by Tony Towle
Hanging Loose Press 2008
Reviewed by Mike McDonough
For Whom the Bell Towles
I’m giving Winter Journey an extra half-star because I want you to look past its cover. The drab, pointillist abstraction slapped on a dull lavender background, bracketed by titles apparently printed with defective disappearing ink, does not reflect the lively, erudite intricacy and humor of the work inside. Even if you recognize the looming bulk of the WTC towers, be assured this book contains no elegies for 9/11. Towle shares some blame for the nondescript title, which doesn’t reflect the mood of the book. Take a look at tonytowle.com to see some good cover designs, including one by Jasper Johns and my favorite by Larry Rivers: there’s the energy that should be on the cover.
It’s sometimes hard to be fair to any collection so soon after a career-spanning greatest hits like A History of the Invitation. You have to look past the intimidating difference in scale and leave enough time to judge the new work on its own merit. Happily, in Towle’s case, Winter Journey contains work that ranks with his best, and avoids any tendency to coast. In fact, I was certain that “Hudson and Worth” was in Invitation, since it contained such a classic Towle premise as turning a parking lot by a construction site into a map of the 1943 tank battle of Kursk:
…the asphalt below,
where a diagram of the 1943 battle of Kursk has been laid out
in myriad notations of red and orange.
Notice the red arrows near the parking lot. They
are Rossokovsky’s T-34’s which will pierce the German salient.
At sunrise, faculty from a military college
will utilize jackhammers to simulate the clamor of battle
while we huddle in our bunkers until the lesson is complete.
Towle is a master of satirical conceits, and this is no small thing. He follows their implications until they ascend to Parnassus and/or blow up in his (and our) faces. While I admit that language often acts as a deconstructor in chief, many poets seem to regard extended metaphors and fulfilled premises with a moral distaste which to me seems akin to cooking an omelet by cracking the eggs and dropping them on the kitchen floor. It’s like a joke without a set up, or a set up without a yolk. Towle, being a seriocomic gourmand, reliably cracks his eggs in the pan, cooks the omelet to a turn, flips it deftly, topping it with iffy mushrooms and cheese, which speak to him with historical relish and trepidation of blond invaders with puffy tents and egg-shaped Viking helmets, causing him (and us) to turn green and to volubly puke into the faux marble birdbath out back while Frank O’Hara adds a funny, touching zinger for dessert. Figuratively, of course.
You, reader, have a friend in Tony Towle: he is willing to go to these absurd lengths for you. His poems are in a hyperdrive that has nothing to do with character-driven realism, but stabs at the heart of the oversignified, ad-ridden, thoroughly engineered world that we live in—Donald Barthelme with a streak of John Donne? Watch what he does in “Truth in Advertising,” especially the section on Michelin’s iconic inflatable demigod’s especially “resilient… compassion.” Read his take on the beer commercial where the man pretends to be a doctor in order to take advantage of the limo with the bar (wait, you’re endangering the lives of real patients to get this full bar and you take the light beer?). Don’t miss the one where the SUV bounces its way across terrain consisting of the letters of its own name like the animated bits on Sesame Street, until, faced with “plummeting into the bottomless canyon” between the P and the A, “the vehicle awakens, its cold engine shuddering/ in the silent showroom, beads of moisture covering the hood.” Another classic Towle motif is the co-opting of the calendar for commercial purposes:
Every little breeze
takes on import
during Hurricane Awareness Week
which has kicked off
another Real Estate Avarice Month
here in fashionable Tribeca.
Towle is fond of reminding us that he is a Gemini, and therefore really gullible. Laugh, but don’t believe that for a minute, though his recent work has been reliably and fortuitously bipolar, not to mention a bit schizophrenic—which may be shitty for his consciousness but gravy for us. Our current war anxiety speaks to him in the guise of Mognol hordes disposing prisoners by rolling them up in rugs and kicking to them to death in order that no blood be shed. “YES, IRONY IS WHAT MADE OUR EMPIRE GREAT/ intones Genghis Khan from his bottomless tomb./ SURE IT WAS, confirms his son Ogodei, /rolling his eyes…/in an early use of italicized sarcasm.”
Winter Journey also contains muted elegies for the losses inevitably sustained over 40 years. One might not even catch the elegiac tone in “Bagatelle” because the surface is so breezy. The computer spell checks a reference to Teshub, storm god of the Hittites, as “Toshiba.” The poet continues to breeze of endless rain and cosmic investors cutting a loss as if they were clicking a mouse. 2/3 of the way through, we find a reference to sitting on the beach and considering “The Great North Atlantic,” which is a geographical fact as well as a reference to a book by Towle’s late friend, Kenneth Koch. Then we can reread the passage, astonished by the intricate thought that has been camouflaged by Towle’s comic, absurdist tone:
By now I’m on a trip, if not exactly a vacation
though I anticipate brambles, mosquitoes,
poisonous berries and lunatics with shotguns
as I usually encountered on vacation,
except when I would sit on the beach
and consider the Great North Atlantic
investing the feeling
that vacations would last longer
than I knew they were going to.
Lines like these give us a new sense of emotional directness in poetry. His fantastic and funny scenarios read less as escapism than challenge. Towle’s tonal mix of absurdity and pathos is so seamless that, as Ron Padgett put it, we are not permitted to distinguish between the real and the imagined. This would seem to be a recipe for schizophrenia, so let me elaborate: when we think of The Wizard of Oz primarily as an allegory, we have distinguished between fantasy and reality: we think we know what the book is really about. This gives readers a sense of security that Towle’s work does not. If we know the virtual world is located in silicon chips and fiber optic lines, then we think we know where Reality (capital R) is. In Towle’s poems, his speakers are in game world even as they walk down Broadway dodging traffic. Towle doesn’t have to set up a bleak Sci Fi future to scare us. The future is already here. The wonder is Towle’s resilient humor: we are all walking underwater and making the best of it. The wonder is that the undertow of loss is so well-balanced with the immediate pleasure of being alive. Here’s the fine miniature that kicks off the first poem, “In The Coffee House,” a contemporary mirror of the exciting, artistic life the once youthful Towle was looking for:
the Mona Lisa, in the Village
at Bleecker and Seventh, a blip
from the middle ages
on the radar screen of that young woman over there,
while she thinks of someone else.
The poet laments “the missed opportunities strewn about the incorporeal field” with the realization that, lost in his feelings, he, like, missed the 60’s while it was actually going on across the street at the San Remo:
by loneliness, poverty and paralyzing
indecision, resolutely ignoring the fact
that everyone cool in there
knew that I wasn’t.
Buffeted by time and memory as the poet is, the bounceback is around the corner. He is
waiting for an actual girlfriend:
and in fact it’s cool to have a girlfriend at my age
I think amusedly to myself
behind the overpriced coffee—
2.95 to contemplate the traffic
fleeing down the avenue and into the past.
I said that Towle does not allow us to distinguish between the real and the imagined; that his world is mostly engineered, and the wonder is that it isn’t a bleak, apocalyptic dystopia, but mostly pretty damn funny. Yes, he sometimes hides sadness behind the breeziest of tones. Yes, his game worlders are at risk of actually being struck by traffic crossing Broadway, but Towle insists he is an optimist. He feels that even in an engineered world, nature will always be there, if sometimes in disguise; we will be able to tell the difference if we cultivate a sufficiently practiced eye:
But to work out an agreement with these successive vistas
we will need help from a circumference of clarity
and a marvelous pencil to record what is happening. The lake still
needs help; it is far from the actual water. And this is characteristic
of the sort of designer who disappears among the cypresses,
asking the very mildness of the atmosphere for help.
This stanza is one of the few in the book that have a straightforward tone, but the poem is actually a Miltonic sonnet, and the stanza is the sestet balancing a far more absurdist octet. This helps us see, as Charles North pointed out, the musical structure of Towle’s materials, the counterpoint of his ideas, and the tendency of his stanzas to move in different directions and begin the poem anew, like symphonic movements.
Like the monomaniac coyote, we can paint a tunnel on the cliff to fool the roadrunner, and get hit by an oncoming train. Like the roadrunner, we can run right through to the other side. The difference is the clarity needed to make the marvelous pencil work for us, pun intended, so that we can see through the potentially fatal enticements of the ACME jet-powered bat suit—which is as far as this ridiculous comparison can be stretched. And since you’ve read this far, I can safely take that last half star off the curve.