Deck of Deeds by Rodrigo Toscano
Counterpath, 2012; 128 pp
Reviewed by Paul French
Take heed fellow readers of poetry. This is no book to bring to the beach. Serious avant-gardist and arrant brow-puller Rodrigo Toscano doesn't write things like that. And if you're familiar with his 2008 Collapsible Poetics Theater (which this reviewer highly recommends), you probably know how companionable a pen and pad become during a Toscano read-though, something best described in rearview as a process. Unlike some experimentalists though, Toscano tends to reward the reader for his/her time.
Out of a panopticon of chaos, Toscano's crosscuts of image and sentiment seem scientifically crafted--with meanings arrived at not by accident (as can be the case with some experimental work) but through the poet's shrewd manipulation of a polyvalent din. I say the latter because Deck of Deeds sweeps with a wide wisp, pulling together a variety of culture debris, as each poem represents a card thumbed out from the overwhelming deck American life has dealt us.
Here the poetry reader is cast as tarot reader, treating each card as a symptom of future and present. Naturally, this tactic is fit for satire, and Toscano's prose poem depictions are filled with absurdist hyperboles, oftentimes pointing us toward the precarious position of art (especially experimental art) when environed by late capitalism (see Closer Poetry #2 below). This was also a concern in Collapsible Poetics Theater, whose multiple voices performed the trials of the avant-garde's attempt at transcending the problems of resistance outlined by Frederic Jameson; Deck of Deeds's enactment of this tension is much more straightforward.
Although the straightforwardness of its enacted satire makes Toscano's latest outing more accessible, I'll admit it subtracts from the potential energy and mystery of Deck, especially in the latter forty pages (out of a total of 122). The initial nuance of the streamlined critique begins to dry out as the reader moves past the middle of the book. But ultimately this caveat's premise isn't enough to knock down Toscano's pyramid. I still recommend Deck of Deeds for its strong craft and trenchant analysis of art and culture. It's not a perfect book, but, as you'll see below in the close reading, it's got teeth.
Closer Poetry #2
from Rodrigo Toscano's Deck of Deeds
(missing a few typographical details because of my dinosaur word processor)
I want to be well-known and influential for my conook-anak-
anok-ka-nik-nik art, 'newbody' sculptural, photographic, and
I was born in Ooooooo-la-mala-mula-manuna but moved to the
United States at a young age. I've recently earned a kenooki-cooki-
pooki-fanooki from Stanford University, and my work will
soon be presented in Chiuuuu-shrrr-hiphiphip(hip).
Some consider my work to be strongly chawola-yamola, while
others call me a sell-out of chawola-yamola. My early conook-
anak-anok-ka-nik-nik art was focuse on violence against the
tooo-ooon-jajajajaja body. Lately I've focused on a spiritual and
physical connection with young tooo-ooon-jijijijiji bodies.
During the last two years, I've started creating 'body objects,'
mostly sustained, live 'sculptures' of my body in bound positions.
My aim is to maximize a !tandoo-ka-karan! of social-interactive
intentionality in public spaces.
My upcoming performance involves ten tooo-ooon-jijijijiji who've all
recently turned nineteen to deliver their yambara-corumbara-salah
into my yooofff--o' (o'). There is to be a minimally perceived
break between one's yambara-corumbara-salah and another's. As
soon as the lunga-saraf of one comes out, another one's lunga-saraf
goes in. I remain silent throughout. As soon as the last one has
yambara-corumara-salah'd into me, the all get dressed and clear
the space. I remain still for about ten minutes, holding in the small
lake of yambara-corumbara-salah inside me. Then, in a gesture of
newfound tooo-ooon-jajajajaja empowerment, I let gush out all of
the pleasure that I harbored to myself (for myself) for all spectator
to either critically evaluate, be disturbed by, or simply enjoy."
First & Second Stanzas:
The first thing to note is that the poem is in quotes. Its language presupposes an extraneous source mediated into this space by the poet. When Toscano makes use of this language, he's establishing a discourse of the readymade--that is, he's teasing us into thinking about what it means that the above testimony has been placed within the context of Deck of Deeds, a work that chiefly deals in satire. Toscano's use of quotes here also makes us think about the persona of the speaker as a target of examination. Who is speaking here? What is he/she saying?
It doesn't take long to realize that the quoted speaker is an artist and that what follows is some kind of artistic statement (the kind that might be included in a backmatter bio of a literary journal). Anyone who's read a bio or artistic statement should be familiar with their stock patterns. There's rarely much deviation from the dry resume or bloated blurb-ready language that forms the rhetoric of these statements, which are, unfortunately, the result of art's collision with the commercial world. When you get right down to it, there's not much separating an artistic statement with a sales pitch. Both are wired to impress an audience composed of potential buyers and advocates, toing and froing around the gallery. From an anti-capitalist and avant-gardist position, this shill presentation of artistic material is absurd; it's a joke, a contradiction. In terms of language and intent, it's absolute nonsense--something that Toscano's speaker gives us plenty of, beginning with the title of the art project, "anok-ka-nik-nik" in the first stanza.
This is a funny poem, especially if read aloud or in juxtaposition with similar artistic statements or bios (look through any online literary journal for examples). One aspect of the comedy derives from the fact that this five paragraph statement is supposed to serve as summary for the speaker's artistic life. There's so much that's non-sequitur and silly in the pairing of "I was born in blah-blah-blah" and "I've recently earned a blah-blah-blah award," (second stanza) but our familiarity with this construction has caused us to accept it--a life reduced to a list.
Third & Fourth Stanzas:
Moving further into the poem, the nonsense begins to compound. At this point, I couldn't help but think of that scene from Louis, the one where a hungover C.K. is pushing through a crowd of millenials in a coffee shop.
All of them are speaking, but to the hungover main character, the language has devolved into vowel-heavy noise. However, because we understand the context of the scene and what these characters represent, we can get the gist of the garble. We can fill in the blanks. The same thing accords here.
As with the former, these nonsense phrases comically point the reader to the idea that what's being said doesn't really mean anything. The fact that it can be replaced with nonsense and still maintain its posture pays testament to this. By the fourth stanza, I start to wonder how much would be lost if other phrases within this statement were changed into nonsense: "social-interactive intentionality in public spaces," for instance.
Here's where things get interesting. Toscano's speaker persists in peppering his/her statement with nonsense terms but departs from the stock pattern I mentioned before. Instead the artist provides a scene of a specific performance. Of course, it's not clear what exactly is going on, but the nonsense here does seem to become more like innuendo. It's hard not to read sexuality into the lines, "As soon as the lunga-saraf of one comes out, another one's lunga-saraf goes in." And if read this way, the scene becomes little more than a public gang bang, a pornographic display of vague purpose, as the artist makes it clear that he/she doesn't really care about the specific effect of the art project: "for all spectators to either critically evaluate, be disturbed by, or simply enjoy." This final insouciance is on even keel with the artist's copy & paste persona--whose style and work is cookie cutter, speaking to the success of contemporary art as a business of nebulous influence but little else.