by Mary Scott Manning
Curbside Splendor Publishing, July 2017, 185 pp.
“Sometimes when in the blast radius of some catastrophic act, even the most quotidian things, the dumbest everyday shit will still be immortalized,” admits Tim Taranto. His memoir, Ars Botanica, narrates an ill-fated love story set in the tall grass of Iowa. Like a survivor digging through the remains of a burned down home, Taranto weeds through the remnants of his relationship, desperately searching for any scrap of story or fragment of memory: iPhone photos, snippets of conversation, a sketch of Patsy Cline, some lines of W.B. Yeats. Any item he uncovers contributes to the memoir. In themselves, these “quotidian things” mean little to me as the reader. But, as he threads them into story, Taranto convinces me of the necessity of capturing the quotidian, of presenting this pedestrian life in all its detail like a hopeful string of lights.
Ars Botanica is formatted as an encyclopedia of sorts, a “field guide” to creation. At the start of each chapter, Taranto provides an object name, a definition, and often an accompanying image. The objects, such as the Norwegian spruce and the American goldfinch, are usually lifted from the natural world and, at first glance, hang only loosely with the story. For example, at the beginning of chapter five, Taranto lists “osprey” and notes that a biologist friend tells him that when the bird “dives into the water, and locks his talons into a desired fish,” a big enough fish will then plunge to the bottom of the ocean, pulling the osprey along, drowning them both. Scientists will find the predator and prey “locked together in the death.” The ensuing chapter finds Taranto and his lover grappling with and terminating an unexpected pregnancy. These are two people locked together by their love and by their unborn child, two things that, in the end, die. Thus the encyclopedic entry is transformed into something meaningful, revelatory, symbolic.
Entering Taranto’s hybrid botanical guide and memoir feels something like browsing a curio shop, where the shelves brim with the detritus of other peoples’ lives. The shopper can only guess at the story behind the objects: the identity of the man in a locket or the waltzes danced to an old, scratched record. The mysterious memorabilia in Taranto’s narrative, like the things in a curio shop, hold little meaning for readers, at first. Until the author offers up the story, the magic that transforms the junky shelves into a treasure trove.
One such object is the sketched skull of the Smilodon, an extinct saber-toothed cat with nearly foot-long canines, which Taranto includes just before chapter nine. Alongside the drawing, he relates that one of his young students, Khalil (Taranto is also a teacher), attempted to apologize to Taranto by sending him cards decorated with drawings of the prehistoric cat’s teeth. Taranto reports that at the time, he was not impressed. Later, however, he admits that as his romantic relationship fizzled, “I was pulling moves straight out of Khalil’s playbook: with nothing else to lose, I stayed late at Montessori… drawing her my best sabertooth.” So the skull of the Smilodon with the vicious, jagged teeth suggests Taranto’s helplessness, his arrival at the last resort. The story and the image are strangely foreboding: in chapter nine, the woman breaks up with him.
Taranto also stocks the narrative itself—the story sandwiched between the encyclopedic entries—with similarly specific descriptions of particular, odd objects from his workaday world, such as a roasted lamb’s head and the lyrics to Fetty Wap’s “Trap Queen.” At times, the details fit almost too perfectly. For example, when Taranto begins to lose his hair to alopecia, he asks his sister to shave his head and face. Taranto writes that she uses her pink razor, “steering [it] carefully over the contours of my skull.” The pink, feminine visual suggests the emasculation of the disease. In such moments, Taranto’s story feels contrived because it reads like a carefully plotted script. But maybe this is just the mark of a masterful memoirist, one who picks up on the faint but profound threads that tie together the million moments that make up a life.
Taranto proves to be a sharp observer with a visual memory. By the end of his work, one realizes that all of these things—the nurturing Sego Lily referenced after chapter five, the soothing Stinging Nettle depicted after chapter three—are not merely items in a junk store. Instead they are his spiritual relics endowed with the power to heal and transform. For Taranto, the collection becomes, as indicated by the title, a makeshift botanica, the place where one can buy natural and spiritual remedies for ills. Indeed, he mines his palace of memories for a remedy for his grief. The author’s purpose in picking apart his pedestrian life, of holding each piece up to the revealing light, was not so much to entertain us or even to guide us through the world of nature and love and longing. The story instead seems to be Taranto searching for something to soothe his deepest aches.
While many memoirs have tidy endings, a story wrapped up with a neat bow, Ars Botanica does not. In the final pages, Taranto still mourns, regrets, loves, cherishes, and laments. He scripts a sentimental postcard to his former lover with an ink illustration of the night-blooming cereus blossom. I wonder if she received it. Even more, I wonder if she will read this book.
I picture Taranto standing before this un-named woman: memoir in one hand and a paper sack full of chanterelle mushrooms in the other. Another way to look at it: he holds the story and the “everyday shit.” Ars Botanica is the writer’s prayer that the combination will bring his loves—both the woman and the child—back to life.