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Creative Engagement with Rodrigo Toscano’s Deck Of Deeds (Counterpath, 2012)

Whoa! Honestly, Rodrigo Toscano’s new book Deck Of Deeds feels to me like the “re-particulated image of his half-decapitated neck holding up a fully decomposed face working its way into my tense.” In other words, I feel made more pixelated and also more devastated by way of moving through it. I feel my mouth (mouth is a site of extreme emphasis in DOD) being altered. Turned sulfuric or turned toward_______.

Cathy Wagner comments that DOD is “an American-values flipbook, or a realism themepark that keeps bubble-nucleating  (“Lipids are known to spontaneously form bilayered vesicles in water”) itself in the tax loophole”—this is a very astute comment about the book (“The heart rate spiking, the extremities of her fingers and toes electrifie[d], the eyes popping wide open…nothing makes her feel more alive than having the phrase “Core American Values” toss her around, having “its way” with her, the whole of her being as a plaything for its mad desire”), although what I have to say about DOD is a bit more somatically oriented (“Frontal cranial orgasm” / “recombinatory excess”) and lyrically interested (“Who work for the emerging genre” / “A fucking real poetics, or not?”)…

On the level of body experience I moved through this book with both the feeling of distance from the content that was being performed, as well as the feeling of a deepening proximity to the content that was being performed. I think that this means a couple of things: this book is inclusive and it also operates on its own terms. I read part of its own terms as the desire to torque a reader’s psychic location as they read it.

What is it to be taken into a sort of crass and slanted post-apocalyptic (“The seconds right before the cessation of all sensation”) or mythological zone (“It always did like to play “inter-galactic artist,” right?” / “That he did indeed spring up and give chase to the unicorn with the intention of breaking off his horn” / “The last moment of sanity she remembers is the look of her own short brown hair flared out onto her face in the mirror, sticky and messy, the Pre-Cambrian rock in the middle of the field there also”) as the place of DOD is (“Sometimes this violence scares the baby, but he feels very calm and in command afterward”)? This crass and slanted place is a place of pleasures as well as a place of discomforts. Thick with various cryptolects, the space of the book is quite motley—maybe DOD is a poly-god gloating or gagging (“Ethics have gotten much denser, more padded” / “They’ve almost lost count of how many Poly Gods they’ve prayed to together”)?

I notice many grounding locations (of which the list I include is extremely minor)–strong arms of architecture (in DOD): Museums, Stanford University, “oldest road in this part of central Missouri”, Dubai, Aruba, Denver’s own “Cherry Creek Reservoir.” These feel to me like they accomplish a lot in the book. They are there as contrast to the wild and more ephemeral notions and scenes (“Radiance of one entity transporting another entity into another realm”) that appear regularly in the book. The term dystopian has already been used as a descriptor of DOD, and I think that is because it is a fact of this text which focuses on “fusing “lost” cultural threads into entirely new ways of being.”

Is DOD saying: “I want you to de-codify me”? Or is it “demand[ing] that every breath of it be captured and gifted back to it as ecstatic continuous pleasure”? This matters to me as a reader because I think it affects how I enter the book. Am I meant to gesture or lend myself to resolving some of the socio-cutural and geological prompts that exist within the book? Or is it more likely, that what is intended is that I “either critically evaluate, be disturbed by, or simply enjoy” the work?


17 thoughts on “Creative Engagement with Rodrigo Toscano’s Deck Of Deeds (Counterpath, 2012)

  1. I read that book, in a class at UIC. We spent a long time trying to figure out what the last few poems meant, especially the very last one.

    Also read Collapsible Poetics Theater (2007).

    1. I liked them both, certainly, but was also left puzzled by them. I couldn’t quite figure out what Toscano was up to in either book. I understood the concepts both times, but not exactly their import. (That said, I didn’t actually perform any of the pieces in Collapsible Poetics Theater; I merely read them. But that said, it wasn’t clear to me whether they were really meant to be performed, or what performing them would accomplish.)

      In Deck of Deeds, I can see how borrowing the concept of La Lotería provides Toscano with the opportunity to write all of them poems —how it serves as a prompt—and to organize them in a collection, but I couldn’t see how he was engaging with the concept of La Lotería beyond that. For instance, could one use those poems to play La Lotería? Given the performative/game-like aspect of Collapsible, that seems a possibility. But how can one actually do that? So it seems more a theoretical borrowing than a practical one. Which is fine, of course…but then I wonder why Toscano’s work also seems to insist on its performative aspect.

      Also, the poems in Deck read as being satirical, but I couldn’t always figure out whom Toscano was satirizing. (The last few especially read this way.)

      I guess all of this is to say that the poems always struck me as compelling and mysterious and invested in communicating some concept or message through their structures and concepts and language—but I was left with the feeling I didn’t really get it, was missing something. Which I freely admit I may well have been. But my class also felt similarly; we couldn’t figure it out.

  2. Right. I hear here the question re why be left puzzled, if in place of that we might be able to treat the book like a puzzle (engagement).

    I agree that emphasis on Toscano’s work in the performative sense is a value the work seems to have. Maybe we need to perform the pages themselves, in private settings in order to find out?

    I am interested by this comment “I didn’t actually perform any of the pieces in Collapsible Poetics Theater; I merely read them. But that said, it wasn’t clear to me whether they were really meant to be performed, or what performing them would accomplish”–I wonder if the purpose is to put us (as readers) in poises of performance (is that a poignant destabilizing of ‘reader’ vs_____) or toward performance in tune with chaos and its manifestational capacities vs having some centralized or pre-determined outcome in mind (“accomplish”) re what would in fact come of the performing?

    1. I guess I wasn’t clear on whether Toscano was saying

      1) “Here are some things to play with; go have fun with them and see what you think.”

      2) I’m trying to communicate something specific with these concepts and structures, and the performance angle is essential to that specific message, and I want you to receive it (along with other things).

      I was left perched between the two. Between the book being purely subjective and having a more objective, definitive reading (which satire usually has—the author is satirizing someone or something, not whatever you think they’re satirizing).

        1. Here’s another way of putting it. Around the same time, I also read Joshua Clover’s The Totality for Kids (2006). The book can be read as a collection, but it also has an index in the back that invites the reader to follow these different paths through the book. And the book is “set” in Paris, and Clover specifically mentions the Situationists and the dérive. And the whole book’s about totalities and playful responses to them. So I think it’s reasonable to conclude that Clover is trying to create something like a city (the collection), and then invite the reader to perform a dérive through it. He’s trying to translate the dérive into poetry and create an opportunity to perform it.

          Toscano, in Deck, seems to be translating or importing La Lotería into poetry…and it also seems to want to be performed…but beyond that things get murky (for me). I can’t see how doing that can really be performed, or whether it’s meant to be done, or—well, I think you get the idea. It’s hard to come up with an account like one can with the Clover. Which maybe means I’m looking at it the wrong way, I’ll freely admit—but the whole thing left me puzzled.

          One more way of putting it: I couldn’t see what the Lotería angle was really getting Toscano. If the book and the poems had had different titles and otherwise the book had been exactly the same, I doubt I would have thought “Oh, this is based on La Lotería!” So the concept struck me as…underutilized? Unnecessary? Though, again, I also felt like I was missing something, etc.

  3. Right. Makes sense.

    A clear delineation between the two was not present for me either. That usually puts me in a position (as person, interactor, etc) of taking some of my own volition and just making something happen there. I know this approach is not unique to me, but is certainly also not what everyone does. I tore out some of the pages for example, blacked words out, made it hospitable in different ways. I guess there really is not an answer, but how we take things into our bodies and practice____by way of them, that is at least embodied reaction to not only the book itself but the book as something that impacts us by way of our engagement of it. Now that is performance!

    Thanks for the chat! I appreciate your thoughts and clarifications.

    1. Sure thing! And thanks for writing about the book, which is, I think, despite my complaints here, a fascinating collection. (I rather like Counterpath as a press.)

      Yeah, the more I read and thought about it, the more I kept feeling that your response (or your kind of response) was more what Toscano was encouraging—that the reader take the book and do whatever he or she wanted to do with it. Which is fine, of course. It’s just that that also seemed to contradict some…other sense…I had of the book: that Toscano wanted something specific done with it (some specific reaction, some specific interpretation).

      In Collapsible the instructions are so thorough and exacting—he spends a great deal of time telling you exactly what to do with the pieces. Which he has to do, because he’s made up all of the games. He seems to really want you to try performing them. And so in Deck, since the Lotería is a real game with real world rules, it seems an invitation to try doing similar. But it also seems impossible to really do that (i.e., it would be extremely difficult to memorize all those poems, and be able to tell each title from hearing each one read—not to mention the fact that the title often doesn’t seem to have a clear connection or relation with the poem). So I felt pulled in one direction by Collapsible, then another by Deck. But maybe Toscano’s own feelings on how to blend games and poetry evolved between the two?

  4. Yes–this is an interesting piece you are pointing to. The way the two (Deck and Collapsible) as sites interact. Maybe even make contour gravities to each other. I understand all that you are saying here and it def. feels relevant.

    I guess for myself, I would choose to burn the book (post reading it) for fire, rather than be befuddled (this statement is not a statement on any of your great comments above). This is just my way of making all interactions valuable. For me, larger intent by writer re the book or not, some of this language is just beautiful and so if no deities or tarot-like games are reflecting to me from the paradox as I am trying to engage it as such, the language itself still has resonant purpose for me re having engaged the book: “Ethics have gotten much denser, more padded”–beautiful.

  5. Funny. Always feel free from this day forward, to write to my personal email and ask if I have a copy of such and such book in my queue for burning. Happy to offer sweet wing-pages up to flight by ash!

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