A Tonalist by Laura Moriarty

by The Editors

In A Tonalist, Moriarty bravely tries to define what she and her poetry-kin attempt to accomplish as artists. That very action of framing immediately meets resistance as it seems every poet but herself is reluctant to be included as A Tonalist. Brilliantly, the resistance and hesitation to be grouped defines the A Tonalist. Through a mixture of herding together poets such as Norma Cole, Nathaniel Dorsky, Andrew Joron, Jen Hofer and Patrick Durgin, even DJ Spooky, and a linguistic investigation of the modes of inquiry of the original tonalist painters, Moriarty presents a version of contemporary poetics which prizes color, illumination, and lyric poetry that doesn't forsake politics or contemporary reality.

Tonalist painters, most well-known of which is James McNeill Whistler, were preoccupied with how light is captured on their subjects and Moriarty harnesses that project of capturing something fleeting, nearly indescribable, in her lyric.

Faint with color
I have seen you
Faced with color
Glazed successively through which light
Penetrates and is reflected back
As a formal relationship or
Paradise cult boundary
The letter (your letter)
Between heaven and earth
Anything could have happened
But the particle stays fixed
Space and time fluctuate around it
(You don't die)

She resurrects Xavier Martinez, Californian tonalist painter, to help describe how, even after studying in Paris, he can't help infusing everything with that West Coast light. For Moriarty, to be saturated with color is to be saturated with “subjectivity, identity, physicality, sex, race, health, age. Rage.”

Moriarty is based in California and seems to passively argue that the state infuses American poetics like a late afternoon sun that won't set. The fact is California houses and produces some of the most exciting American poets who are both regional to the West Coast and representative of American poetry. This balance of regional and national, local and global is one Moriarty is careful to strike and hold up as crucial to our contemporary context.

One aspect of regionalism is exclusivity, also a trait of any manifesto, but Moriarty not only denies any exclusivity, she enables inclusiveness. “A Tonalist, international but local, like yourself.” Her blog, A Tonalist Notes, opens up the forum of this poetics to many poets, many of whom write about their reservations to be included, using a form which is itself “international, but local,” global, yet provincial.

Moriarty weaves elegy, politics, the status of the reader, artistic integrity, and artistic doubts into a book that will make any reader-poet simultaneously hold a discussion with the writer in her head and gage her own work against the loose A Tonlist tenants.

While the long poem that makes up most of the book is beautiful and compelling, I did at times feel only a tenuous grasp on what Cole might mean by A Tonalist. She follows the poem with a prose afterword, “A Tonalist Coda,” which responded to a number of the questions I'd accumulated during the poem. Here, she gives us a linear heritage, beginning with Jack Spicer, her late partner Jerry Estrin and her close friend Norma Cole. We are given the “straight” story which the long poem had eluded to. Most important to me was her articulate awareness of “group formation in action.” It's hard not to read statements of group intent and think of all the groups that have crumbled—as if any manifesto is actually a postmortem. But Moriarty has read those previous manifestos, too: “I am aware that the idea of A Tonalist is like a fiction imposed on reality.”

Moriarty's definitions of A Tonalist are both achingly broad and disarmingly accurate and there are few statements of what it is to be A Tonalist without immediately undercutting the assertion. One of the closest we get is also my favorite: “Some people write lyric poetry because they just want to and think it is great. Some write it though they think it impossible. The latter are A Tonalists.”

A Tonalist, Laura Moriarty