This review appeared in Bloomsbury Review a couple of years ago.
Tony Towle, Winter Journey (Brooklyn: Hanging Loose Press, 2008), 78 pages, paper, ISBN: 978-1-931236-93-5, $16.00.
The washed-out photograph on the cover of Tony Towle’s new book is at first hard to decipher. After study, you see a seated figure almost hidden amid the plants of a rooftop garden. There are buildings faintly visible behind the sitter, including parts of two large white buildings that dwarf their surroundings. You gradually realize that you are looking at the twin towers of the World Trade Center, which stood only a couple of blocks from Towle’s apartment.
The sense of loss from a past which has faded away infuses many of the poems of Winter Journey. Towle (the name rhymes with “hole”) reminisces about loves and losses in his usual oblique fashion. His poem “Prospect,” quoted in its entirety below, is striking for the way 9/11 creeps in, and all the more poignant for that.
I would like to live long enough
to see the State Quarters Program
clink to a successful conclusion
twelve dollars and fifty cents of wealth and history
fulfilled in elegant cardboard circles;
but now the premise takes off in a different direction,
for as Kentucky was about to fork over its two bits
for a second admission to the Union,
the imps of haphazard historicity
subjected the skyline to the whims of religious psychopaths;
and before that I had never purchased an American flag –
since I always knew where I was and, when abroad
(at least in England), the natives always knew where I was from –
but in October I bought two: from immigrants
making a tenuous living, appropriately,
from Africa and Asia, respectively
and on Wall Street, no less.
Towle’s memories are not only of buildings. Sitting in a Greenwich Village coffee shop, awaiting his girlfriend (a term Towle finds amusing for the romantic interest of a man in his 60’s), he remembers writing poems in a similar cafe 40 years earlier. Watching a Mets game while listening to a piano concerto, he remembers Frank O’Hara’s love of modern piano concerti, which leads him to recall a story O’Hara’s recently dead lover Joe LeSueur had once told him about O’Hara’s being heckled by Jack Kerouac at a reading. And I suspect that only Towle would, while raking leaves, remember an usual pick-up line he heard in the Cedar Bar decades earlier, a line involving Geneva, and then include the line in a poem about John Calvin, the misunderstood Protestant work ethic, and the chores with which Towle now finds himself occupied.
Winter Journey is dedicated to Kenneth Koch, and Towle has a lot of his old mentor’s humor, though his is generally more ironic than Koch’s. He often shares the New York School’s penchant for a rococo style, though he doesn’t take the mannerism as far as some of the School’s other descendants: unlike the productions of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, you can always make sense of a Towle poem.
Towle is at his strongest, to my taste, when he soft-pedals the irony and lets the heart seep through. His feelings are amplified in this book by the underlying awareness that his own journey is now entering winter. Through it all, Towle maintains a jaunty bleakness, as befits the recipient of “an enriching barrage of astonishing perceptions / with which to illuminate the abyss.” [“Securities"]