrow Street, Women Wise, Spillway Unchartered Lines: (Ebola, Gay Men's Chorus, EKG, Forensics, E is for Elephantiasis, Psst, Your Cognitive Slip is Showing, Pointine Ode, Still Life), Eckerd College Review: (Mantis), Sparrow (Night Lights), Oasis, (Der Fluyten Lust-Hof, Bartleby, Dearest, Smithsonian Exhibit Enola Gay Protest, Particles of Faith, Brookline Clinic Massacre), Sulphur River, The Iconoclast, (Salon Carnivore), Brownstone Review: (Mamma), Heliotrope: (Habit, Hojo's D'Antan), Red Owl: (To Raze), No Exit: (Whatever Happened to Dick and Jane), Aura: (Just Visiting), Iconoclast: (First Letter from Jupiter) Body Electric: (The Poetry of Medicine) 5th Gear: (Weathers, Three Lozenges for Pinie), The MacGuffin: (Cafeteria Kensho), New Orleans Review: Lune Rangoon), Barrow Street: (Dodecaphor), Plains Journal: (Air and Earth, Nomad),Tantra Press: (Big headed Babies of Belchertown), Hudson Valley: (A Father was Missing, The Purple Monkey: (On the Verandah, Plains Poetry:(To the Anorexic Checkout Clerk at the Purity Supreme, The Mummies of Kitsatsoq), Rockford Review:(The Dames, for Helen), The Panhandler: (Prison Field Bridgwater, Old Woman, Bathing, Sonatina Beaureacratique), Ship of Fools: (Mean Nun, Reading for Meaning), Heliotrope: (Habit, Hojo's D'Antan), Sub-Terrain: (To an Imaginary Daughter), Dream International: (A Critical Dream, Some Symptoms), Lilliput Review: (The Eros of the Umlauts), Poet Lore: (Swan's Anatomy), Permafrost: (Peculiar, July, Walking Toward August), The Cafe Review: (Golden Raisons and Gin Cure Arthritis, Carp Crap), Pegasus: (Incubus), The Aurorean: (Women Talking), Press: (Packing the Lingerie), Terrain: (Walking Away), Maelstrom: (How Arnold says Dollars), Caveat Lector: (Avon Falling, Red Panda Resting, Some Symptoms), Outerbridge: (Fetish, What I
Found on her Scapula), Passages North: (Euphony), Light Quarterly: (Three Variations on a Theme from Prufrock), Coe Review: (A Short History of Sleep), Wind: (Provident Instead), Thorny Locust: (Bacchae 2), Samsara: (Abide, Hold), Filling Station: (Grid), Sub-Terrain: (24 for Dmitri Shostakovich), South Ash Press: (Hedge), The Sow's Ear: (Hospital Rain), Black River Review: (Villanelle for Eleanor), Mobius: (Renault), (incomplete list)
Chapbooks and Book-length poems: (self published, under "Penitentiary Press"):
The Death of Simone Weil
God's Handgun (an oratorio)
Quaben, Described by PT as a book-length series on the flooding of a central Massachusetts valley in the 1930's
to form our "Quabbin Reservoir," but more about other historical obliterations, and watery purifications. I included in it homage to three poets: Berryman, Kees and Crane, all of who jumped to their water or not-water deaths from various rails -- Berryman off a bridge onto dry ground, Kees probably from the Golden Gate, and Crane off the side of a cruise ship into the sea. There are pictures of each of these men in their youth in their biographies in which, gaunt and mustachioed, they eerily resemble one another. Especially Crane and Kees. My reaearch including a hard-hatted tour of Boston Harbor's brand new Deer Island sewage treatment plant. (A logical and symmetrical end point for a series about drinking water, eh ?) Deer Island had been the site of a Native American concentration camp during King Philip's War, and subsequently of poorhouses, quarantine hospitals, orphanages and prisons. Finally, sewage treatment: the ultimate institution of "purification."
Wallflower in the Amazon
I'm Me and You're Not, Jazz Composers Alliance (JCA) Sax Quartet. Brownstone Recordings
With Windfall Lemons (from How to Clean a Sewer)
The Death of Simone Weil, Jazz Composers Alliance Orchestra, Innova
In, Thru & Out Jazz Composers Alliance Orchestra, Cadence Jazz Records (has The Red
The Same Thing, Jazz Composers Alliance Orchestra,Cadence Jazz Records
A Wallflower in the Amazon, Jazz Composers Alliance Orchestra, Accurate Records
Stories, Jazz Composers Alliance Orchestra,Cadence Jazz Records November 1938
Visiting my Aunties
For Our Sins
Jailhouse Doc With Holes In Her Socks, Darrell Katz and OddSong, JCA Recordings, to be released September, 2016
Guernica Pantoum, Haskell Small, MSR Classics, upcoming.