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Chris Toll

The kind intellectual

Photo: Alex Fine, License: N/A

Alex Fine

Chris Toll


Dear Chris Toll:

It seems somehow fitting that I feel like I know you better now that you’re no longer occupying the same space-time continuum as I. I remember first seeing you—but never speaking to you—when I first moved here in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Since you’d been here since the 1970s, you struck me as a stately man about town, seemingly at every firecracker-explosion of poetry and music and art that all swam in the same underground spaces. Little did I know that you would have enjoyed a conversation that darted from pop movies to pulp books and everywhere in between, and that that you could be as shy as I felt.

When I returned to Baltimore in 2001, I put a name to the face, thanks to your initiative. We’d trade emails about an event, exchange brief greetings when running across each other, smile and nod when we were each catching a movie at the Charles solo. You were always so beyond polite that I always wondered if I should’ve followed the small talk with a less perfunctory exchange, perhaps inquired if you, like me, had a sneaking suspicion that the first The Matrix movie was a rather faithful adaptation of the Warren Report or if literary pretension was merely the tension that accompanies the fear of being understood. These were the sneaking suspicions I harbored after reading your poetry, my writerly arrogance that comes from thinking I know how somebody thinks merely by how they put pen to paper without having to engage in the messy human part.

But I’m thinking it’s the messy human part that gave your works their potency. When I eventually reach the end of time myself, if by chance my consciousness canoe ripples through the rapids of your wit, I’ll fight the current to say more than the passing hellos I offered during this time around. I now know you were somebody who would’ve talked Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Flannery O’Connor novels with me, somebody who could help me understand how the paisley pen who crafted Blonde on Blonde in 1966 could genuflect Saved during the long, hot summer of 1980, somebody who could help me figure out why my wife’s cat might be patiently plotting my death.

Until then, I’ll appreciate the things you taught me from reading your works and from hearing stories about you from the many, many people whose lives you touched—that words can be the cardigan sweater that envelops the body and mind like a warm embrace when there’s nobody’s arms to console you, and to love the people who matter to you utterly and completely, because when you’re gone they’ll savor every precious nanosecond of their time with you, keeping you alive on the bookshelves of their mind.

And tell Emily Dickinson I said hello.


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