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A Filipino Metamorphosis - Poetry Essay Reviewing: The Long Lost Startle by Joel M. Toledo

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A Filipino Metamorphosis

by Chris Mooney-Singh

Poetry Essay reviewing: The Long Lost Startle by Joel M. Toledo

Once upon a time there was a poet who woke up and found himself turned into ''some kind of animal''. It was dog-like with sharp teeth, whiskers, a hand becoming a paw, a voice with a ''keening sound''; it scratched and rooted around in the soil with a swishing tail. The creature still maintained another 'self', the voice of a more human consciousness, yet could suddenly understand everything: "the birds saying something about sadness, the dogs discussing sunlight.'' By the end of the experience in the poem (Persona) he realized that his 'animal' self was just one of his many selves and was ready to introduce them.

This is one of the imaginative conceits that Joel M. Toledo chooses in his new book 'The Long Lost Startle'. He uses it to engage with that post-modern pursuit: 'Naming of Parts', to quote the title of the famous poem. Like Henry Reed, Toledo sets up initial narratives or descriptions and then begins to question them. This is the basic strategy of deconstructionist critique. In this case, the poet himself attacks or questions the frames of reference, the definitions, the very language and grammar of his own work as he goes along. This is evident from the very first poem in the collection:

I choose a colour and it connotes sadness.

But how long must the symbols remain true? Blue

is blue, but not lonely. (Attachments)

Toledo writes with the alertness of a post modernist, aiming to beat the literary critic at his own game - shaking down his own poems' metaphors, signs and symbols. He wants to 'have his cake and eat it too' as the old saying goes. Why does he do this? It seems to be a fundamental driving force behind the work. Toledo does not seem content to merely write brief encounters or simple narrative moments as a poet like Ted Kooser [1] does. He wants to point to the 'way of seeing' itself and discuss what it is.

As an epigraph to his book, Toledo quotes a line from another recent American Laureate Robert Hass: ''a word is an elegy from what it signifies''. This is a key to the style and direction of the journey we have embarked on reading the 'The Long Lost Startle," a phrase that aims to be both nostalgic and celebratory, though to my mind is less startling as a book title. Meanwhile, the same Hass poem, one of his most famous, 'Meditation at Lagunitas' commences: "All the new thinking is about loss./In this, it resembles all the old thinking.'' In two lines Hass provides a gloss on the theme of human tragedy, going back to Greek classical literature with an ironic update on the same human condition in a contemporary world that has experienced two world wars and with the potential for a third. Has it ever been any different? Into this discussion leaps Joel Toledo, aiming to answer with as much the same elegant tone and intelligence as Robert Hass displays. Like Hass' work, subject and object can't be so easily separated. Here, Toledo is translating the visual look and visceral music of nature through language:

"the high cries and erratic spirals of sparrows,

the sky gray and now giving in to the regular rain.

Still, we insist on meaning, that common consolation..." (The Same Old Figurative)

This is descriptive writing also followed by a gloss. It's evident that Joel Toledo also follows in a tradition laid down by the likes of Wallace Stevens, that most ontological of poets, ever seeking some definition of The Grand Theme as in 'Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction'. To approach that Parnassian height, Stevens says one must prepare: 'You must become an ignorant man again/And see the sun again with an ignorant eye'. Or put another way: one must have a mind of winter/To regard the frost and the boughs/Of the pine-trees crusted with snow...(The Snowman). If we take 'ignorant' for 'innocent surprise', or ''mind of winter'', for a clear contemplative understanding of nature, Toledo's 'The Long Lost Startle', the title poem aims to walk this path:

Oh my, the familiar, the face of the grandfather clock

the clock declaring its singular point, the hour

The time-piece is both a mechanical device and a metaphorical one. It is a punctuation machine that divides our experience into increments when the senses perceive and the brain forms relationships between objects and these become a language.

And yes, many a Toledo poem in this collection grapples with the grammar of language, the conventions and forms of writing, music and art such as evidenced by 'The Same Old Figurative', 'Persona', 'Save as Draft', 'What is Required' and 'Leaning Drunk into the Poem', whose title is a wonky salute to Pablo Neruda. There are also others which display a similar obsession with grammatical and literary terminology: 'The Past Imperfect', 'The Missing Image', ''Craft', 'Tree Five-Seven-Five', 'The Irrelevance of Meter' and of course - 'Syntax'. Another, 'Construction' is concerned with ''the eventual transitions of language toward meaning, timber turning to houses''. At every turn of the page we see the outer world put on the bench, ready for the deconstructionist's hammer and chisel. Toledo delights and labours hard in his metaphoric debate, balancing a talent for description with analysis and direct statement. Not many poets attempt and are able to achieve such synthesis. Overall, the poems in this collection are remarkably even in their quality.

Throughout 'The Long Lost Startle' Toledo, writes like an all-knowing ghost as he moves between the act of perception to the art of reflection. For example, family members and others are mentioned in his poems, yet they are less participants than comfortable resting points for a roving mind after meaning. 'Contact', another 'animal' poem reinforces his ongoing trope, and then is



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