Review of The Disparities by Rodrigo Toscano | Mark Wallace

(from Cross Cultural Poetics, No. 9)

Rodrigo Toscano is an important figure in a fascinating and growing area of contemporary poetry, one that explores problems of cultural history, identity and politics while also using the complex, disruptive language structures frequently associated with avant garde literature. In Toscano's work, the concept of culture turns out to be more complex than the increasingly powerful cliches of institutional multiculturalism would have us believe. The idea that drives much of that multiculturalism is that despite our differences we are all individuals who want to "be ourselves," who want our cultural histories recognized and pure and our capitalist options open. In practice, this idea turns out to be a fundamentally bureaucratic tool, an example of the contemporary "management of differences" that, in their crucial recent book Empire, Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt argue is central to contemporary bureaucratic control. Despite the progress it undoubtedly represents over earlier forms of racism, such control still forces people into the sort of singular identities that are as easy to recognize as those official charts on which people check a box saying "Hispanic" or "Caucasian." But in Toscano's work, the problems of culture cannot be resolved so simply, because they were never that singular in the first place.

The bi-lingual narrator of Toscano's first full-length collection of poetry, The Disparities, recognizes that his cultural background is not simply Hispanic. Instead, it is made up of a complex encounter between cultures and histories in which no cultural identity remains pure. This encounter is crucially embedded in the official language of the United States--as Nuyorican poet Ed Morales pointed out in a talk at George Washington University several years ago, the number of non-English words in the English language grows all the time. In fact, a close look at Toscano's book shows that it's more than bi-lingual. He feels just as free to use French, German or even Middle English as he does Spanish or English. Or, perhaps equally accurately, he feels just as unable to avoid them.

Toscano's poetry frustrates the moment of recognition that the literature of cultural identity undertaken by writers like Amy Tan offers readers--that moment when readers can say "that's my culture too," or can recognize the value and problems of a culture different than their own and feel for a moment that they are sharing in them. The environment of The Disparities is much more radically and constantly thrown into confusion. The narrator of these poems, far from understanding who he is simply by exploring the cultural problems his family faced, finds his circumstances shaped by a complex series of questions, rather than answers, about the nature of culture and how it interweaves with political, social, and linguistic concerns.

The frantic, bumpy ride of The Disparities presents a new notion of the landscape poem, one that has no place in the calm, conservative pastoral tradition with which the word "landscape" is usually associated. Toscano's landscape is that of contemporary southern California (since writing The Disparities, Toscano has relocated to New York City), with its material overkill, class and race divisions, and corporate owned banality:


Transfer #7 bus not arriving yet;
The oil fields, the air fields, ground policy; the schools.
Physically-bodily not at my workplace yet
Yet nearing it--here, in the company of ghosts
Early words, late meanings, deep scarcity. Brinksters.

Toscano knows that contemporary social struggles all revolve around contested attempts to shape and define physical space, to "re-contextualize the parking lot's war," as he writes in "Circular No. 6." At stake is nothing less than people's lives and how they will be lived.

"Replicas of visions, hopes, mores, in short/ Never has there been such a stalemate," Toscano continues in that same poem, and the herky-jerky crush of images and frustrations make it clear he's been there. Partly, the landscape in The Disparities is that of the simulacrum, defined notoriously some years ago by the French cultural critic Jean Baudrillard--an environment which has been created to fit a preconceived, packaged image of what life should be, a place in which the poet, "until a high tide of revolution comes," imagines the possibility that he can "manipulate frames, oil, nullified themes." But it is also a landscape in which the simulacrum has never completely taken hold--there's too much anger, confusion, and wreckage, too much struggle, for the false surface to be believable.

The question that The Disparities constantly raises is how the narrator can remain responsive to the world and to others in an environment of this kind. Wouldn't it be simpler, in fact, to shut down, to close out others, to go about your business without caring? Thankfully, Toscano's answer is a steady no; the book consistently attempts to expose what "Has justly been called Power" and "begins to become 'city'." But even if it wasn't, it turns out that shutting down is not really an option. Even if you want to believe in the simulacrum, it's not going to believe in you: "Locus, where? You want assurances, choke." If you want to remain alive, according to Toscano, you've got to respond. But how?

The early poems in Disparities feature a long, block-like shape and sharply fragmented language which constantly disrupts any clear narrative center to the details of the landscape he develops. However, unlike much of the contemporary American avant garde poetry which such features recall, Toscano's work seems interested in reforming rather than discarding the notion of person in poetry, although the voice of Toscano's poems is fragmented and decentered in a way inconceivable in more conventional verse. The narrative self, rather than being dispersed by such fragmentation, is shaped by it; the narrative voice in these poems emerges through its responses to the phenomena it encounters: "I was (no?) part... wait, I was part, a part of, look..." That is, identity in Toscano's poetry does not arise from emotions or histories or even experiences, but from active responses--we are the way we respond to the things we experience.

The range and specificity of experience in The Disparities is truly amazing. It includes the physical facts of social spaces, individuals and groups and their conceptions of what they are, the unresolved dilemmas of the past, and a perplexing variety of ideological constructs that the narrator has to learn to see and to see beyond. The poem "Premise No. 1" opens with what turns out to be a fairly typical day:

Blimp soars through the shelves, digital ballot wallet
While Eternity (usually light blue and soft)
in the background (for those who've known these productions)
Opts for a carbonizing rain, mapped out, rough crust
Flesh, fields. It was Sunday. Bright. Ghost traffic. More news--
Frantically called "events." And later (soon) that "day"
Its cultural wing (absolvers racket) voices
Were at [pluralism farce] a slam (bam) spunk, bonk.

Advertisements in the sky, conceptions of heaven, the distorted constructions of contemporary media, the noise of conflicting voices, constant claims that cultural problems are already being solved, traffic on the freeways and in our own pasts; all these things, and more, make up just one particular moment of one particular day. Deal with that, Toscano seems to be daring us. And if by some amazing chance we can manage to navigate through these conflicts, the next step is having to deal with more.

Despite the fact that shutting down will get us nowhere, The Disparities remains ambivalent about where being responsive will lead: "Not even an effort / will be needed / I'd say/ Though that's not so / but can be more so / Carnival." While awareness about different cultures and cultural issues inside the United States may be growing, and while it's possible that various groups may achieve more equal representation in bureaucratic systems, Toscano doesn't believe that the capitalist simulacrum is going away any time soon. Would achieving equal cultural representation inside a management system that reduces all experience and people to an economic value be the same as real social and personal freedom? For Toscano, that key difference is simply another dangerous disparity.

The last several poems in The Disparities are no longer large, block-like, and jagged. Instead, with only several words at most to a line, and not much more than that to a page, these last poems make the book fade away, as if the narrator, so present through much of the text, is drifting out of range. The landscape of these last poems uses much the same variety of details as the earlier portions of the book, but an often overwhelming silence has been added. Does one read this closing silence as a greater calm and sense of resolve, or a greater sense of failure and impossibility, or simply as disappearance, a voice lost to the void? Probably one reads it all these ways, but with the recognition that the disparity between them cannot really be resolved. "not apples and oranges/but the fruit/ of the same carved-up tree," Toscano writes as the book finally disappears, and the world he's writing of is one where the differences between you and me, while desperately significant, still are found mainly in the scars that gave birth to us both.