By Greg Bem
The Cut Point is Rodrigo Toscano’s tenth book, and is the latest in his forays into the elastic and acrobatic edges of poetry and poetic language. It is an ambitious work that continues to best represent Toscano’s range, though it lacks some of the book structure that could make the work accessible and better knowable to the general reader.
From the opening poem, “Magnolias,” Toscano’s experimental and performative breath is accelerated across the page: “This shade-casting magnolia’s / getting involved / with your breathing” (page 1). This introduction to the book is a prime example of finding quick, concise balance between astute observation (place making and world building) and leaning into the fringe and pulling out the abstract.
The balance here is the difficulty of Toscano’s works, which make it excellent to read through, backwards and forwards. Toscano continues: “Or is it better put / was always involved / with your breathing”. The visual qualities (the poet emphasizes intensity and momentum through a pendulum of tabulations and enjambment) and the linguistic precision form a kind of doppler effect of poetry: the feeling of speed and the pressure to slow down at once moves into the reader.
Not all the works are quizzical and baffling, but many of them are. These qualities of question and wonder make Toscano’s poetry great to sit with, to puzzle over, to get haunted by. Sometimes the poems dribble down the page in their mesmerizing: “The unpaired, or paired / or semi-paired, or / multiply paired people / and pestilence” (from “Endless Summer NOLA,” page 12). This literary cascade is complimented by Toscano’s list poems, which are also splattered across the book in mildly absurd, often ecstatic, otherwise amusingly bemusing: “In yellow pants / with red cane / green glasses / with sparkles / purple shoes /with stars / starched white shirt / perfect creases” (from “Sapeurs and Cobalt,” page 3).
Poems like these contain the dialogical and bisecting performative voice Toscano has chiseled across the years. “Couplets” are more like schisms, more like being split down the middle and put back together again, a stack of bricks placed with chapped fingers, a cairn of pebbles in a glacial basin, a conversation of interruption and compilation. In “Triage Poetry,” the cuts are direct, rhythmic, clean:
So sick of triage poetry
Can’t even tell you how much, folks.
Poetry that picks up the pieces
Of broken people, smashed up people
So sick of it. Don’t want to hear it.
Oppressions of all kinds, real shit.
The lines read like a singular voice in couplets, but the allusion to multiple voices, to dialogue, to duality, is also present. “American Poetry Quarterly” moves further afield, the dialogue broken up with line breaks into a clear distinction of separate voices, separate speaking:
You don’t have a routine?
You’re spontaneous! You’re a spontaneous poet.
No no no—
And in some cases, the “cut” is not as clearly a this or that, but a more varied texture, with nuances in timing and space on the page. “The Land” reflects this by way of a director (as the first voice) and a performer (as the second voice), with the cut between the two voices, as well as a cut within the performer’s lines: “’The land. . . / swims to sea’ // perfect— / take eight // “The land. . . / floats in space”’ (page 80).
Toscano brings additional forms into this collection, including exploring more complex patterns of the “the foot,” tercets and other stanza styles that feel like William Carlos Williams or Anne Waldman and so on. The rhythm and motion push the book forward and each poem feels like one in a long arc of experimentation through various forms, various common approaches that Toscano has chiseled open and weathered into across time.
Still, the book tends to move so astoundingly fast, with little context, that the themes get buried in the form and experimentation. Toscano often includes more serious topics in his writing, and comments on gun control, political parties, postcolonialism, to name a few in this volume, but the impact of these topics feels awash and buried. Likewise, the poet’s approaches to writing feel distanced and obscured through the lack of the book structure, lack of explanation, lack of traditional explication for the reader. And yet the book’s writing is so compelling that perhaps that is the true cut: the slice of being, an excision from expectation.
You can find the book here: http://counterpathpress.org/the-cut-pointrodrigo-toscano
Greg Bem is a poet and librarian living on unceded Duwamish territory, specifically Seattle, Washington. He writes book reviews for Rain Taxi, Yellow Rabbits, and more. His current literary efforts mostly concern water and often include elements of video. Learn more at gregbem.com.