Toby Altman

from "Forms of Democratic Feeling / Told in a Shimmering Tense"


he will begin by devouring the syntax of glass

peacock-blue opalescent leaded glass suspended above the transept

like touching delicate textiles like touch itself

he consumes the silver interior of a mirror,

sweeps away the lily and lays down cement, eyes of the bank, green beneath it

it cannot hold him his ache or his complaint it cannot hold

he does not work with incorruptible materials

pleasure which is spending money badly driving to do it

pleasure like a room from which silence has been suddenly removed

his mansion is in excess of all loving,

unbounded as the mind in a bower of lime-trees, pruned, dressed in deodorant

he flees from me, he goes, absorbed in the dark leather upholstery of his SUV 

Twenty-four vertical rectangles of glass in the clerestory. Four on the short sides, eight on the long. Looking through or with them, the act of banking, embraced by staining

The poem proceeds toward the act of banking, the fact of money, but it begins in light. It seeks to express in simple, well-chosen language the current experience of life

thus restraining whatever he touches

driving to a suburb whose name means “Dawn” its price is withering

making space for symptoms of flowering space for symptoms of credit

the man is among, a shadow falls between him

to be many and undone, perishing so that only the many survive

to be in a relation to light architecture which makes light visible

what cloth is he what luminous tent

that so many shadows on him tend the action of a shadow its shivering hands

rinsed in rose rinsed in green vegetation without mass

he begins by devouring the syntax of glass

then the air fragrant shadow which is the ancestor of glass its end

sweet as an oboe, soft as the prairie, when spirits of value and information move upon it

To see health, we must look through and beyond disease. To see health, we must look, inviting the eye into the vault. Though even with its door flung open, one gazes on a shiver

The force that moves inside a dollar: blue residue of breathing, buckled, caught inside a vitreous sheath.

The OED calls it “a subdued...light,” citing Scott: “diffused...a trembling,” “two silver lamps fed with perfumed oil.” Shimmering is the partial presence of light: unsecured, at the boundary of usefulness. More broadly: the partial presence of any precious thing. Anything that can be only partially possessed. May be described as shimmering. A sickly child, deposits of silver, bed linens and chewing tobacco, even the truth itself. Emerson: “One man sees a spark or shimmer of the truth.” Implying that more men are necessary. To cultivate a shimmer.

Biographical Statement:

Toby Altman is the author of two books, Discipline Park (Wendy’s Subway, 2022) and Arcadia, Indiana (Plays Inverse, 2017). He recently received a 2021 Fellowship in Poetry from the National Endowment for the Arts. He has held residencies from the Vermont Studio Center, the Millay Colony for the Arts, and MacDowell, where he was the 2020 Stephanie and Robert Olmstead Fellow. His poems can be found in Gulf Coast, jubilat, Lana Turner, and other journals and anthologies; his articles and essays can or will be found in Contemporary Literature, English Literary History, and Jacket2. He holds an MFA in Poetry from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a PhD in English from Northwestern University.