Material transparency

Rodrigo Toscano at the University of Pittsburgh, October 11, 2017.

Like much of his previous work, Rodrigo Toscano’s Explosion Rocks Springfield (Fence Books, 2016) defamiliarizes language. The book examines the relationship between the energy and the service industry, having been prompted by a natural gas explosion that took place five years ago in Massachusetts, injuring 18 people and destroying a strip club next to a day care center. It highlights the degree to which the experience of the media shapes the experience of the social, if not the political, as it incorporates some journalistic material but separates what is newsworthy from what is noteworthy. But it is especially the book’s transpositional techniques (variation, modulation, revision, translation) that turn the spotlight on language as a tool for meaning-making.

It is not easy to describe Explosion Rocks Springfield, but I will give it a try. The volume consists of multiple “iterations” of the sentence “THE FRIDAY EVENING GAS EXPLOSION IN SPRINGFIELD LEVELED A STRIP CLUB NEXT TO A DAY CARE.” The sentence (borrowed from an Associated Press news report about the event) serves as the title to about eighty individual poems. The book description on the Fence Books website outlines Toscano’s compositional method: “Its fugal structure effects content-density, tension, and return. Continual refiguration of all themata creates a pleasurable engagement with a material transparency that is neither prepackaged (‘found’) nor fancied from thin air (‘inspired’).” What I want to explore here is the term “material transparency” — what Toscano means by it, how it captures his strategies in the book, and how it defines the reader function.

While not quite a headline, the sentence “THE FRIDAY EVENING GAS EXPLOSION IN SPRINGFIELD LEVELED A STRIP CLUB NEXT TO A DAY CARE” demonstrates not only journalism’s reliance on attention-grabbing devices, but certain features and qualities of language that are usually associated with poetry. Note the presence of several patterns: syntactical (the symmetry of subject, verb, and object); lexical (the repetition of “day” in “Friday” and “day care,” as well as the centrally placed verb “leveled,” an almost palindrome); aural (the alliteration of “club” and “care” with some additional hints of assonance and consonance); prosodic (the monosyllabic pairings of “strip club” and “day care”). The recurrence of the sentence on almost every page of Explosion Rocks Springfield (and on occasion several times on the same page) makes these and potentially other patterns recognizable. During his reading at the University of Pittsburgh last October, Toscano delivered the sentence at different speeds, and with varying intonation and pitch, further to increase its semantic possibilities.

The sentence “THE FRIDAY EVENING GAS EXPLOSION IN SPRINGFIELD LEVELED A STRIP CLUB NEXT TO A DAY CARE” is thus more than a title. Rather, it serves as Toscano’s key structuring device. Moreover, as a declarative sentence, it contrasts with the interrogative character of many of the poems. The questions Toscano asks throughout the book prompt the reader to look closely, in Wittgensteinian fashion, at words and how they are used in the language. Here is a passage from the first poem:

Why do people strip?
What is “day care”? Why “day”?
What is night care?
Why daylight why daylight why daylight.

And from the last poem:

Why do mitochondria insist?
What is “death dodge”? Why “dodge”?
What is — un-dodge?
Why quasars why quasars why quasars?

The book also features list poems, dialogue poems, poems that mix discourses and registers, most of which refer to the gas explosion and the two industries under scrutiny (it is relevant that Toscano works for the Labor Institute). One of the list poems consists entirely of the names of plumbing fixtures; another one of the safety procedures for using those fixtures. One of the mixed speech poems combines sex talk (in French) with what appears to be a gas leak emergency report. There are poems written in the voices of strip club, gas company, and day care employees. There is a meditation on “drywall.” Language seems to be reduced to its basic components in two poems that fantasize about weaving and welding words in space, letter by letter. There is wordplay, slang (“HEIGH HO!” “doink/foink,” “frabba jabba”), neologisms (“echoey,” “perdepistatiplode”), interjections and onomatopoeia, alliteration and rhyme, typographical experiments, and even a one-word poem.

In terms of stylistic devices, Toscano’s main innovation lies in his peculiar use of repetition-and-variation. The book features many poems that are composed in a series, repeating the versificatory and syntactic structure while modifying the vocabulary. For example, the poems written in the voices of strip club, gas company, and day care employees differ from one another only by the words uttered by each group of speakers. One of the dialogic poems contains a striking phrase “collared — by speech,” which in the later iterations becomes “caged — by gestures” and “punked — by language.”

This serial approach is introduced in many combinations, activating Toscano’s “continual refiguration of all themata.” Occasionally, it can be found in the space of a single poem. The example below seems like an imitation of a William Carlos Williams poem with its sharp-edged lineation and photographic detail. But note how tightly structured the poem is, each stanza replicating the same visual and grammatical pattern:

Porcelain shards
Gash plastic bags

Silica dust droplets
Queue up

Rubber toiled float
Oops out

Couch-stuffing cinders
Fly away

Another, somewhat different form of repetition-and-variation occurs when Toscano juxtaposes two prose passages. The first passage is in Spanish, and it seems to incorporate fragments of a speech at a union meeting in the aftermath of the gas explosion:

Compañeros, obviamente el peligro presente no fue adequadamente identificado prioratizado, y, compañeros, no seguido por control del peligro actual; compañeros, todo esto resulto en que la eliminacion del peligro actual no fue posible, compañeros. Compañeros, su atención por favor.

The second passage is in (at least mostly) English:

Companiers, obvious the peril present identity inadequate, priority-making absence add, companiers, unqueued to action control potential of peril; companiers, resultant, in whole, was elimination not of peril actual therein, companies. Companiers, attentions yours for a favor.

This text can be placed in the category of self-translation. But it is hardly a faithful translation — or even faithful homophonic translation — of the Spanish original. Instead, it brings to mind operation manuals that are clearly the product of faulty translation or garbled results that are frequently obtained from Google Translate.

It is especially this pair of texts that, in my view, best exemplifies Toscano’s concept of “material transparency.” The fact that the structural blocks of the second passage do not entirely fit together seems more consequential than the speech that is “translated” or merely “related” media-style, with no context, no reflection. As Toscano says in an interview, by transposing the English vocabulary onto the Spanish syntax he aimed “to keep readers/listeners from internally dozing off, thinking that they’re hearing is ‘meaning,’ rather than a making of meaning.”

“A making of meaning.” I have offered a description of Explosion Rocks Springfield, enumerated its structural and stylistic devices, and quoted some passages as my evidence, but none of that really substitutes for the experience of reading it. The experience is, at first, estranging — until it becomes clear that the book promotes a kind of active engagement during which the poet and the reader work, as it were, side by side (as I said earlier, Toscano is a labor coordinator). The serial approach invites non-sequential reading and at the same time alerts the reader to “predetermined patterns” (the book’s key phrase) that govern social, economic, and political relations. The philosophical parts foster deep inquiry into words and the way they are used in the language, whether in news reports, public dispatches, or everyday conversations. The ludic passages, characteristic of Toscano’s oeuvre as a whole, intensify the pleasure and feel for words. Explosion Rocks Springfield offers a powerful encounter, indeed a profound experience of language. As Toscano says in the same interview: “To poets, language itself counts as an experience.”