Toby Altman. Arcadia, Indiana (a tragedy). Pittsburgh: Plays Inverse Press, 2017.
The finest metrical verse, and even the finest free verse that maintains an attention to rhythm, has an inner tension, a tautness perhaps akin to what Gerard Manley Hopkins referred to as “instress,” a quality that seems to separate poetic language from “ordinary language”. While this separation is illusory, it is an admirable illusion to which few recent poets attain; Philip Larkin does not, William Carlos Williams does not, Seamus Heaney does not. Some poets attempt to compensate for an absence of this quality through sheer sententiousness or oracular gobbledygook.
Toby Altman, like many postmodern poets, contrasts the trivial and the lofty, high and low culture; a Shakespeare quote may swerve into a reference to Dorito’s Cool Ranch tortilla chips. The stage, littered thickly in garbage, belies the Racinian, formalized quality of the archetypical figures that form the poem-play’s center: Foreman, the industrial superego of the down-and-out, unemployed factory worker Steelman, and Theas, Steelman’s wife, who commits adultery with the superior Foreman. Gestures contrasting our contemporary condition with a bygone loftiness ought to have little novelty today. What distinguishes Altman’s work is not that he blends high and low, but that he successfully mobilizes a heroically stylized language so that his contrasts in register and field of reference actually produce a shock, even in this jaded reader. Those who attempt to combine the wacky and the sublime usually produce mere wackiness. Not so in Toby Altman’s work.
One honey hour walked her waterways
and drink still the dark perfume of her thought. (“Aubade (o, bawd!),” 10)
Lines such as these, in which Steelman sings Theas’ beauties, adhere rigorously to the rules of English scansion; their irregularities do not significantly disrupt the dominant iambic pentameter. The tone is properly Byronic, nearly seeming to allude to the latter’s famous “She walks in beauty, like the night.” These lines even display the false clarity of Byron’s completely vague line (how does the night walk? What is “walking in beauty”?). Even Altman’s prose has the tautness of meter, just as Thomas Wyatt’s irregular verse still maintains an illusion of metrical rigor.
One often reads the best metrical verse without truly understanding, merely to enjoy their rhythms with their impressions of order and rigor of form. While Toby Altman’s verse is often obscure, this obscurity is compensated by a global clarity of conception that gives the poet the freedom to play, and the reader the chance to enjoy that play without losing sight of the larger stakes of the play’s plot. The action of the play acts as a dispositif, a transparent framework. Usually, such structural frameworks have a troublesome externality, like an exoskeleton forced onto uncooperative flesh. But Altman’s framework is instead tightly woven into the play’s fiber in a fashion that offers the reader a solid foothold. Even the didascalia become part of the play’s inner poetic texture.
Arcadia, Indiana also demonstrates the viability of a genuine political poetry, without sacrificing the demands of formal innovation to the necessities of political discourse. The play’s corporate context – a factory town – makes of the corporation a relentless Fate. While the anti-corporate message is loud and clear, and constantly signified by the garbage-littered stage, the play is never constrained by that message: only Aimé Césaires Notebook of a Return to the Native Land has so masterfully fused experimental language to a political cause.
Absence plays a major role throughout the poem-play. “The text of this play is unfinished, even empty,” writes Altman (58). The dead and the absent are often designated as gaps: “They leave the factory. And they name his battered [ ] in the streets” (“Viscous cinema (from first principles),” 28. First among these absences is Theas, pure, virgin projection without autonomy or substance, a cardboard-cutout of male desire: “Her gender is like a badly-pasted poster,” Altman writers in “Dramatis personae,” “sloppily, incompletely imposed from the outside by anonymous hands. Beneath which: animate absence. A loose weave of nerve and brick.” Yet Foreman and Steelman, along with the Congregants, Abominations, and corporate servants that constitute the play’s many figurants, are no more true characters than Theas: they are, as their names suggest, part of a corporate machinery, or rather, the machinery of our contemporary tragedy. They are empty roles, hieratic masks, or sleepless cogs. And just as Theas acts as poster-girl for a vapid, passive femininity, Foreman and Steelman (indifferently, since the character is only designated as “He”) also play the unglorious role of the callous, stereotypical male that responds “Not my problem,” relevantly or not, to Theas’ impassioned discourse (“Song (personal business),” 14-16).
Most of Arcadia, Indiana’s poems have two parts, each acting as a kind of clarifying commentary on the other, each facing the other on the page. Sometimes, this doubling also occurs inside one of the two poem’s parts:
I shaped him to his urn– I peeled
the fabric from his flesh– I sculpted
the pliant thing in him– to pleasure glass—
I answered his urgency– with liquid sighs— (“Doubting Thomas (an Anatomy),” 29)
The double column may be read as two distinct poems, each read vertically and independently, or the two columns may be joined together and read as a single whole, with no ruptures in syntax. Anyone who has attempted such formal constructions will realize how monumentally difficult such syntactic harmonizing is; this is formal virtuosity akin to the construction of sestinas.
I first encountered Toby Altman’s work in the pages of the admirable journal The Offending Adam. His work immediately imposed itself upon me as a major new voice. I was surprised to discover the writer elsewhere claiming a kinship to conceptual poetry. In fact, Altman indeed quotes Goldsmith as epigraph to his play: “Remember how bad it was yesterday? Here we go again” (“Dramatis personae (the personated persons),” 7). Yet while Altman has clearly read and digested the lessons of conceptual poetry, his work is not reducible to any current or trend, especially those, like conceptual poetry, with systematic approaches to writing. “This book was composed through extravagant acts of plagiarism and theft. I stole anything that wasn’t bolted to the ground,” Altman explains (59). But this thieving is once again made part of an organic whole, and only creative writing – not Goldsmith’s uncreative writing – can accomplish feats like it. Arcadia, Indiana is the product of no recipe. Its concept is as compelling as its realization.
The question was whether your savage breast
would be savaged by art. Yes, I say, yes. (“Aubade (o, bawd!),” 10)