Complex Sleep
By Tony Tost
University of Iowa Press, 122 pp.

In her introduction to this year’s Best American Poetry, Heather McHugh describes the love of language that drew her to poetry: “The oddity and opportunity of verbal life seemed not just a poem’s object but its subject.”

Oddity and opportunity are very much alive in Durham poet Tony Tost’s second volume of poetry, Complex Sleep. Words are the ever-present subject of these poems; in one wonderful line he imagines a sentence might be “descended from birds.” The vibrancy of Tost’s language calls attention to itself in lovely wordplay, a “palate” near a “plate,” a “bluish blush.” In this collection, Tost explores what it means to use language through poetry that is both ars poetical and postmodern.

These poems will not take readers gently by the hand and guide us from point A to point B. We are given breadcrumbs to follow and led deeper and deeper into the forest of Tost’s language. For some readers this may be a scary place, but for me it is an exciting place of experimental poetry. I’m thinking, for instance, of the second poem in the book, “Squint,” in which the stanzas don’t build up to create a narrative but instead seem like separate haiku that somehow resonate with one another. I first found myself frustrated by my strong desire for order in the poembut soon I discovered I enjoyed reading this poem backward, last stanza to first. Soon I felt as though I could read the stanzas in any order. The poem reminded me of the French experimental collective, Oulipo, and its “100,000,000,000,000 Poems”a poem whose lines can be rearranged in any order to create a new version. In fact, Tost’s title poem, with its sprawling lines and listing reminiscent of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, is actually a series of carefully crafted sentences that have been alphabetized according to the first word of each sentence. This type of “nonintentional method” takes the reins out of the poet’s hands, leaving the order of the poem, in part, up to chanceit’s an exciting form.

But even under this experimental umbrella we still find in these poems a place for the heartfelt, the philosophical and the imagisticthe qualities we demand from poetry. Again in “Squint,” one particularly striking image of isolation resides in the line, “A blanket was strung, her hands fresh from the burial, she was in the boat, with a half mile of sea.” Later in the collection, we find a 12-part love poem; one particular section, filled with lovely sentiment without the syrup, sounds like a warped postmodern marriage vow: “A real house filled with everything I call promise: hello/ To what shall we provide shelter? I place this knot/ upon your hand and not upon some promise.// This is the end of terror.” These poems, fun to explore, demand that readers spend time with them; one must fall into their rhythms and learn their language.

Perhaps the feat of Tost’s experimenting is to create a poem that is unsummarizable, indescribable, one that we can only experiencewhich is to say the way every poem should be treated. These poems demand that we meet them as we would music. But even beyond these lyric qualities, Tost’s poems contain a well of meanings, too many in a single poem to hold in the mind all at once. You can navigate the bright parts and pieces of Complex Sleep, leap from one fragment to the next, only if you dare to follow.