Loads of Learned Lumber

Monday, August 6, 2012

Tony Tost, _Complex Sleep_

I PICKED THIS up after enjoying Invisible Bride, but it has taken me a while to get to it (it was published all the way back in 2007)--and who would have guessed that it would seem perfectly congruent with Jacques Rancière, who I was reading at the same time. Mute Speech, as I was laboring to explain yesterday, is partly about the struggle to figure out what the "literary" is after the eclipse of belles lettres (genre, decorum, rhetoric) in the early 19th century, a local instance of the struggle being the figuring out of what "poetry" was after the eclipse of traditional versification. One answer, Rancière writes, was Artaud's, who in correspondence with NRF editor Jacques Rivière (who had turned down Artaud's poems) argued that the poetry of Artaud's poetry was not in the poems, exactly, but in the peculiarly constituted sensibility that created them. Artaud's poems were poetry because Artaud had written them...in a way.

In the longest poem in the volume Complex Sleep, titled "Complex Sleep", Tost writes (sorry about bollixing his spacing, can't be helped):

I am ideological necessity : according to such and such a set of
the poem can no longer justify its existence  ergo it should have
                                 ergo it is dead
                        ergo it is death
                                 ergo it is me.  I am an obituary :
      a site where dying is reported and performed.  I am entirely
by this art walk. I am going to be the best part of this feeling
                       that we're not trying to manage the afterlife
but letting it happen all by itself. I am produced.  I am too old for
             I an attack on art have become art myself :
                      flop.         flop.         flop.

"I an attack on art have become art myself" -- could Antonin himself have said it better? A perfect take on one of the more striking points in Mute Speech...

...made all the sweeter by knowing that  "Complex Sleep" is the product of a procedure by which Tost collaborates with the aleatory. He began with a variety of sentences from a variety of sources (e.g., the Beatles, Guided by Voices, Ronald Johnson, himself), then subtly or radically transmuted each sentence, then (!) sorted the sentences by alphabetical order, then added line breaks and spacing.

So the many brilliant passages (like, I submit, the one quoted) of "Complex Sleep" have everything to do with Tost's sensibility, but none of them could have been wholly foreseen in the process of composition. In the passage quoted, we are in the "I" section, which by virtue of alphabetical order becomes an artist's confession; we will later hit a "She" section, where we seem to be getting an extraordinarily nuanced psychological portrait of a complex woman, having already hit "A" and "An"
sections that recalled Whitmanian catalogues, and "As" and "For" sections that seemed to draw almost liturgically on the figure of the anaphora.

"Complex Sleep" the poem occupies about a third of Complex Sleep the volume and is the strongest thing in it, but the other seven poems offer their own pleasures. As the title poem benefits from the examples of Stein (in its transmutation of sentences) and of Cage and Ashbery (in its embrace of the aleatory), "Imaginary Synonyms" and "Timeless" deploy a move I associate with Jorie Graham and Ron Silliman (say, Demo to Ink) in which individual lines sometimes seem enjambed, forming part of a continuously unfolding thought, while at the same time, in a wave-or-particle? way, to be autonomous, free-standing, at most politely acknowledging their adjacent neighboring lines.

Stein, Cage, Ashbery, Silliman, Graham...derivative, do you say?  No.  I say, the good guys are winning. Tost never really sounds like anyone else, although he sometimes uses recognizable procedures. The procedures are as buried in the poems as Euclid is in Wyndham Lewis's portraits.  "Can we hear / the chance operations // equations summoning / precision." We do hear them, faintly, throughout Complex Sleep, but the main impression is of the uncanny riches of the precision thus produced.

"Squint" even suggests that Tost would have made a skillful metrist, back in the belle-lettristic day; each of its lines arranges four highly scannable phrases, creating the old English iambic music but in a 21st century way.

And then there is "An Emperor's Nostalgia," a suite of love poems that is just plain hauntingly lovely:

holy work of
our hereabouts

our harmony is
the pines

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