“The Toad and The No Tour” by Eddie Watkins – Book Review

This is a review I wrote on Goodreads some time ago. The book was given to me by the author.

4/5 stars

John Fahey’s album Womblife greatly influenced The Toad (as the author wrote in his review – for more information about the two poems’ origins, I would suggest reading it); another experimental artist that I thought of when reading this poem is filmmaker Peter Kubelka – what Kubelka does with images, or what Fahey does with sounds, Eddie Watkins does with words. Just as images and sounds in the other two artists’ works are the basic building blocks of reality that can be arranged in almost any manner to form a completely new and original work to transcend reality, in a certain way, Eddie Watkins uses words to create a long poem not divided into stanzas per se, but alternating free verse with prose poetry, using alliterations in a sort of near-endless stream of consciousness, trying to express that inexpressible boundary between memories, feelings, thoughts, and dreams. Let me present you a mix of words from the poem:

“The west and slippery to digging

The pit of toad and coil cringe to cringing

Arid trailer treeless yard to field of flame lean laundry pole and skunks

The gravel and the dust and strawberries singing”

“Amphibious transposition metamorphosing humidity of those checkered events”

“He reconciled things with strange ways. That long ago lodged and exited piece by lengthening piece through pumps that issued and stored. He translated from wordless to wordless. The preternatural weight of vegetable infinity manifested in the corner games. The lip link inventory concealment. He progressed to recorded package stashed in closets of forget. The tyranny of expectation. The simple of a silence. The purity of moon.”

“Welling of or willing to or minding of the thrill

Of wildernesses of needle hedge”

“Peek-a-boo inside of clouds of cow stomp bursting milk. Field aflame. Field aflame all over all a flame. What’s the matter little girl. I don’t think I like this. Fiddle crab fiddle crab which way is the pot. In Easter town where he lost his crown and eggshells Rhode Island Red brown. Milk and cheese for me please please I like my toasteds crisp. With sparkle water a bee at his feet and a sweet to wash it down. Come on mommy play with me. I can’t I am too frightened. The termites are loose the boards are chewed and the house is falling apart.”

It’s hard to rate (and review) such a poetry. Poetry is subjective – for the poet and for the reader, in the sense that the reader is asked to witness the poet’s extreme subjectivity/inner self. That is why this kind of poetry (and perhaps poetry in general) is probably beyond any type of rating system. I went with the author’s own rating, as (to me) it seemed the most appropriate. I’ve read it while listening to Fahey’s Womblife, trying to get in the same mindscape as the author. I think it did help, in a way, so I would recommend the same eerie experience, as I came to enjoy more how the author plays with language.

For the much longer poem The No Tour I’ve applied the same method as for The Toad, this time listening to Sun Ra, Cecil Taylor, Eric Dolphy, and Albert Ayler’s music while reading it (those were the main influences, among others, mentioned by the author). The No Tour doesn’t feel as freestyle and free-flowing as The Toad, but only because The Toad seemingly did not have any rules. The No Tour, organized in ten parts of several free verse stanzas, is showing its experimental jazz roots (according to the author), being playfully improvisational, but somehow with a strong technical background:

“Unscroll the nods for gone quest

morning hoist the mulched got dream

dial point of vibration for everlasting emerge

pump breath stowed in shaken distortion

rubbed to lick butter smoulder blow blow toad

stirred to mate a sand grave lid

opening reply to westerly transplantations”

“Without direction, like the restless wind

the bottle wants to take us somewhere.

Waiting for spectacles in somebody else’s world

Pointing out to otherness the early instructions,

nourished by the great mother the winged

secret flame and the stooping starlight.

You who shine in your disk: pleasant twilight

ounce of wing dew. Great rolling roughage

of these outer centuries taps tension

fishing for begin. Silent One

who dwells in Her place.

Space is the place.”

“Heavy machines with dials and levers

Muffled pilots steer through reckless terrain

Milling in the grid to insert a finger

Mulched guesses zero in on the poke point

Atlantis”

“Consciousness

of the continuity of existence equals

glassed-in flash in the attic.”

“Where the wind

speaks the now

of things are ended

are never beginning are ever

being where the

winged secret flame pulls

on wet white forces where

porous extensions spinning

around ebb to mute

volumes to feed mini orphanages.”

In the end, these poems might not be for everyone. I can’t pretend to have fully understood them. But if you like challenging modern poetry (in the sense of modern art), you might enjoy them. I did. This kind of experimental poetry is like abstract art – it makes you realize a simple truth, in a way a child would instinctively get it, that you don’t have to understand everything to enjoy something. If a piece of art stirs something in you, if it makes you feel something, you don’t necessarily have to understand it rationally to enjoy it. This book reminded me of what Jack Spicer wrote, in one of his false letters to Lorca (in his book, After Lorca): “When I translate one of your poems and I come across words I do not understand, I always guess at their meanings. I am inevitably right. A really perfect poem (no one yet has written one) could be perfectly translated by a person who did not know one word of the language it was written in.”

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