Armed and Luminous/September 2016/Main Street Rag Publishing Company
By Grace C. Ocasio
Armed and Luminous is Poet Richard Allen Taylor’s latest poetry collection. A fairly recent volume, it was released in September 2016. Those of us who come to Taylor’s volume with preconceived notions of how angels function will be wise to drop them. Perhaps, at least initially, we may draw from the well of pop culture: Hallmark channel Christmas movies featuring angels and Hollywood movies like It’s a Wonderful Life and The Bishop’s Wife that have endeared generations of movie goers. But what Taylor offers us is a tabula rasa: he compels us through his deliberate, visionary verse to contemplate angels with open minds. When we willingly and willfully disavow all cultural baggage associated with angels, we find that how angels navigate their interactions with human beings is an overarching trope that predominates in Taylor’s work.
If we are skeptics entering Taylor’s volume, we become believers in the innate ability angels possess to bind us to themselves. Indeed, Taylor skillfully brings us into the fold with his poem, “Angel of Reaching.” Taylor’s speaker (the angel of reaching) here addresses us, putting us at ease with the very first line: “Think of me as your personal trainer.” Who among us would be offended by such an innocuous statement? With this line, the speaker “reaches” for us, whether we want this speaker to or not. The speaker beckons us further by commanding us to “Reach for the nearest apple” in the first line of the second stanza. If we are afraid to do so, the speaker prompts us again as in the closing line, saying, “Go ahead. You have my permission.” Thus, we realize here that we need not confuse this speaker with the main figure of Genesis. We recognize that the speaker has presented the antithesis of the biblical conditions surrounding the forbidden fruit, a key element of a story that is familiar to many different people, one that we either embrace or reject. Because this speaker does not intimidate us, as the pivotal player of Genesis––God, might, we are prone to accept his invitation. We gather that this speaker will not necessarily demand from us any allegiance to his cause—which appears to be benign at best––demonstrating the value in persistence in the pursuit of something we desire. Hence, we are game, eager to watch and wonder where this angel, or any other of Taylor’s angels, will lead us next.
In “It’s Tough Being an Angel,” Taylor continues to dismantle our preconceptions of what it means to be an angel. The speaker of this poem declares, “Humans picture us with wings, / though we fly without them.” This fact warrants no less than our utter astonishment: that angels exist with means of operating in our world that is beyond our wildest imaginings. Although it may very well be difficult for us to wrap our minds around the idea of angels without wings, we may also feel relief that the angels of Taylor’s poems are not bound or restricted by a physical trait as ordinary as wings. Depicted Taylor’s speaker’s way, angels seem timeless.
“Where Were the Angels,” a poem appearing in the fourth section of Taylor’s collection, should resonate especially for those of us who are Americans. A poem that includes the title as the first line of its opening stanza, it raises, a riveting existential question:
Where Were the Angels
when the plane hit the tower,
caused a stir at the office
where everyone gathered
around the TV?
The poignancy of this question rests in the de facto phenomenon that the angels seemed to pause for an indefinite amount of time when the tragedy of 911 occurred. Furthermore, this question prompts us to ask ourselves collectively, “Where were the angels?” We cannot answer this question any more than Taylor’s speaker can. Ultimately, this question may lead us to a series of unanswerable existential questions: Why do we exist? Where does God dwell if He exists? What happens when we die? Perhaps another way to cast the speaker’s question is to ask the following: “If the angels aren’t around when we need them, then where does that leave us as a human race?” Whether we like it or not, maybe the answer lies in the reality that the angels are not obliged to answer us.
It is fitting that Taylor’s volume ends with the poem, “Angel of White Space.” This poem could very well be the most self-deprecating one in Taylor’s collection. We may assume (safely) that the term “the poet’s” refers to Taylor himself. If we as readers are also poets, we can identify with this poet’s plight, a poet who “struggles with forms, meter, and rhyme.” We cannot help but feel a little sorry for this poet who has the guardian angel named “Muse” to answer to, someone who daunts and defies the average poet. If we laugh at the final line, “If I must work with poets, I want one more capable,” we laugh at ourselves, and we laugh with Taylor who has gotten at the heart of being a poet––that no one ever feels entirely comfortable with her or his status as a poet.
Richard Allen Taylor has given us much to ponder in his compelling volume. For those of us who lean toward believing in angels, Taylor’s verse provides hope to us that we, too, can transcend stereotypes in the same way that Taylor’s angels do. With much humor and folksiness of language, Taylor has made angels more palpable, more approachable, even. After reading Taylor’s volume, we just might find that if we should ever have occasion to meet an angel, we’ll prove ourselves affable, extending a hand to a friend.