Remembering Chris Toll
Poet Chris Toll died on Sept. 27 at the age of 64.
Published: October 10, 2012
On Sept. 27, 1905, the scientific journal Annalen der Physik received a paper from Albert Einstein that included the famous equation E=mc2. On Sept. 27, 1954, The Tonight Show featuring host Steve Allen debuted on NBC. On Sept. 27, 1964, the President’s Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy issued a report stating that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. On Sept. 27, 1997, the Mars Pathfinder probe sent its last transmission. And on Sept. 27, 2012, father, poet, and indelible human being Chris Toll died of natural causes in Baltimore. He was 64 years old.
Now, these events might appear a happenstance selection, united only by the coincidence of date. If there’s a thread that aligns them in the mythical time of cosmic consciousness, Toll would have seen it—and been able to express it in his heartbreaking, elegant economy. “My poem comes from far away/ and it’s going far away—,” he wrote in “This Is How We Make a Broken Heart,” published by the local ’zine Artichoke Haircut. “I’m just in the middle/ like a lonesome TV station/ with no employees.”
“Poetry has really been his life,” says Kate Pipkin, who met Toll in the early 1980s in a poetry class taught by Andrei Codrescu at the Maryland Writers’ Association. Toll had originally come to Baltimore in the early 1970s to enter Johns Hopkins University’s graduate writing program after graduating from Catholic University in 1970. His two sons, Joshua and Benjamin, were born and raised here. Toll blossomed into a stalwart presence in Baltimore’s literary community for the next four decades.
He recruited Pipkin to launch the literary magazine Open 24 Hours in 1981. It was a low-tech affair—folded and stapled sheets of 8 1/2-by-11 inch paper. These were the days when readings took place at the Red Door Hall on St. Paul Street, the Maryland Writers’ Association home base, and the Station Building at the Maryland Institute College of Art, where poet Joe Cardarelli taught. And Pipkin recalls that such vibrancy inspired Toll to launch the magazine, which published Codrescu, Ted Berrigan, Gerard Malanga, Anselm Hollo, and locals such as Tom DiVenti, Dyane Fancey, and Susan Gossling.
The submissions process was that both Pipkin and Toll had to agree on the poem. “It wouldn’t be unusual for us to go back and forth over whether to include one poem,” Pipkin says. “And it may have been by somebody nobody had ever heard of. The magazine was serious and irreverent at the same time.”
One of those unknowns was a then recent college graduate named Rupert Wondolowski. Open 24 Hours published one of his early works, and Wondolowski—co-owner of Normal’s Books and Records, The Shattered Wig Review co-founding editor, and City Paper contributor—moved to Baltimore in 1984 to hit the tail end of the 1970s/early 1980s poetry community and take part in its 1990s rise. And Toll was there, listening to poets, working on his own poems, talking to anybody who started up a conversation with him, lending his laser-sharp editing and proofreading eye to just about anybody who asked, and acting as a witty, friendly beacon during life’s storms.
Wondolowski recalls a birthday he spent with Toll. “It was this beautiful occasion where Chris came over and a new [Bob] Dylan album had just come out,” Wondolowski says. “That was always something that we would celebrate. We sat there and listened to it and he commented on each track and picked out which lines, to him, were the good ones. He would say [that] Dylan always would leave one really bad line in to leave oxygen in there.”
Toll’s tastes ran from poetry to music, from highbrow literature to lowbrow movies. He had varied interests and could to talk about them with originality. At the Oct. 1 memorial of his life at the Ruck Funeral Home in Towson, a packed house heard the emotional memories of his sons, Josh and Ben; Benjamin’s wife; Toll’s older brother and younger sister; DiVenti; Wondolowski; Publishing Genius’ Adam Robinson, who published Toll’s The Disinformation Phase last year; and Barbara DeCesare, who co-curated the Benevolent Armchair Reading series with Toll in recent years.
Tears alternated with smiles as people spoke, and the stories brought to life a singular man. Toll liked traditions: He patronized the same pet store in Indiana every year when visiting his sister at Thanksgiving to buy the toy he knew his beloved cats liked. He hit the same Towson Thai restaurant every Christmas Eve, catching a matinee movie the next day. His sons talked about how, when their father finished a poem, he would keep a copy of it in a pocket, close to his heart.
The power of his poetry remains, as do examples of his extraordinary empathy. In separate conversations with his sons, each said they got their compassion from him, his seemingly endless capacity to recognize the weight of day-to-day life. Benjamin became a psychologist, saying that he sometimes works with people who are really sick and going through a lot, and feels his dad gave him the ability to listen to them and help in any way he can. Josh is a lawyer who does pro bono work with indigent people in Washington, D.C.
Such work is a continuation of the compassion their father expressed through his poetry. “I know there is a bit of a melancholy streak that runs through my dad’s work,” Josh Toll says. “My dad was so attuned to other people’s suffering. . . . I know I’m really lucky to have such a thoughtful dad—he would write me a four to five line e-mail that just animated my life. And I know I’m going to miss that so much.”
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