The past two COVID years, characterized by limited interactions and confinement to our homes, have only underscored the extent to which ours has become a culture of spectatorship. Unlike the dog in the meme (“This is fine”), many of us long to do something as our world burns down around us; but mostly we watch. Poets, workers in language alert to the shifts and guiles of public rhetoric (“the antennae of the race,” Pound called them), are often acutely aware of the inequities and horrors around them, and feel acutely the necessity for action. But whether one can take meaningful social or political action through poetry is another question. Somewhere between the extremes of Shelley’s poets as “the unacknowledged legislators of mankind” and W. H. Auden’s flat assertion that “poetry makes nothing happen,” contemporary politically committed poets have made a cottage industry of agonizing over the question of whether their Leftist bona fides, as manifested in their poetry, actually make any difference.
Rodrigo Toscano, one of our keenest and funniest Leftist poets, doesn’t need to prove his activist credentials: as a project director at the Labor Institute, he’s been working in the trenches of union organizing, occupational safety and health, and environmental issues for more than two decades. His latest searingly political book, The Charm & the Dread, combines nuts-and-bolts geopolitical analysis, calls to arms, ironic reflections on the place of political discourse (both poetic and otherwise) in North America, quiet and loud meditations on the COVID-19 experience, and a good deal of sheer fun.
Perhaps it’s his day job of liberatory labor that allows Toscano to take such a questioning stance toward political poetry as a genre. As he writes in “Insurrectionary,”
The day to day existence of people If that doesn’t change, then what is all this? Passionate words, eloquent poetry What’s the use of any of it today If tomorrow and many days to come Aren’t shaped differently, aren’t lived differently[?]
The page is a space where poets can wryly highlight the injustices that affect human lives, where they can urge us to reflection and action; but those linguistic interventions are always secondary to the concrete political labor of collecting data, of organizing, of trying to bend our present dystopia in more humane directions.
At times, the pieces of The Charm & the Dread are less political poems than poems about the possibility of political poetry. “Homo Americanus” is a bitterly hilarious send-up of the spectacle of literature conferences and the entire academic creative writing industry:
But here we are, herding piss-poor students Into the bare halls of Career Poet. There’s exactly five things a prize can do: One: it bestoweth wings to wingless works Two: it stauncheth today’s systemic wounds Three: perchance it payeth the rent—golly Four: it groweth wings on the fugitive Five: it clipeth the fugitive’s new wings
Still, in the insterstices of this ego-driven industry, there’s the possibility of imagining new modes of living:
Old Universalisms pen us in Where we mean to run with a New Story. New Stories, reject Catastrophizing Refuse a foregone Tragicomedy Stage an Alternative Futurity
In “Jump-Start Poems,” Toscano wonders whether poems that take no explicit political stance, that attempt to deal with the “deep” questions of existence, are even “worth it”:
I mean, poems, meant to get at existential being itself For a moment (brief moment) stripped of social causality Not having to take a publicly recognizable position Not having to, you know, massage an affiliation But instead, riffing on what’s elementally human What’s fundamentally common between folks
“I wonder if jump-start poems are a cop-out / Or a necessary moment (brief moment) against cop out,” Toscano writes, and then finds himself wondering whether “jump-start poems” actually exist:
And if they do exist, whether they wonder themselves About poems that wonder about not wondering Fending off the hounds of lassitude, indolence, and surrender Just long enough for a jump-poem to start it all
The poem ends by tying itself in a perfect knot of paradox, leaving the reader unsure whether the “jump-start poem” is being cherished or anathematized.
The following poem, “Compulsory Conviction,” is far more pointed:
Many these days demand a show of faith Oblations on the altar of justice Rounding up neophytes, exhaling charms Cooked up by professional spell casters.
In “these days” of precarity and crisis, there are “many” in the poetic community insisting that poets must harness their muses to the work of liberation, make their social and political commitments clear in their poetry. But that insistence overlooks the more subtle manner in which poetry sometimes works:
There’s others though that need a space to think Step back and stoke the embers of feeling Matching sense to thinking, cell by cell Tender shoots of enlightenment spring free.
These latter poets, not interested in their comrades’ “shows of faith,” are doing the quiet labor of humanizing the imagination to overcome the constraints of inherited ideas: “When strengthening shoots harden into trunks / Roots twist into action, upturn church walls.”
The Charm & the Dread isn’t all overtly political, or even meta-political poetry. A number of its poems explore how the the events of the past years have fundamentally altered our ways of sensing and being in the world. The title poem, subtitled “A Meditation in the Time of COVID,” is an alternately hair-raising and calming chant:
The charm of a medivac helicopter. The dread of a failed meditation. The charm of another ambulance. The dread of a failed meditation.
Toscano’s poems can be elated, despondent, theoretically sophisticated, or savagely critical, but they’re never poker-faced. The Charm & the Dread is consistently, often wildly, funny; in its range of wry observation, shrewd satire, and outright obscenity, it reminds me of nothing so much as the work of the great 18th-century satirists Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift — though without the misogyny, class bias, and mean-spiritedness. I read “Converse” (subtitled “A Revolutionary Program for Total Change”), a rare quiet and thoughtful poem, as something like Toscano’s ars poetica:
To say something then something else To be still, waiting to comprehend To help out being helped by others To make stuff in tandem To rip asunder the making To point very far feeling it close To pull the screen up and laugh
This is a poetry that seeks to make sense of a seemingly senseless world, “to comprehend”; that prizes human connection, structures of mutuality — “To help out/ being helped by others”; and that aims ultimately to set aside the screens of deception that keep us oppressed: to dissipate them in the universal solvent of generous, self-deprecatory laughter.
The Charm & the Dread by Rodrigo Toscano is published by Fence Books and is available online and in bookstores.