OUTSIDE THE FRAME by by Marilyn L. Taylor

Outside the Frame: New and Selected Poems
by Marilyn L. Taylor
Kelsay Books, 2021
125 pages
Reviewed by J.R. Solonche

On the shelf behind me is an old copy of Lewis Turco’s The Book of Forms: A Handbook of Poetics. Called the poet’s bible, it’s been the go-to reference and guide for students, teachers, and critics for more than 50 years. Well, it may still be for them, but it no longer is for me. I‘m tossing it. I have a new bible. A new — and so much better – book of forms. A new and so much more indispensible volume for anyone who cares about the art and craft of poetry. It’s Marilyn L. Taylor’s Outside the Frame: New and Selected Poems published by Kelsay Books. Chosen from her eight previously published books, this volume is the best introduction to Taylor for those unacquainted with her work, as well as an old friend rediscovered for those who are.

Do not misunderstand me. This is not a handbook as Turco’s is. This is not a textbook. This is not a book to be found in the reference section of Barnes & Noble. This is a book that should be in the poetry section – and on your shelf at home — next to Elizabeth Bishop, Emily Dickinson, and Stevie Smith. Nevertheless, master of form Taylor surely is. Sonnets – both Shakespearean and Italian – villanelles, sestinas, rhyming couplets and quatrains, even Sapphics, a rondeau, and a double-dactyl all bedazzle us with their virtuosity, charm us with their humor, and lift our spirits with their humanity. And she handles free-verse with the same consummate skill.

I’m tempted to let this review write itself, so I’m going to excuse myself while you read and enjoy two of those sonnets I mentioned, a villanelle, and a rondeau. A sestina is a bit too long to quote in full, but I’ll be back soon with some remarkable free-verse. Let’s start with this heartfelt, but unsentimental, sonnet in the manner of Shakespeare:


Iron Man

is what the nurses named you late last night
as your lungs kept steadily inflating,
hesitating – then deflating, right
on cue, your heart fixated on creating
a steady backbeat for the crusty rasp
of respiration. I saw how your hands
had interlaced themselves into the grasp
of one another – like the sweet demands

the dying lay on those already grieving.
Then I heard your bedside amaryllis
drop a wilted bloom – a sign you’re leaving –
and found in that a cryptic kind of solace.

So keep on breathing, dear heart. We both know
it’s not quite time – not yet – for you to go.


I hope you read that three times – once for the sense, once for the technique, and once for both.

Please do the same for this rollicking Italian sonnet:


A Highly Caloric Lament

A pox upon you, Charlie’s Chili Dogs,
T.G.I. Friday’s, Coldstone Creamery,
you harpies of the dreaded calorie –
quit hitting on me till my judgment fogs,
and every vein and capillary clogs
with drippings from your latest recipe!
Arugula? Not for the likes of me,
and neither are those dreadful diet blogs.
Been there, done that – gave all my sweets away,
ate naked salad, kept the flab at bay.
But nowadays my magnitude increases.
I’m getting tubby. Fatter by the day.
Just look at me: mine aft has gang agley,
my life’s in shreds, my mind’s in Reese’s Pieces.


You might want to cleanse your palate of those Reese’s Pieces before you bite into this serious, brilliantly wrought, villanelle with that characteristic Taylor light touch:


The Agnostic’s Villanelle

She cannot fathom what God had in mind
Or what eternal Truth was brought to bear
When Beethoven went deaf and Milton blind.

Although she knows God will be disinclined
To answer her subversive little prayer,
She cannot fathom what He had in mind.

How many masterworks were left behind –
Unwritten verses, music lost in air –
When Beethoven went deaf and Milton blind?

Was God afraid of being undermined
By feats as near to the sublime as theirs?
If not, she can’t tell what He had in mind.

Unless He was incensed by humankind,
Flinging back to Earth his own despair
When Beethoven went deaf and Milton blind.

How will she bear it should she find
No other answer but that God could err?
Can no one tell her what He had in mind
When Beethoven went deaf and Milton blind?


A brief word regarding the rondeau. It began as a lyric form in thirteenth-century France, popular among medieval court poets and musicians. It’s composed of a rhyming quintet (five-line stanza), quatrain (four-line stanza), and sestet (six-line stanza). The 16th century poet Thomas Wyatt adapted it to English. Other English and American poets have used it, notably Paul Lawrence Dunbar. And now, of course, Marilyn Taylor.


Rondeau: Old Woman with Cat

Osteoporosis (one of life’s indignities)
is such a splendid name for the disease –
all those little o’s, holes in the bone
where the rain gets in, rendering a crone
like me defective, porous as Swiss cheese.

I’m riddled at the hips and knees,
round-sided as parentheses
since my shrunken spine has known
___osteoporosis –

and my extremities
have shriveled into lacy filigrees,
breakable as glass on stone.
Naked at the window ledge I drone
to my sleek, supple Siamese:


I can’t go on to Taylor’s free-verse without quoting these two sparkling gems: “We Real Old,” and “A Double-Dactyl for Emily.”


We Real Old (after Gwendolyn Brooks’ “We Real Cool”)

The breakfast eaters:

Seven at the Golden Waffle.

We real old. We
Catch cold. We

Take pills. We
Change wills. We

Can’t hear. We
Crave beer. We

Eat prune. We
Die soon.


A Double-Dactyl for Emily

Higginson’s Dickinson
wrote in respectable meter and rhyme.
Nobody spotted the
radical poetess, biding her time.

I’ll wait while you read those two again – out loud.


There are so many outstanding free-verse poems I would like to quote, but most are too long for this space. The following is from a remarkable nine-part poem, “Outside the Frame: The Photographer’s Last Letters to her Son,” from which this volume borrows its title. This is one of the free-verse sections:


    1. Massachusetts General Hospital, May 22nd

 In response to your rude questions
On the state of my health, I am of sound mind

And in my hands I hold the weight
Of my soul, a leaden comfort

In my palm. Its polished crystal eye
Opens, finds, fixes on the edges

Of the enemy: a wall of grass,
Leaves, stems and stalks, tangles

Of roots and vines – the wild green Other
That follows me, no matter how

I slash and scythe my little path –
Pursues me, even as I back away.


To my mind, however, the center-piece, and master-piece, of this collection is “Notes from The Good-Girl Chronicles, 1963.” It is a sequence of seven interlocking sonnets known as a heroic or Olympian crown of sonnets in which the last line of the first becomes the first line, sometimes slightly altered, of the second, and so forth until the last line of the seventh echoes the first line of the first sonnet. This is a highly challenging form, but as any true artist at the top of her game, Taylor makes it look easy. A genuine tour de force that knocks the breath out of you.

I’m sure you can see by now why Taylor is a former Poet Laureate of Wisconsin and why her column on poetic craft in The Writer magazine, “Poet to Poet,” was so popular for the five years it ran.

William Carlos Williams said, “If it ain’t a pleasure, it ain’t a poem.” I say if it ain’t a Marilyn L. Taylor poem, it ain’t the absolute pleasure it ought to be. New and Selected Poems from Marilyn Taylor. What a gift. What a way to discover a poet without whom contemporary American poetry would be a poor place, indeed. What a pleasure to read poems that are like tasting the nuanced notes of a fine merlot, that are like experiencing the subtle harmony and counterpoint of a Mozart piano sonata, What a pleasure to read poems that leave you refreshed and energized and smiling rather than beat up and exhausted and cursing under your breath. Marilyn Taylor’s poetry. What a pleasure.

Oh, I nearly forgot. I’ve changed my mind about tossing the Turco. I’m keeping it on the shelf, not to consult but simply to glance at. I want to be reminded of the difference between silly finger exercises and those gorgeous Taylor sonatas.