Poetry Sunday:
“Discussing Useful Life at the Tax Depreciation Seminar I Remember a Line by David Baker,”
by Jeanne Wagner

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

It’s that time of year again, people, and yes, your taxes are due tomorrow. And whether or not you agree with your tax dollars going to fund an increasingly militarized government or a spending bill that omits a bump stock ban, it’s time to pony up. This poem uses the technique of interacting with an existing text—in this case, a line remembered from another poem along with the lexicon of tax terminology—to make much larger points about the intersection and conflict between technology and nature, human and machine, abstraction and concrete reality. Where the poem’s author comes down on these issues is withheld until the very end, but there are clues along the way, and the revelation, when it comes, is made in the subtlest—and to my mind most powerful—of ways.

The poem is organized into fourteen couplets in free verse and does not rely for its music on rhyme or meter. Still, it manages to feel lyric, especially in its descriptions of nature and of the body. The source of its momentum is associative movement and counterpoint, as the author’s thoughts wander from hyper-technical tax jargon to intensely beautiful expressions of nature and humanity and back again, from the bureaucratic machinery of the tax system to the magical machinery of human biology: circulation, respiration, and vision, or blood, breath, and sight.

The poem opens in the dry, technical world of a tax law seminar, and stays there for two full stanzas. A clue that it’s about something more comes in the third stanza, with “through the wall like veins.” That’s the first time we see something concrete and alive, and at this point, we interpret it as metaphor vesting a fax machine with the qualities of a living organism. The idea is picked up again in line 7, with the word “contagion,” and then is made overt with “life-changing symbiosis” in the next line.

This notion of the fax machine having veins and being at risk of contagion gives rise to a flight of imagination that gets extended in the next four stanzas. Here, the speaker leaves behind the tenor of her metaphor (the fax machine) to spend time with its vehicle, the complex systems of the human body, and in these gorgeous descriptions, e.g., “the heart feeding its blue canals,” the poem really sings.

“The way the lungs // recycle breath, the breath intangible” reminds the speaker of where she is—stuck in a tax seminar—and she recalls that the way tax law deals with “intangible” things is to “amortize” them. But the body and its workings are of more compelling interest, and her thoughts return to them, this time musing about vision. The image of an eye being pulled “from a skull like a stove from a wall” embraces the two opposite poles of humanity and technology, and “vision seems / to take place outside the body” makes the ripped-out eyeballs metaphor, for a moment, horrifyingly real.

These thoughts trigger the speaker’s memory of Shakespeare’s quote about the eyes being “windows on the soul,” and though her focus returns momentarily to the seminar (how windows affect depreciation credits), she gets distracted again. Next comes “some days // we’re an office, some days home,” a phrase remarkable for its simple language. Think about how that line’s impact would change if Wagner had said instead, “some days // we’re in an office, some days at home.” Instead of being a not-very-interesting description, we have an evocative metaphor, truly an example of how in the best writing, less is often more.

Perhaps in an effort to bring herself back to the lecture, the speaker takes a squint at herself, sitting in a classroom and “looking out a window, distracted by a bee,” and for a moment she loses herself (and us) in the ecstasy of seeing that bee “working // a cherry blossom as it wobbles in the March wind.” Without saying outright what the speaker would rather be thinking about—tax credits or that bee—the gorgeousness of the language does the job. The bee reminds her about Descartes—whoa, she really is willing to be distracted from that lecture, right? —a thought that gives her another way to connect the world of living, breathing organisms with the world of machinery and technology:

the bee moves her body, synchronizing with the tremble
of the blossom.

That the speaker would rather be where the bee is, outside, is telegraphed in her anticipation of when she will “leave” the seminar. As we all do when bored in a class, she envisions herself leaving the building and going to her car and, in an example of “ring construction,” this makes her recall what opened the poem: the complex tax rules distinguishing parking garages whose roofs are floors from ones that have nothing built above. The movement we see here, mimicking human thought, is associative; the poem moves along with one idea giving rise to the next as the speaker’s attention flits back and forth between the class and her own musings.

That image of a parking garage with its roof as a floor for the building above itself becomes a kind of metaphor for any complex system, including a living organism, and perhaps that is what makes the speaker think of the line by poet David Baker: “There // is nothing that does not connect and so sustain.” This line was alluded to in the poem’s title, but in a masterful example of when and how to withhold information, we do not find out what it says until almost the very end. Does this borrowed line express what the poem, ultimately, is “about”? Maybe. The poem is full of references to systems—alive and not—dependent on the synchronization of a million working parts. But more than a riddle solved by finally reading David Baker’s line, the poem captures and enacts the experience of human thought—another of those complex systems that so fascinate the speaker—and it also captures the elemental tension between nature and technology, man and machine, and the effort of paying attention to the task at hand against the siren call of everything else in the greater world.


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  • Ann Buttenwieser April 15, 2018 at 10:24 am

    Having recently learned about the shenanagins a state insurance office went through to set a price on the level of insurance I needed for a not-for-profit project that I was trying to open for the public, I love this poem!!!
    AB aka The Floating Pool Lady