These selections from Toby Altman come at a time when I am nose-deep in a book about ventriloquism. In the first chapter, the author explains that the world of sound is often much more disorienting than the world of sight. Sounds emerge and dissipate, reflect and echo. Sounds are notoriously more difficult to locate for the human ear than landscapes are for the human eye. It is this quality of disorientation, or perhaps, aporia, that Altman hopes to achieve in these poems. For Altman, the avant-garde at this moment in history threatens to become predictable, an academic exercise of formerly radical techniques. To break out of this predicament, Altman proposes a kind of "rescue," discovering in materials diverse as verse plays and Petrarchan sonnets a poetry that hopes to achieve a kind of "placeless" effect, an aporia that at once liberates and frustrates traditional and avant-garde aesthetics.
All this sounds very serious. But Altman's poems indulge in the ventriloquist's joy, in the play of voices, puns, and adopted speech patterns. The very structure of these poems suggests voice and echo, call and response. The first poem takes its title—"Aubade"—from a genre of romantic poetry that commemorates the parting of lovers at dawn. Altman gives as parenthetical pronunciation "O, bawd!", a humorous and grotesque echo of the title. What should be a poem about star-crossed love might also be a poem about ribaldry. Such rejoinders continue. The peeking Tom of a Foreman invests the poem with his carnal "delight." Suddenly the emptying of thoughts in a pastoral scene seems erotic. The quoted response to the first description—"I too was born in Arcadia"—sounds rather like the Latin "Et in Arcadia ego," perhaps a quote best attributed to the little deaths of romance. I am chasing here, of course, and it's a wild time. Because in Altman's poetry, the voices keep bouncing off the walls, begging and refusing to be placed.