Publishing Genius Press
Review by Kate Schapira
The first time Emily Dickinson appears in Chris Toll’s collection of poems, she’s writing an angry letter to Arthur Rimbaud about the FitzGerald translation of the Rubaiyat. The second time, she pays a fangirl visit to Edgar Allan Poe, hitches a ride to 2002 in his time machine, and leaves a poem in a Baltimore bookstore. Its first stanza reads
I’ve lost Everything – I’ve lost Everything Twice.
I bought a Sniper Rifle from a man named Don.
I’ve got a Holy Bible gnawed by mice –
I want to dance like they did in Babylon –
I was just talking with someone about how dashes aren’t what makes an Emily Dickinson poem; they dress a poem up as an Emily Dickinson poem. That made me wonder what I’d put on a poem to make it look like it came from Disinformation Phase.
“It came from the Disinformation Phase” might appear in it, for starters. Toll draws freely and with gusto from our science-fiction expectations and noir wish lists, our pulp: “A detective grips her raygun tighter / and kicks a door open.” The lines that follow are “Raindrops are calling to the last in love. / Them tears are a school that consoles.” On pages 6, 8, 10, 19, 20, 27, 29, 33, 38, 56 and 57, someone is weeping, and the book’s second section is titled “The We in Weep.” The poems in Disinformation Phase are full of such unearthings, word dug out of other word: “the city inside electricity,” “an inn in infinite.”
It could be argued that these findings are fake, like a SETI archaeologist salting the site with alien artifacts, or Emily Dickinson leaving her lines in a 2002 edition of her own works, or Chris Toll writing a poem “by Emily Dickinson.” In the Disinformation Phase, that neither increases nor decreases their value; indeed, these poems call the whole question of value into question. They acknowledge the pervasiveness of judging things, or people, by what someone else would pay for them, but they seek another standard. Toll writes in his bio that he’s a “poet and collagemaker”, and these poems show him intertwining the two forms. These poems don’t read like “collage poems” the way that, say, Rosmarie Waldrop’s collage poems do—consecutive lines don’t sound like they come from different minds or places, and although there are tonal shifts, they take place within the same voice. They are collage-like in the way their images make new contexts for each other while simultaneously haunted by their old contexts:
hotwires my supermarket
and leaves the city
in a hurry.
blows its brains out
in the graveyard
behind a prison.
My supermarket, my cathedral; elsewhere, “my courthouse,” “my meat packing plant,” “my asylum,” “my bookstore.” Read enough of these and it starts to make “my daddy,” “my mama” and “my true love,” who also show up, sound strange: possessed and repossessed. It’s the idea of possession, of having a thing that has value, of particular authenticity, that becomes simultaneously precious and empty. Toll performs a similar emptying out and filling up of what seems to be a personal canon of drastic poets. In addition to Emily Dickinson’s sniper rifle and Poe’s time machine, he gives us a poem by Sylvia Plath that features a Jedi who “clenches morning stars in her fists. She’s trapped the vampire hitman / in the laboratory of the Fortress of Solitude” and a poem by John Keats titled “What Have You Done for Global Warming Today?”
And he performs a related operation, throughout the book, on icons of Christianity—figures, images, and language. “The Word is my shepherd. / I shall be wanted.” Later, “My Road leapt weptward. I shall be vaulted.” Later still, “The Word is my leopard, / my font shall not faint / and I lie down in sewn pastures.” The 23rd Psalm, like Christ and Satan, is widely recognizable as a Christian artifact in the same way that dashes are recognizable as Dickinsonian artifacts; they’re haunted by the places where they grew, and changed—corrupted, decorated—by the places where we now encounter them.
The third time Emily Dickinson appears, she “sits on the edge of my bed / and says ‘You can’t go on / without an image from your dreams.” Her last name does not appear, but I know it’s her. What is the standard that will replace value? In a Chris Toll poem, maybe it’s pulp: the places where we’ve been wounded and overloaded, scraped by statues and punctured with ray guns, so that something important—not information, but maybe some strange news from another star, or something much nearer—can get through to us.
Kate Schapira is the author of four books, most recently The Soft Place (Horse Less Press), and eight chapbooks. She lives in Providence, RI, where she teaches writing and runs the Publicly Complex Reading Series.