L A U R A M O R I A R T Y
A TONALIST THINKING
A Tonalist, a manuscript I have been working on for a few years, is the creation of a poetics in a poem. It is the founding of a movement of poets and prose writers or the identification of one in retrospect. In a sense, the project began in December of 2002 when Norma Cole had a stroke. Norma is my closest friend. It was she who closed the eyes of my first husband, the poet Jerry Estrin, as he lay on his deathbed. In the time before beginning A Tonalist I realized I wanted to make explicit the world of writing Norma and I (and Jerry and others) occupied together. I thought a lot about the work we have in common in the weeks after the stroke. My husband Nick Robinson and I went away for a weekend to the Central Coast where it was absurdly beautiful in a particularly Californian way and I began to think about the work of painters whose sense of the light in California I had always admired. I thought they were called Tonalists. I wasn't sure and wasn't on-line on the trip so couldn't look it up, however before even getting back we stopped to see Norma at the hospital where she still was and I said “Tonalist” to her. I briefly explained my point and she understood immediately and said “Yes!” which was almost all she could say at the time, but it was enough and there it was.
The work took the form of something like a daybook of thought, observation and event. It was an interrogation of the notion that Norma and I and others (many in California but also elsewhere) shared a poetics that wasn't exactly identified and was certainly not named. I later discovered that the original Tonalists were a pre-Modernist group of painters from around the turn of the century and later who were prominent in California. Xavier Martinez and Gotardo Piazzoni were two of them, Georges Inness may or may not have been one. The movement was said to be characteristically American. It was powerful for a while and then was promptly and almost completely forgotten. Atonalism or atonality was another thing and was also in my mind. It was a point of view in music around Schoenberg, who didn't like the term, and others that provided me with a shadow movement as I was the writing the piece that was now beginning to be called A Tonalist.
So was it Tonalism or Atonalism or a particular tonalism that I was really interested in or that I was? Could any writer or their work be described that way? I found myself writing about the work of others as if they were nature, part of a Tonalist landscape I imagined myself to be in. I was not sure it was real. I was only sure I was doing it. Hence the name A Tonalist.
Am I then the single tonalist or a tonalist or am I an anti-tonalist? Or is it just me and Norma? I wasn't sure. The task of the writing is to figure it out by examining work that I admire or that mystifies me and by looking at other movements and also at group formation. I have written about Andrew Joron, Taylor Brady, Brent Cunningham, Patrick Durgin, Yedda Morrison, Alan Halsey, Jocelyn Saidenberg and others. The work of Aaron Shurin, Susan Gevirtz, Gerdaldine Monk and Renee Gladman is implicated. The writing of the book occurs in broken lines and in short prose sections. It is also about noting the daily life of poetry that I experience as the member of a very active community of writers among whom are many older and younger ones who identify themselves variously. None of them identify themselves as a tonalist so far as I can tell, but who knows? It could happen.
[ see also ]
Laura Moriarty's from A Tonalist
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