Rites of Passage: Steven Toussaint’s Lay Studies

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The title of Steven Toussaint’s third collection, Lay Studies, echoes Robert Lowell’s Life Studies. But unlike Lowell, Toussaint is no confessionalist. He prefers the confessional: the church’s traditional means of absolution. Yet wrestling with these dense, theological, and fragmentary poems, there’s little of the sinner, damned as just another lyric “I” to the experimental vein in which Toussaint, on the surface at least, writes.

That’s because Lay Studies is not about one rite at all, but about rites––nor is it about the ceremonials buttressing the sacramental economy of the church, but the general rites of life. While poems like “Sts. Peter and Paul” observe priestcraft in music, whereby the “[t]he composer’s / instructions require the total // conversion of the concert hall,” another like “St. Francis” unveils the rites of ecological pessimism:

(…) That I choke
on smoke of sacrificial bergamot, its papal
           mauve, but weep not, keep
my salt aloft to spare this funeral earth.

By juxtaposing the language of liturgy with the language of contemporary life, Toussaint paradoxically exposes our disenchanted culture’s underlying penchant for enchantment.

The poem “Yes or No,” for instance, weaves pious rhetoric around the customer service questionnaire, destabilizing the secular and religious divide:

Are you in the market
for something like

but not precisely
eternal return?

Later, the poem demonstrates how digital communications have rewired even the most sacerdotal among us to commodify our attention:

Are you watching
not a little terrified
as advertising

slowly embalm

the once
in a century mind

of your favorite

on Twitter?

We are liturgical animals, Toussaint’s poems suggest, designed to satisfy some ultimate desire with worship. But we often miss the mark. Whether we call it culture or consumerism––Toussaint’s particular concerns––we wander unfulfilled; or as the poem “Mount Eden” puts it, we are left with a “Grief so total/ it resembles abundance // chastened / by the paradox of surplus // in a very bad year.”

A Chicago native, now living in Auckland, Steven Toussaint studied philosophical theology at the University of Cambridge after leaving the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Readers like me, believers with a befuddled affection for contemporary theology, will find the explicit influence of Catherine Pickstock, one-time professor of metaphysics and poetics at Cambridge, more than intriguing. Pickstock’s most famous work, After Writing: On the Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy, demonstrates how liturgical actions, including those outside church walls, affect our relationship with time, space, and language.

In the poem “Pickstock Improvisations,” Toussaint renders chant-able the language of academic theology:

The one. The one
in many. The many
in one.

The many. A song
that there might be
a song.

When Toussaint toys with Thomism especially, the metaphysical edifice of Catholic religion, he synthesizes the speculative quality of faith with the affective, offering an instance of what the theologian Han Von Urs Balthasar calls “kneeling theology.”

The high point of Toussaint’s project is “Aevum Measures,” an ecstatic and kaleidoscopic multi-part mélange of semantic experiment, music theory, incantation, and Biblical typology. (Toussaint has a penchant for the Book of Acts, it seems.) Each page of this poem is topped by the refrain “abide more tritone idle,” followed by a nonce form made to combine the aforementioned obsessions into lyrical Rorschach:

abide more tritone idle mode
as Agnus Dei
              in agony descends
a caustic paint
              the ceiling drips
disrupting clips
              of sequence hymn
in service of
              the synonym for saint

In the endnotes, Toussaint calls on Thomas Aquinas to define “aevum” as “the mean between mortal time and divine eternity,” that is, “the measure of endurance enjoyed by angels, saints, and other celestial creatures.” As with most endnotes in Lay Studies, the reader is only more mystified.

Fortunately, there’s a grounded self-awareness to the book’s need for explanation––which, since Eliot’s The Wasteland, is a defining element of the high modernist style. For instance, in “Kettle’s Yard,” a poem about a famous art gallery in Cambridge, a Brancusi sculpture reflects “the furious pleasure / of a man being listened to.” The poem goes on to assert that “art becomes an epiphenomenon of explanation.”

Toussaint isn’t always so subtle. In fact, a poem like “Pietry” lends the collection a moment of comic relief by an affixing an airtight analogy between the failures of poetry with the failures of piety:

We deserve your boredom,
have wandered in and out of rage
like traders mapping an epic hedge.

Both poetry and church are lucky, the poem continues, to have “the peanuts of [our] patronage,” but remain stale, “fortified against Pentecost”––skimping on the divine.

With an archaeological approach to language, Toussaint’s most obvious forebear is Geoffrey Hill. But  Lay Studies also belongs to a library of other religiously bent innovative poets: Fanny Howe, Peter O’Leary, G. C. Waldrep, and Nathaniel Mackey. Like them, Toussaint sprinkles his semantic experiments with sensual––and sensible––music and imagery, as in these lines from “Bubbles”: “Window shocked / from the centre out, a spider / web ripple”; or, these from “Chicago Sketches”: “The rarest Cardinals / cap, a carmine drip // on otherwise untroubled snow.”

So, why “Lay Studies”? In the opening poem “The New Laity,” Toussaint writes, “laïcité / new laity like birdsong.” Perhaps Toussaint is inviting readers to fully participate in the meaning-making of each poem, a participation so immersive the poet-reader hierarchy collapses. In the church, reform-minded believers demand more inclusion of the laity in official church affairs: being lay in Toussaint’s poetry means not having to beg for meaning to be dispensed like an indulgence—it means fully participating in the act of worship.

Steven Toussaint’s poetry not only documents the liturgies of contemporary life, but aims to push language to a liturgical pitch as well, sweeping the reader up in muted exaltation of the poems. As the very first line of this beguiling collection intones, “The final poem is praise.”

Michael Angel Martín is a writer living in Miami, FL. More from this author →