The Poetics of Stone Throwing
Deborah Meadows reviews
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.
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.
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.
Like being reassigned to a case being made — to win?
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):
... 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):
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 —
... 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).
in the clause
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
‘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:
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
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):
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.’
2. The prez’s press secretary meets the press
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
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):
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’
as a spoof on what would never be said as a comment on the operational ethos of, say, the Democratic party.
BERSERK: (one masked) (anti-capitalist) (kicks in) (a window)
Again, the polyphonic, many-accented, flawed (102):
accelerates into a demonstration in ancient streets of Europe (103):
tear gas canister
where there are ‘chalked in slogans’ such as ‘operazione/liberazione’.
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.
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?
oomm pow take o
And later in the poem, the sound texture breaks into ‘Port au Principally/Yrs. — ’ (149).
and how would such a board be constituted?
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.
all are packed in ice
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.
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.
Jacket 22 — May 2003
This material is copyright © Deborah Meadows
and Jacket magazine 2003