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The Poetics of Stone Throwing

Deborah Meadows reviews

Platform, by Rodrigo Toscano

Atelos Publishing Project, P.O. Box 5814, Berkeley, CA 94705-0814, USA
ISBN 1-891190-15-6, 240 pages, US$12.95
Also available from Small Press Distribution at

This piece is 4,100 words or about ten printed pages long.

In the US today, civil death for convicted felons has stripped a large segment of the African-American male population from enfranchisement (some estimates are at a whopping 13%), and from many other privileges such as pensions, the ability to hold an elected office, or enter into contract agreements or, through US Drug War penalties, loss of real estate and possessions.

Many have written on the relation between the language of ‘laws of nature’ and perceptions of the physical world, and others in parallel critique have written on how identity is recognized through ‘laws’ of the state. Some consider European tradition as a way to transfer the power of God to the power of the state. The imagery underlying religious determinations that became transferred to courts is judicial: that is, God presides as judge to determine the identity and fates of individuals based on their conscious decisions and, perhaps, rather flip behavior in pursuit of impulses and desires. Political philosophers such as Locke, Hobbes, and Rousseau worked out the fine points in differing versions on social contracts that made the aforementioned transfer of power a study of first causes, current truths, and a platform for advocated reforms. People become social creatures by giving up, maybe even through quasi-ritual sacrifice, their untamed selves and entering into jointly-held, community enterprises, so goes one version.

Toscano cover

Of course, not everyone got to be a social creature with civil functions, so the law and its enforcement arms were there, and are there, to keep some from ever becoming ‘civil persons’ such as, historically: slaves, women, children, American Indians, indigent wards of the state, non-propertied, criminals, and in Europe, descendants of criminals deemed ‘attainted’ by bloodline were stripped of the ability to inherit title and lands. Today, enforcement arms function to keep others from ‘existing’ as ‘civil persons’ such as convicted felons, undocumented immigrants or resident aliens to name a few.

For wildly divergent reasons, Marx and Luce Irigaray might say: the law determines your subject position; the power differential, the ideology and culture.

For those of us who work in both poetry and labor issues, it’s not hard to propose a few observations about how the surplus labor force seems to have the least legal and ritual/cultural standing, and how for those who are neither troubled about legal standing nor have thoughts of impending civil death (or lay-off, that commercial death) intrude upon their consciousness, poems about one’s finer feelings, one’s lap cat, and ‘I am’ catalogs can seem reasonable. Most institutional structures such as higher education will even educate those who experience social or civil death to appreciate this type of poetry as authentic and what we most like.

How to write poetry from a subject position that is fully complicated by the differing worlds that lay claim? How to move from a simplistic unified subjectivity toward a poetics that questions the easy pay-off of emotional resolution, managed identity control that so quickly slips into product status only to be sold back to us in guidebook glossary terms? How to write poetry cognizant of, and resistant or militant to, inequalities rooted in commerce, law, religion, historic constructions of biology, and culture?

How to write poetry from a position that may oscillate between the status of person and property? person and collateral damage? person and court-ordered damage expenses? person and ward of the state? person outside the parameters of law-driven language structures and imaginations? If those who experience ‘civil death’ have free will, that central feature of subjectivity, suspended, then is planning and carrying out actions the reserve of the powerful that, the logic goes, are also good? Who gets reduced to bodies without minds?

This ongoing project preoccupies the thoughts of many of us in experimental literature who may see the texture of language that can resist ease and commodification in the way that easel painting moved from a vanishing point perspective plane that one can enter as illusory space by suspending knowledge of the flat dimension to one wherein surface and texture flicker between sensuous material and representation. I won’t reproduce here but will acknowledge that over the past few decades many in poetics such as Barrett Watten, Rosmarie Waldrop, Charles Bernstein, Marjorie Perloff among others have argued brilliantly the underpinnings of experimental literature. Most point out that experimental poetics is no guarantee of progressive politics (that any practice could be used by reactionaries, for example), yet see that that does not relieve poets of critical inquiry, scrutiny, and contingent practice. Also widely recognized is the point that as contexts differ so may application of poetics: in Havana, for example, a radically innovative and philosophically mature poet such as Reina María Rodríguez may write the inner life in an irreducible context.

After the Exposition

Rodrigo Toscano’s latest collection of poetry Platform draws upon issues that oscillate between poetics explorations, such as who his audience may be, the sonic/textural properties that may recede in representational value as they proceed as a sensory experience, and a critique of globalization through Brazil’s Lula, the Quebec Summit, Taco Bell demonstrations, day traders and the market, and police brutality in the case of Amadou Diallo.

For all the force of argument and sass that serves to undermine the mighty typical of his best poetry, Toscano’s first poem, ‘Early Morning Prompts for Evening Takes/ Or, Roll ’em!’ moves from a syllable-ripped and re-joined inventiveness, from tough-sounding satirical language to this tender and tentative opening (15):

     Like being reassigned to a case being made — to win?

           for a world
           mocked-up — terms
           to contest?

     Or, self glutting the market of experience —

           am am, a
           did this that —
           as ‘voice’ script?

The multiple play in the first line: a simile used to describe a workplace decision made for one, yet one is asked to advocate in a contestatory win/lose (or fixed/fair) binary, so right away there’s trouble with singularity and heroic individualism. And, tenderly, this first line concludes with a rising inflection. The poem beautifully follows a set or ‘I am’ catalog that undoes its own premises by setting out varying subject positions our society presents. Each is raised, and rather than Whitmanic all-in-oneness, is then rejected, such as: the unique ‘voice’ so cloying yet promoted by middle-brow writing programs rejected as unexamined ideology certain and comfortable with received truths about art and society; the controlled male libido sublimated to aesthetically edifying forms; ethnic identity expressions that have become predictable, de-politicized, and confining to many writers but overly abundant as debased advertising slogans; expressions of ‘negation’ that are likewise overly processed versions of socio-political alienation that can also contain, or domesticate, poets into singular and isolated heroes even though this is a mass-produced take on who poets are. Other poetic identities that are raised then rejected include the constraining forces of workaday isolation and exhaustion, forces of assimilation to the cultural or national mainstream (16):

     Or, a once-elitist practice — popularized —

            aimless youth
            called forth — I
            came (aimed at?)

... the forces of co-optation along lines of targets, gender, capitalist determinations, identity as manipulated by ‘value,’ the difficult-to-counteract power of socialized self-monitoring, the call for poets to be political, and the quandary of how to answer (17):

     Or, a schedule of vanguardist — occupations —

            vacuum left
            by the left
            to fill out?

So the troubling relation between the base (proletariat) and top, between popular and elite, homemade and commercially produced are in the forefront alongside questions on the limits of electronic collectives, his/our troubled relation to prior literary traditions that too often resulted in a facile call to radicalize as if uprooted, or special, from socio-political context, the limits of genre or knowledge construction, of the desire for something new or to be reassured, or the mixed relation of seed text vs. commentary on political action (19):

Or, a realization of what’s yet unrealized —
            postscript or
            to praxis?

... his first poem concludes.

No Veil of Ignorance

Knowing labor issues first hand, Rodrigo Toscano researches health and safety issues for the Labor Institute in Manhattan which represents PACE (Paper, Allied-Industrial, Energy Workers’ shop), local 2-149. Both the local and Institute were originated by recently deceased labor great, Tony Mazzocchi. This, the longest and most complex of his three volumes of poetry, Platform was preceded by a collection of his early works, The Disparities, (Green Integer, 2002) and Partisans, (O Books, 1999).

A must-have collection, his earlier work has grounding in Southern California’s notorious disparities in wealth and well-being, and dismantles the power and social structures that keep those great inequalities going. He writes from a persona traveling a highway-dominated landscape of pavement and seagulls, as if a hobo philosopher took up residence in the arroyo’s drainage system, ‘I’m a doormat talking as if I’m a kingpin,’ he writes (22). Pursuing similar themes, Partisans invents a grammar based on verb tenses, or Time, to insert oppositional labor politics and critique of mother-killing individualism into the stasis of Now: ‘When all we might have/might be less than we / to begin with’ (30).

From Platform, the poem entitled ‘Piece Beginning with Some Haunting Lines from Bertolt Brecht’s ‘The Doubter’’ invokes poetry’s, and art’s, purpose: a romp through funny re-created dialogs with other poets, a scathing articulation of how and of what art is made all expressed in politically chic language, a satire on today’s views of political poetry, and a struggle to find where he fits in and what are the requisite terms as a unionist. Behind is the question: how can art such as poetry not collude with state power; how can poets avoid the corrupting power of art market and art institutional relations. The linguistic play works over ‘class struggle’ to highlight the shift to political analysis and critique occurring at the level of ‘truths’ embedded in language structure colliding with a consumerist culture that promises immediate gratification, and Milton’s ‘justify the ways of God to man’ becomes (21):

in the clause
struggle —

                        and justify the ways of pun
                        to fun —

Much of the language of corruption as well as the framework of binaries will remind readers of the heavy presence of ritual Catholicism and patriarchal assumptions in social and political life and language. Toscano, from that implicated position, to his credit, posits (26):

                        and that the horizon of literature
                        (world-wide) is still
                        literacy itself

(for women, especially)

‘On a Literary Journal (Satire No. 1)’ is immensely successful as a satire, in part, because while it’s easy to take potshots at the tone of high seriousness and overworked vocabulary of literary criticism, an effective satire enjoins, or returns us the readers, to an inside track of knowing, and most gratifying, knowing better than. In this case, we know the high tone theorist misses the point, misses the boat. The museumification of everything including localized language and uncollected literatures, in Toscano’s vision, is a corrupting force and a corrupted use of analysis. He confronts how the politics of collecting, how the dominant culture can take works out of context and turn parts of them into useful bits that reassure and introduce the main story of the dominant culture. On page 37, he writes of:

(core, or

           in the process of      Re group

           in the process of
     (end-around) neo-mannerist
                 (moderno) (dogmato) retro-empirico

put to — and
quite up to — the
(Historical) task

Here are a few quick looks: ‘A Brief Retrospective of Chump De Ville’s Poetic Oeuvre over the Last Decade (Satire No. 2)’ is a satirical, as promised, look at the poet’s struggle to be leftist and reject the facile subject position of the sensitive poet who contradictorily becomes received in academic circles. Quoting from Milton, Ovid, and Donne, the contradictions of being a people’s poet over and against overly academic approaches being ‘fixed’ there result in this quoted cry (40): ‘oh to vex mee, contraries meete in one ...’

Again, For Whom

‘My Target Audience, As It Is an Issue... (Satire No. 3)’ asks the perennial question for whom do you write that becomes especially loaded for a leftist poet writing in the context of retreat from spending on public education in the US. By contrast, in Havana, for one example, literary education is high, so complex, allusive works are received by ‘the masses.’ By contrast, in the US the charge of elitism unfairly (and in circular reasoning) hangs over the heads of leftist poets writing in ways that are experimental linguistically in response to staid, mainstream poetry that, so the argument goes, colludes with state power and a type of consumerism that expresses the underlying ideological supports of global capitalism, and makes individuality a normative process not unlike the ad campaign that exhorts us to be a rebel by purchasing mass-produced jeans. Or, as Toscano writes of the candidate choices (43):

          to be party to, or declaim, or resist —

and so he explores the possibility of (44):

      ... a non-unified
     target audience
     a split audience

that may bring together different and various people across religions, ethnicities, locations (‘from far-flung metropoles ...’) and that may challenge the facile poetic practice of finer-feelings. He writes of the (44):

                        lexically alert
                        to controvert
                        the pathetic

                        syntactically de-obviate
                        to re-translate
                        the pathetic


                                    ...molds us into
                                    polymer clay figurines...

His argument settles with the contradiction that his audience will ‘get smaller/as it gets broader while yours, larger/as it gets narrower’ as he avoids the exhausted tradition of the ‘people’s pep talk’ for a less glib but durable ‘worker tough nuts’ hard to crack and get at the meat. One must work to get at the pay of a linguistic code that engages thought rather than entertains to sleep with ‘near-the-surface wits/on Saturdays.’

In the poems in ‘Section 2,’ Toscano alludes to ancient texts such as the Code of Hammurabi, Shakespeare’s ‘Polonius’ in exploring the politics of food, social justice, day trading, effects of economic domination on ordinary people’s lives. He uses scraps of presidential press conferences (75):

2. The prez’s press secretary meets the press

‘...if you might define ‘presidential firewall’?’

      a security stool
      to protect

‘and if the press abroad, say that of Inner Europa
dissents, or can’t come to terms with the AOL TIME-WARNER
version of events — ours?’

then, the firewall, of course
— thank you, that’ll be all —

and continues with an excursus on how serving the role or office, represented by Toscano as a ‘wig’, is more important than the individual but is not a way to redress the ideology of hyper-individualism. The sequence collects fragments on the Gulf War concluding with a humorous, but stingingly critical, tramp through people’s admiration of the pope (85):

‘a spiritual dimension is needed for every conquest of capitalist

that comes at the price of offending his ‘mother’s Catholic circle of friends’ where the ‘host speaks’ (double, at least, meaning of host) against (83):

the pope in a condom costume
— ham hock in a suave sock —

as the soiled reliquary
of the season —

as on a runway
of a carrier, a fashionable
praying for peace

though these times do demand
piety! mixed with

as in a Romanza Policiaca

Rat gods of the Mall

Such cartooning chips away at power, is as memorable as what any of us need in satire. The longest and most realized of this treatment is Section 3, ‘In-Formational Forum Rousers — Arcing (Satire No. 4)’ performing multiple voices of officialdom, demonstrators who are tossed in jail in Genoa, workers seeking self-determination, poet confronting his relation to Language Poet fathers, and the Exxon Valdez investigation. But, like most myths that offer a gift to humanity, it begins with theft conducted in (89):

A small
American Town
large mall

a poetry sub scene’s

laid bare

— a shoplifting spree

To hear this performed must be amazing and excessive in its ability to flicker between the multiple layers and people represented here. Playful, we get a re-hash of what we’d most typically hear of an old leftist (93):

‘He’s an old ‘Centrist’
you’d love him!

as a spoof on what would never be said as a comment on the operational ethos of, say, the Democratic party.

The relation between conceptual framework and lived outcome is the dramatic action of this long piece, and while Toscano may have had several books in hand (lots of Bourdieuean habitus, Foucault, Hardt and Negri, Zukofsky, among others), we see a dramatic tension between ideas and life. The poem shows both the conceptual framework that led to the Exxon Valdez spill and the framework that results in the ‘systemic’ response to the ‘accident’ as linked to US ideological grids of subjectivity. Again, NY/Brooklyn local politics are connected to global issues (98), conditions of deprivation for unionists and poets (101):

BERSERK: (one masked) (anti-capitalist) (kicks in) (a window)
(of one) (boutique) (in Genova’s streets)

Again, the polyphonic, many-accented, flawed (102):

psank u
ox & axy swung
stirr at


accelerates into a demonstration in ancient streets of Europe (103):

tear gas canister
on five-century-old

where there are ‘chalked in slogans’ such as ‘operazione/liberazione’.

In the mix of political struggle, Toscano critiques the place of ethnic identity that he sees condescended to and expropriated by literary institutions. As a reader, I tend to avoid psychological explanations that displace the political, yet some may recall that one of Charles Bernstein’s most famous works is entitled The Absent Father in Dumbo, (Zasterle, 1990). A literary son writes (109):

Pss —

has come back to life
they say

L.A. County

Five Curators
(one, a Latrino — serviceable)

‘we feature individual success here
not a cobra pit of
minor literature
tail up (ending)


Not only is the ethnic category ‘latino’ demoted to someone who services latrines, but Toscano levies a much needed critique against the myth of the American Dream wherein the individual moves ahead at the expense of the group and pays the high price either of assimilation or wearing a badge of perpetual otherness. The textures of language that Toscano draws upon are not only international sources but computerese, some use of mythological figures such as the Cyclops and cave alternating with Batman and bat cave in Gotham, literary theory, governmentese, and journalists’ jargon.


The long sequence includes arguments with literary critics, with his lover, street scuffles that end in jail with an 80 year old going on 20; the language is stretched from readable to the distorted. This moving in and out of readability as an extension of the confusion, the melee with gas canisters, could be an example of Toscano’s frequent expression of what Julie Kristeva in Revolution in Poetic Language means by the ‘genotext’ as source of subjectivity. Counter to the law-driven subject position this essay opened with, Kristeva writes (86):

      Designating the genotext in a text requires pointing out the transfers of driveenergy that can be detected in phonematic devices (such as the accumulation andrepetition of phonemes or rhyme) and melodic devices (such as intonation orrhythm), in the way semantic and categorical fields are set out in syntactic andlogical features, or in the economy of mimesis (fantasy, the deferment ofdenotation, narrative, etc.). The genotext is thus the only transfer of drive energiesthat organizes a space in which the subject is not yet a split unity that will becomeblurred, giving rise to the symbolic. Instead, the space it organizes is one in whichthe subject will be generated as such by a process of facilitations and marks within the constraints of the biological and social structure.

Is this a radical alternative? Can thick-tongued soundings and gurgles describe how our humanity can survive the conditions of extensive solitary confinement? Can this practice describe our experience as embodied in contrast to information, a mere scan of a screen or ear-jack input?

Our Dream Glass House

An interesting example that raises the possibility for hope through this practice is ‘Democratic Tasks Yet To Be Realized’ which opens with that most procedural of collections, a glossary of terms. In this case, Arabic for numbers one through ten, so Thamania, we learn, refers to adequate housing and reproductive choice, while Ashara refers to an expansion by 2000% of what can be considered aesthetic. So, the utopian impulse is to broaden and democratize arts by acknowledging people’s procedures and productions, not reserving art status for ‘art world system of galleries, cities, art-school trained’ individuals. Chopped, agglutinated word-parts here draw from computer use, consumerist language, news on globalization, and how many human activities are turned useful to capitalism, yet the whole poem turns abstraction back into sonic, embodied experience, or some mechanical music, as if Toscano is finding applications of poetry that can use and cut through political analysis, through conventions of Time, through conventions of beauty with what seem yogic-type exercises crossed with kick-boxing for self/world improvement (146):

oomm pow take o

drig dro

spock shoo spoo

tg tg


tsa —

at a tumbling remembrance

roust about


pow take o tip

drig dro


And later in the poem, the sound texture breaks into ‘Port au Principally/Yrs. — ’ (149).

This thick-tongued stuttering of consonant-heavy sounds is humorous and critical, yet the glossary sets human life as simple animals with ‘organelles’ and ‘orifices’ So, is there reduced hope through genotexts here?

Our Further Implications

Section 4 and 5 pursue similar themes of over-determined subjectivity deftly pushed by Toscano to nonsense. Too often the dominant ideology expresses the Hobbesian motive of self-interest and competition in its narrowest, self-regarding form ignoring, for example, why anyone in a post-agrarian economy would want to have children. Winding through modernity, its end in Stalinism, Prague Spring, Kipling’s Britain arcing toward a version of multiculturalism, we come to ‘Affect Funeral/Affekt Jamboree.’ The poem is a double funeral for Kenneth Galbraith and Milton Friedman that becomes, everyone loves a, Macy’s parade with talking head political commentators, teamsters, Bill Gates’ high school marching band, Arab separatists followed by a marching corps of US military.

‘In the Tomato Industry’ explores the hardships of agricultural fieldwork and the false promise of subjectivity in a context of wage servitude, reduced legal standing, civil death supporting Taco Bell or ‘Wacko Bull’ or ‘Bucko Ghoul’ or ‘Taco Hell’. Later poems on the shooting of Amadou Diallo, the possibility of a civilian review committee which police departments usually oppose, Toscano asks (198):

and how would such a board be constituted?
appointed by same villains?

and interrogates whether police should exist at all, their relation to state power, suspended civil liberties. Toscano’s poem on Brazil traces the failure of theory and identity: he follows the solid moral outrage that called people to action become a set of ‘isms’ that convert people to ‘ists,’ that hyper-define rather than unite into communities.

‘Hidden Harvest’ uses a version of the obsessive sestina form to write of Mexican fieldworkers whose political gains have been reduced by Wall Street and whose crops, each stanza ends (223-227):

all are packed in ice
and shipped to Great Britain

The tension is heightened as young girls handling crops ‘straightening out their roots and tails’ become, in turn, handled, and when represented in poetry by Toscano for his poetry audience, mishandled as well as Toscano’s own ‘roots becoming chopped up’ as reasons to be.

This body of work leaves many interesting questions and exciting projects to follow. If we are all implicated, after making that admission, what thought and action might we take? What are viable, even if tentative or temporary, alternatives to market- or state-dictated subjectivities? What research must be carried forward to find expression by those in typical, as well as in the extremity, of human experience? Given recognition of poetry as drenched in historicity, how can poets work? How can communities resist over-determinations in late capitalist economies? How can combinatory word play cast the next stone?

Deborah Meadows teaches in the Liberal Studies department at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona where she has recently been part of an exchange of writers and scholars to and from Havana. A book length collection of her poetry, Representing Absence, is forthcoming from Green Integer Press and will be preceded by a chap from Tinfish Press. Active with her labor union, California Faculty Association, she has worked on several projects related to equity in higher education.

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