The Operating System

4th Annual NAPOMO 30/30/30 :: DAY 30(!) :: Barrett Warner, Remembering Chris Toll

And on the eleventh day, God created the Chris Toll.

 And on the fourteenth day, God destroyed him. Such was the brevity of his national spotlight, which was made possible when Adam Robinson’s Publishing Genius Press issued Toll’s principle collection, The Disinformation Phase, in 2011. A year later, he was dead. Toll had spent some forty years in the desert enjoying the various spirals of a minor regional poet in Baltimore, publishing his poems in many limited edition journals and running Apathy House—a tailgate press of house poets loosely connected with Naropa (when its Beat founders still taught), and a few zany troubadours. The narrative went something like this: a good poem can come from anywhere, and Toll went looking for it in the least likely places. Perhaps he’d say, if you want to write a poem you only need a big heart, a curious mind, a musical vocabulary. If you want to publish you only need a stapler.

Toll’s is the poetry of constant energy. In “My Condition Defiles All Forms of Medical Treatment” he writes:

My gas station / pours sand / out of its shoes. / Earth is changing / into a sphere /
of emotional energy.”

Toll wrote for the line, but he read for the sentence no matter its length. A nonsmoker, he had the lungs of a pearl diver, and the breathless urgency of someone still lost in his Sixties own panic. Robinson wasn’t the first person who asked Toll to slow down, but he was the first person Toll listened to, and his listeners began to hear what readers had seen for decades. Toll wasn’t a shy drinker, but he was a careful one. He held his can of beer like a chalice, and with the younger Robinson’s help, he began to hold his poems that way too. A look at “Insulator Drive Blues” shows why this gearing down was so important:

A glacier
hotwires my supermarket
and leaves the city
in a hurry.
Good and evil
is an illusion.
My cathedral
blows its brains out
in the graveyard
behind a prison.
The struggle
is between light and dark.
My slaughterhouse
mixes a martini for the moon.
Be light.

This poem expresses Toll’s manner of alternating “inexplicable” narrative with humble assertions. Taken alone, his assertions—Good and evil is an illusion, the struggle is between light and dark, be light—let us see how struggle is the illusion. Everyone please, stop fighting, “Be light.” But we cannot ignore the inexplicable narrative either. The places—supermarket, cathedral, graveyard, prison, and slaughterhouse—are a pentagram of order that displaces the natural disorder of life and the art which transcends.

It must seem a little odd to Toll that the 30,000 MFA programs and all the editors and all the book doctors have lately been putting so much emphasis on clarity. Who are we to put beginnings and middles and ends to the Voices in the wind that come to us of their own journey?

In “Working for the Red Shift” the Doppler Effect is a celebration of migratory essence and colors the poet’s experience:

The future is unwritten. / My heart belongs to the Great Unknown. /
O Voices in the wind, I’m your Vessel. / Make me beautiful.”

In addition to poetry, Toll was an enthusiastic collage artist. He always created his own zine covers, as well as the cover art for The Disinformation Phase. The point of collage is to scatter the eye; to create an image that the eye has no lasting place to settle as a way to help us get to the mood of something. Using inexplicable narrative or creating a collage, Toll was able to diminish the obvious so that subtlety could exist without artifice. In this, Toll was indebted to the teachings of the composer Gurdjieff and his best student, the mathematician P. D. Ouspensky who believed that each person, place, or thing has both a personality and an essence. Like them, Toll believed that trouble happens when the personality of someone dominates their essence…or when the personality of a poem dominates its essence. To him, almost all predictable narrative is personality. Context is personality. Subject matter is personality. Toll held jobs his whole life. He never wrote about any of them. To steal from Faulkner, when we cling to personality, we cling to that which robs us. The struggle is an illusion. Be essence. Be light.

“I wake up in darkness,” Toll concludes, in “Benevolent Magic Begins with Me,” a poem of secrets hidden in larger detail such as drums beating in the trunk of a car, staring through tears, a true love leaving four guns for him, a switchblade in a hollowed-out hymnal. For Toll, secrets are not solutions. The answer is to seek the answer, and not to find it. He captures this idea in “Carbon-Based Lifeform Blues,” one of his more well-known poems:

Art is Religion.
My Higher Self
lies on top of gray clouds
and plays a harmonica.
Oh yes, she cries some tears.
Religion is Philosophy.
Why is grim in pilgrim
and why isn’t a pill?
My liquor store dances in the rain.
Philosophy is Art.
The job of poets is not to explain the Mystery.
The job of poets is to make the Mystery greater.

Toll was interesting in other ways as well. Although he was a confessional poet in the sense that he was a personal poet, he lacked any of the controlling nature of the best confessional poets, while still respecting their work with an almost mystical reverence. Plath’s “Fever 103” is not the only echo one will discern in these poems. Like her, Toll invokes myth from the personal. The lines, “Chaos is my preacher,” “Art is the bed where I cry myself to sleep,” and “The ache in my heart lets me know you exist” connect with myth (to the Greeks, Chaos was the grandmother of Poetry) where ideals are personified without the story taking over his images.

Many critics celebrated Toll’s device of translating “recently discovered” works of Keats, Plath, and Emily Dickinson, among others. The technique was first introduced by San Francisco poet Jack Spicer in his Letters from Lorca, a series of contrived correspondence between the two gay poets. Spicer, who died at 37 from alcohol poisoning, was like Toll a promoter of self-published, primitively designed zines. Spicer also advocated for inexplicable narrative, and even held monthly contests for which poets battled over who could read the longest line using only made up syntax and unintelligible syllables, calling it “Nonsense Poetry.”

In “Why Is Try in Poetry” Toll writes,

The rowhouses / stand like mismatched volumes / in an encyclopedia of grief.’

Spicer’s poem “The Ballad of Weeping” which he has purportedly translated from Lorca, illustrates the primordial sadness in Toll’s writing:

I have closed my window
Because I do not want to hear the weeping
But behind the gray walls
Nothing can be heard but weeping.

A few dogs might bark
A few angels might sing
There might be room for a thousand violins in the palm of my hand.

But the weeping is a big dog
The weeping is a big angel
The weeping is a big violin
The tears put a muzzle on the air
And nothing can be heard but weeping.

Spicer also inspired poet Joel Dailey’s Fell Swoop Press. Dailey had been one of the few students of Spicer, and Fell Swoop was an obvious choice for Toll’s next book—his last—Life on Earth. In an interview re-blogged on the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet, Dailey credits Spicer with the idea that small fields of work…chapbooks and zines…are how the poet should write instead of focusing and work-shopping one immortal poem or writing one singular poem for each separate journey. If a journey isn’t worth a hundred poems could it be worth a single one? Toll embodied this approach as well and that’s one reason Robinson once described him this way in Word Riot:

All the pieces are the same. Like the bluesmen sing, I know Chris, and he don’t never change.”

No, Toll didn’t change, but he did get better and better at who he was, and that is Toll’s challenge to the rest of us, to sharpen our knives by using them.

BARRETT WARNER’s poems and stories have in Berkeley Fiction ReviewConsequence, and Chiron Review. He is the author of two chapbooks, My Friend Ken Harvey (Publishing Genius) and Til I’m Blue in the Face. His poetry collection, Why Is It So Hard to Kill You? is forthcoming from Jane’s Boy Press. We’ve enjoyed having him here so much that we’ve been lucky to have him as part of this series three times, previously with essays on WWII Poet Keith Douglas, and on Russell Edson’s “Sheet Music.”

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