Tony Towle Up to Now
Introduction to The History of the Invitation, by Tony Towle
New York: Hanging Loose, 2001
Tony Towle is our ferocious, ultimate satirist. If there had been any question about his festive command over voluptuous hyperbole, his total relish in flattening high sounds into fables and ramble, the bold, inaustere verse of recent decades says, 'forget it.' The pieces here are permissive, blue-chip algorithms rendered as guffaws: clean communal jokes about great good fortune, quips and tales grown tall from laughter suffused with anger, contentious libretti hummed in "contrapuntal oblivion," gleamingly untentative, the opposite of guilt.
The formal hoax is "to roam beneath a deceptive roofliness...to justify the cobblestones / if not the stroll itself." For the stroll is a big pain, divinely organized (just maybe) and cobbled stone by stone. Time travel with an ex-girlfriend; linking up with an angel, "the same color as the clouds"; all those wrinkles in the time-space continuum; "the shepardess in the supermarket"; a TV tuned to The Disaster Channel -- the silliest data whiff shadows o'er one "trying to conceptualize," as Towle deliberately muffs it in "Postmodern Maturity." But with eyes to the sun, the shadows have it, and the result is darkened poetry beetling through lighthearted accounts of the way it might be. Pardon, though, if all this feels a bit adjacent to your porch-variety panegyric, occasioned as, say, "Holiday Depression" is, as life is, by "continued failure, approaching death, and borderline poverty."
Yet, the march or, certainly, a stroll of progress in mortality can't be serious. The poem "Telecommunications":
I heard the phone ring when I died.
It might have been Emily
but she got the machine.
The abbreviated code of this atypically short poem yields four keys to Towle's satire: (a) fulfilled premises ("the phone" connects to "the machine"); (b) narration flowing forward and back in time; (c) slapstick engagement with Tradition ("I" and "Emily"); and (d) deep punning, the double timbre of telecommunication. Towle is physicist enough to keep working over figures in poetry and art, memories, and immediate surroundings, Manhattan in fumes as an alpha-type backdrop to running narratives extended through conceits. He has the experimenter's sense of sticking (but moving also) to his metaphors: roaming, strolling, "[s]tepping alertly like a deer," as in the double-sonnet-like "Morning (Murray Hill)" where we join him "along the edge of a vanished structural perspective." The structural reference is "elevated transit...which used to keep Third Avenue both self-effacing and loud." The deep puns, of course, center on "vanished" "elevated" "transit." Third Avenue is visible geography "where the shadows used to be" and now where smoke has "turned to cappuccino steam," and "figurative fumes" are "autosuggestively" punctuated by Camrys, Tercels, and pseudopoetically by a Cressida, "a Probe / and then a Prelude."
Over time, Camrys and their geography wear down to history, triggering genealogy, which prompts terrific poetry, or vice versa. Towle understands this.
But don't stretch out on a basaltic scarp of genealogical fantasy
and imagine that you're really alone,
or think that "being alone" is a synonym for enlightenment.
Confused as to who is actually speaking,
and using such terms as "basaltic scarp,"
I sneak up to the attic and raid my Uncle Bob's
ever-diminishing matchbook collection for illumination.
There's not much to do with these snippets from "Seasonal Ramble," a birthday and self-renewal poem, other than to be enamored of the polyvoiced good humor leading you -- from intimation and counter-intimation of soliloquy, or "objective solitudes" as Towle notes elsewhere, or "exploding in the solitude" somewhere else -- upstairs to his attic. You get the feeling he could lead you anyplace:
so I take the concept back home,
by way of the #6 local,
where on 28th Street it took less than a minute, much
less, really, in front of the Epiphany School,
to decide to carry it on a bit further, up Lexington,
an enigmatic thoroughfare
in any event
at these latitudes,
to the Stern School for Women,
and ask if I could just hang around
and maybe sit in on a class or two.
I said Towle uses Manhattan as a backdrop, but that's not right. New York uses him, as she wantonly uses so many in her School, impressing her regimen, making him the most variously committed of her visually crazed poets --
to mash the colors
and correct them in their nests of spots
rustling the shrubbery
of indefinite iambics
("Notes for Poems (1981)")
-- painterly iambics, indefinite, for sure, but at times dogged --
Night was scratching at my door...
...a large black poodle,
for you see the night can be illustrated
with black curly hair
("The Last of the Lake")
-- spoofy-cranky --
because I can't keep looking at all this contemporary crap,
these wildly postmodern elliptical woodgrain-and-aluminum gizmos
trying to get at me from off the walls
and markedly spare:
And there is the soft thump of insects
on sandy skin, while I absorb the news,
two days after Ted Berrigan dies
and the sky seems to sag
and open up a space, the one in which
we didn't really know each other
though for twenty long years,
which are suddenly shorter.
At this point a painter
could reach down
for a little cerulean blue
to cover the hole in the sky
while I search out a caption for the scroll below.
That admission -- "we didn't really know..." -- highlights the love-making in the Work, the search for an intimate inscription, which in this case is the search from poet to poet, and which Towle outlines further in "Interior":
...the water, oddly, gets deeper as I watch
and the dazzling beach like a paper towel
blots up the excess
I have left among the innocent patterns
of the true things I orchestrate
but cannot move.
What counts is immovable but may be orchestrated; this is that other thrill to love-making and to satire, a thrill from which Towle prefers not to back away. His long poem "Storytelling" concludes, as does this introduction, with self-conscious reference to a "lovely neurotic woman" who "finds her / identity in a pool hall...her clown suit in shreds." Towle seems obliging. "She came to terms / with herself at about the same time I did. We shed our personas / as the story began."