Review of The Disparities by Rodrigo Toscano | Rosa Alcalá

Lo mismo que aplasto el jierro            Just as I work the iron 
pa' jacerlo filigrana,                                  Into a filigree, 
quiero aplastá tu queré                           I want to forge your love 
de la noche a la mañana                          From morning to night 

       —A Martinete (traditional flamenco work song)                      
Now lady I ain't no mill man
Just the mill man's son
But I can do your grinding
Till the mill man comes
         — "An early American HooDoo song," quoted in Ishmael Reed's Conjure

Marjorie Perloff insists in Radical Artifice that the performance of John Cage's "Lecture on the Weather" is "not about weather, it is weather." In Rodrigo Toscano's The Disparities, something similar occurs: I cannot speak simply about the poet's work but about the poems themselves working-working it out, working you over, working for the man, working the crowd-to depict the incongruities that authority, authenticity, reality, and identity produce. In this book-length work song (and at times, love song), he offers his product in various stages of refinement, and (DING!) down goes the hammer, puts a few dents in it, walks always, eyes the overseer (DING!), throws down his hammer again in the form of a question mark or maybe an ellipsis (DINK!), gives it an elbow-polish, addresses the buyer, then walks away again. The sheer muscle Toscano demonstrates in these poems is so seductive, I hardly notice whether there's any "use-value" to what's left on the anvil-perhaps because what's left are poems flexing, with each reading, manifold possibilities.

Some signs forged there? No. But with raw urge, knew
(from "Circular No.6")

Although written before his previously published book Partisans (O Books), The Disparities continues its "wordworking" as both the method and madness of delivering and dismantling government-sanctioned "transnational imagery." And like Partisans' verb tenses, language construction performs the tensions between being, making, and naming, often resulting in a kind of stammer, a layering of thought fragments, evident in "O Sacrum Convivium":

I did this/that, for x-cause, which (hmmm) affected…
Which eventually…it can be said (no?) that…look
The Zolphi Gorge, next to the Rheita Valley, where
I was (no?) part…wait, I was part, a part of, look
The Zagut Fissure, Prol Plateau, et cetera
Eventually…well, the word crises even sounds

By foregrounding process, the poems become translations of transition, existing between "Land/ a story" and "ax/ a memory" (from "non-confidential memos").

The book's title suggests the failure to represent, through language, the exchange between an evolving existence and variously perceived realities ("La distancia entre mi y estas calles" [The distance between me and these streets]). The titles of the poems, however, hint at our failure to fail completely- our need to keep punching the clock and provide at least some product or documentation, as seen in "Circular No. 6," "Premise No. 1" (as well as "No. 2" and "No. 3"). Too, the titles "Journal" or "non-confidential memos," suggest a desire to make public the construction of self and realities, our "hyperpublic aloneness."

Realities being those fantasies that control your immediate span of life. Usually they are not your own fantasies, i.e., they belong to governments, traditions, etc., which it must be clear by now, can make for conflict with the singular human life
all ways. The fantasy of America might hurt you, but it is what should be meant when one talks of 'reality.'
—Amiri Baraka, from Home: Social Essays

Certainly, Green Integer's custom of placing the author's photo on the cover is testament to that. And despite the feeling that his poems are built on a strong theoretical foundation, Toscano's black and white smirk urges me to not easily replace the idiosyncratic with the ideological. But any critical approach is also a failure: "Biographical. To be spoken for. To know/ This much, this long: new uninhabitabilities" (from "Premise No. 3").

Unmistakingly informed by Language Poetry, there's still a certain "old school" feel about much of the book (in the sense of a hybridization of past forms of address), especially the second part, beginning with the poem "Journal." The groupings of "thing-objects" in "Corollary A" and "Corollary B" are driven-like many of the poems- by the musical and emotional intensity found in the lyrical/mystical tradition. And like the nomadic ghazal, rendering a world in motion necessarily combines corporeality with memory; and inquiry is spiritual (though I can hear Toscano thundering at that designation!), material, as well as inconclusive. Toscano writes,"Myself an Item to boot, subtractive author/ Unboarding, now goes,-This far; where from? which force,/ acts?/ Threatening questions, as doves swoop below the mailbox." And I am reminded of Rumi's "A Voice Through the Door": "Lift your foot;/ cross over; move into the emptiness/ of question and answer and question.

This questioning is especially marked in Toscano's performance of the poems, as witnessed in a recent reading at University at Buffalo's Wednesdays at Four Series. The inflection of interrogatives, as in the title poem ("Anything? Plans, newstands. Are things not done on pace? / Time. A gap. As 'to close the gap,' between what?) or as in "Four or Five Estimations" ("I feel misplaced, a non-self spoke-estimations?") insist on participation, argumentation, not the acquiescence rhetorical devices require. His performance of the work also demonstrates the difficult relationship between the individual and the collective necessary to "wordworking." Toscano writes, "You know, formations repel as well, and why not?" later suggesting we "become intimate with what's alien."

After his reading, I asked Toscano if this use of the interrogative comes out of the tendency Spanish-speakers have of punctuating a statement with a rhetorical question: ¿Sí o no? (Yes or No?) ¿Verdad que sí? (Isn't it true?) ¿O no? (Right?) Entiendes? (Get it?). He says, "yes," but also he's goading the public (by way of "the public" having already been goaded into a system of mutual receptivity).

Es un puzzle americano, ¿comprendes? El poema empieza como un crepúsculo inmóvil [It is an's…an American puzzle.Understand? The poem begins like immobile twilight]
—letter from Federico García Lorca to Adolfo Salazar, 1 January 1922

In "4 or 5 Estimations" Toscano writes, "Subsidized lyrics as in your puffy schools, pray/ What does take mean, docks unloading, who inspects what? / I'm a doormat talking as if I'm a kingpin." And in "Premise No. 1": "Like a recent rap says-what's yo' name foo', I signed the line, compelled, a signature, keeps track of …ding." I'm not so much concerned as to whether the references actually point to hip hop artist/actor Sean "P Diddy" Combs, who recently changed his name from "Puff Daddy" and raps in "Bad Boy for Life":

How we twist shit, what changed but the name?
We still here, you rockin wit the best
Don't worry if I write rhymes - I write checks (hah!)
Who's the boss? Dudes is lost

I'm interested in how Toscano, in even his most economic poems, can produce a multiplicity of references and "twist shit" like records at the hands of a mixmaster: layered but seamless, pulsating its invitation yet opaque. Toscano aims at reminding the reader throughout his work of the industry of these "sampled" realities, of our personal work in sustaining, circulating, or altering them.

Re-state: mores as in mores of the State
Craft, not as in corn basket weaving craft
Urgencies, mothered geometry, when?
Locus, where? You want assurance, choke.
Cock, for example, late subject of this…
Untangling it, as far as boy's poems go
Made meaning-pan [cornspeak it] not Corsairs
But later [rivetspeak it] sealed cockpits
("Circular No. 6)

From corn basket to cornspeak, from cock to cockpits, from cornspeak to Corsair, from re-state to rivetspeak, from pre-industrial craft to post-industrial craftiness, specificity is challenged by a network (a "circular") of suggestions. This network argues for diversity by demonstrating diversity, and argues against globalization by revealing diverse forms of manipulation, concealment, and framing.