Steven Toussaint The bellfounder The Cultural Study Society, 201B
Steven Toussaint was born in Chicago in 1986. He is the author of the chapbook Fiddlehead (Compound Press, 2014). He lives on the side of a volcano in Auckland, New Zealand.
Steven’s new poetry collection, The Bellfounder, is an exquisite read. The epigraph stands as a dedication to Eleanor Catton: ‘For you I have emptied the meaning/ leaving the song’. The ‘you’ widens to gift song to the reader as music is both first and last reading effect. A lexicon of musical terms amass: melody, pitch, chord, counterpoint, harmony, rhythm. I wanted to shut my eyes and absorb the musicality through the pores of my skin.
Each word chimes like a musical note, but the reward is in the aural connections – surprising, comforting, hair shivery – that produce the lift and skip of melody (‘brine seamed, milked at alpine view’). Your ear flutters to and fro along the track of the line catching sounds that twitch and oscillate and gel (‘alive as white aster, as stars’). There is both musical playfulness and musical craft. The little shift from ‘aster’ to ‘as stars’ sends gossamer threads to Gertrude Stein, Michele Leggott, Susan Howe. Melody is made more endearing by syntax that sidesteps, elides, eludes (‘hoove the ground/ each order othering’). Words hum on the ends of lines like a secret sidebone poem (whole formative cloud downgrowth longing parades embankments view is left stars ground othering bellow). (quotations are from ‘The Ground’)
At times, the language is demanding (I love this), when the words are obscure, not in everyday use, deliciously coined, twisted and shifting. At times, there is a sweet economy that counterbalances a governing richness. Always, at every crest and turn, phrases that cling to the ear (‘ore poured/ through ode// and hissed forth/ dread’ from ‘Analogion’).
What of meaning abandoned? After the initial joy of melody (song), I savoured the visual tussock; the way image is both ephemeral and grounded. Again I was reminded of Gertrude, Michele and Susan – and the playful energy of an image held in the mind. A point of contemplation. Transcendental, almost. At first, there is the allure of the image (‘quiet tangle/ of birchbark’ ‘Down along/ the frost encased// river little/ stinging reeds’). The images are little anchors in the overall mist of the poems. Yet that grounding enables the folds and creases of connection, personal associations and drifting thought (how to build that ice-cold river in mind’s eye?). Motifs, like the musical wordnotes, echo. The images tilt you. They act as little keys to drifting notions. Now and then, I felt like I was walking into sumptuous strata of Dante’s Inferno or the wet, kaleidoscopic thrill of a Tarkovsky film. I could almost hear Dante’s voice.
For me, the reading drift is the drift of a hiker locked into the rhythm of walking, where the natural world becomes music, music tethers image and image untethers thinking. Then thinking becomes still and still becomes raucous. Glorious. I love the way implanted image builds train of thought. The reading drift becomes a musing on poetry. On the possibilities of poetry. Take the poem, ‘Measure’: beautiful, enigmatic, poised, entrancing. The birchbark and river detail are the physical measure of melody, of viewing the world. Yet there is more, always more. Poetry becomes more than meaning, yet you are never left groundless. It is the mysterious movement that is travel and location and the laying of here and the layering of there.
of pitch a people
press on, tamp
thickset quiet out
as if a current
of flame rouses
deep under boats
to carry them over.
This collection is one of my favourite reads of the year. It transports you to the milky mists of nowhere and then feeds you the sublime ‘pitch’ and ‘drip’ of a somewhere that matters to you on a level both conscious and subconscious. Breathtakingly good.
Available in NZ from Timeout Book Store, or elsewhere via Small Press Distribution
‘Plainsong‘ on Poem Friday on Poetry Shelf
An excerpt from ‘Aevum Measures‘ on The Spinoff