Tony Tost's chapbook, World Jelly (effing press 2005), came on the heels of his prizewinning first book, Invisible Bride, and represented something of a poetic departure. Yet it's clear that this fellow Guided by Voices fan was trying to bring into poetry something that he'd admired in music--GBV frontman Robert Pollard's dizzying employment of collage and pastiche in the rock song. A one-time bassist himself for the band Dora Maar (according to his biography), Tost is "doing the collapse" (an aptly titled album by GBV), poetry style--that is, trying to figure out a way to have art methods recycle into something that he might call his own.
Apparently generated and inspired in part by the GBV Song Title Generator (the title "World Jelly" is clearly part of that)--think here of the wonderful titles by GBV: "The Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory," "Hardcore UFO's," "Tractor Rape Chain," "The Official Ironman Rally Song," etc. But it also uses Pollard's own techniques, and thus the book takes a karate-chop to language and syntax, and leaves us often with beautiful shards, as in
Resist the successful statement
a nail in the wall
there hang the bearings
So that is what I do
Riders finding joy in the sunlight
on the face of the earth
the animal behind
write this down
The book is fundamentally concerned with the desire to fend off singular meaning (alluding to Stevens), to disrupt the natural desire of the lyric "I" to control and master the field of the poem. In this way, World Jelly feels quite at home amongst the post-avant poetries of our time. The leitmotif of the book, shown in the quote above, is the "animal," which appears in most of the poems, and should be considered as the "anti-I," that physical spirit-being outside of human language, and so often entrapped by its human deployers. The animal, then, as the opposite of lyric, but that upon which the lyric depends.
Now, as a GBV fan myself, I've always wanted to bring Pollardian modes of collage-meets-pop into poetry. And Pollard himself has toyed with lyrics as poetry. But his genius, I think, is how he works to displace the egocentrism of the rock star, the front man as the embodiment and cynosure of our eyes ("I"'s). In the inside album art to one of GBV's albums, Pollard's body is shown straddling a fence, but his head is cut off. On the opposite side of the fold, there are hundreds of faces captured in bubbles, floating up. It is a visual pun--they are bubbles that can "pop"--but more importantly, they give a sense of Pollard's own aesthetics of multivocality and pastiche. In any given song (not to mention album), you can hear the ghosts of the history of rock--the Who, Genesis, the Kinks, the Beatles, etc.
Tost's book is engagingly weird, and the more I read it, the more I like it. In that way, it's like my first listenings to Bee Thousand, the genius record by GBV of 1994. Though it is not elegaic in the way that Pollard has perfected--a poetry that is disjointed and yet wrestles with fundamental psychic struggles, World Jelly certainly brings poetry closer to the pop gravitas of Pollard. For this, a salty salute to you, Tony Tost. And thanks, Scott Pierce, for bringin' it out.