Chris Toll, author of several books including The Pilgrim’s Process, Love Everyone, Be Light, The Disinformation Phase and the soon-to-be released Life On Earth, died on Thursday of natural causes. It was unexpected and unbelievable and too soon.
Chris was a poet and collage-maker. He lived in Baltimore, where he was an integral part of the literature scene. I invited people to send me their memories, which I’ve compiled here. Hopefully people will feel free to add more in the comments.
Michael Kimball: Chris Toll seemed like somebody who wasn’t ever going to die. He was always there. Now’s he’s not there and I keep looking around for him.
Stephanie Barber: so many art scenes are dominated by the young or segregated—young scene/old scene—the super weird and dedicated like chris toll are beyond such petty, square divisions. i feel almost embarrassed that this is one of the things i’m thinking but it is really something. something radical in our (american apparel?) culture. a lot of people stop stepping out, stop sharing and stop partaking in the movements surrounding the art they love. chris was serious. chris was silly serious about spaceships and shape shifters and supporting poets and poetry. he ran a great series and read regularly and attended other series. how cool. how beautiful. how full of surety.
Adam Good: Chris is a believer’s believer, the kind who makes you believe, who catches you up in his belief. The last time we talked, on the 4th of July, I asked him what would happen by the end of the year, 2012, the whole Mayan apocalypse thing. I asked him because Chris is the kind of guy you’d expect to really know about that, who would give you an answer completely heartfelt and absolutely 100% TRUE. He told me that 2012 wasn’t a big deal, but that 2030 was the BIG YEAR, when our cosmic forebears would return and would set our world aright. I asked if things would go to shit first, and he said, yeah, a little bit, but everything will turn out ok, it really will. I’m normally incredibly, depressingly pessimistic about our (the human race’s) chances, but whenever I talked to Chris, he made me truly believe that everything would turn out ok, that the universe is bigger, more magical, more charged with energy and potential than our narrow-minded focus on a flawed local reality leads us to think. I’d believe that cosmic, powerful, benign entities would help us, and have been helping us, on our rocky path towards a transcendent future. I’d believe that we were once the stuff of stars, and that we will be once again. Chris said “be light” … and helped me realize that I was.
Joseph Young: At book club he talked to the cat, beaming sun glazes and the domes of mountains. Was it Paducah? Lexington? Hazard where you came? Someplace with rivers and cars, the local post office. Somewhere into a green east with poems. After book club he went home.
Justin Sirois: Chris Toll was one of the first poets to welcome me into the scene. He literally went to every reading, supported everyone, and scared the living hell out of us whenever we rode in his trembling little spaceship (1970-something VW Bug). We’ll all miss you Toll, Baltimore’s Rasputin—rise and Be Light.
Mark Cugini: The last time I saw Chris Toll, we were standing around a traffic circle while zombies were eating my neighbors. Later that night, I bought him a beer and he left without saying “bye.” But it’s OK, because he’s everywhere—in the false stories, in the forced imagery, in the world or words he created for us. I can’t imagine Baltimore without Chris Toll being there. So I won’t. And I know that’d make him proud.
I don’t go on stage. I don’t share the things you share publicly. I don’t have that kind of courage.
But I do have conversations in the corner with Chris Toll – at readings, at art openings, at the Club Charles, usually drinking a Yuengling.
I’m going to miss you, dear sir, and your great faith in light and combinations.
Sampson Starkweather: I really enjoyed meeting him and hearing him read, he had such a generous attitude and great sense of humor. He was the real deal, really humble and genuinely interested in poets and their work/curiosities, but also just other people in general and their lives, it’s really sad.
Edward Mullany: I met Chris only twice, but I remember both times he was quiet, gentle, funny and wise.
Jenny O’Grady: I didn’t know Chris well, but I was in awe of him. He came to a reading of mine at Minas, and said he wanted to be a part of my ekphrasis journal…and I honestly couldn’t believe my luck! He was all famous and stuff! One time we met up and he gave me a tiny cut-out volcano and some zines from the 80s. What a treasure he was! So supportive, so reliable and sweet…he will be missed.
R. M. O’Brien: When Chris Toll met my son Asher in the first few weeks of his life, he leaned in at him and said, “Welcome back, Baby. You’re going to see some wonderful things this time around!”
Chris’s importance to me as the model of a visionary poet and as an heretical saint cannot well be explained. I don’t think I ever could have made it clear it to the man himself, let alone anyone else now that he’s “gone.” You either knew him and felt the same, or you knew him and felt your own particular way, or you didn’t feel anything cuz you didn’t know him.
Chris sent me an email late Tuesday night, the night before the day he “died.” I had sent him proofs of his work as it would appear in an anthology I’m editing. To explain why he was sending yet more revisions to a poem and a piece of flash fiction he wrote,
i will explain this as best i can.
i know i’m nobody – i’m a snowflake and i’m drifting toward a bonfire – i know this well – i’m getting hot.
everything we do at every moment is critically important – every deed at every moment in every day should be a living prayer – if we pray hard enough, we will have a New World – and we will have it sooner rather than later.
“I’m a snowflake and I’m drifting toward a bonfire. I’m getting hot.” I repeated this to myself as I wander’d around North Baltimore with Asher and my wife Melanie. It was a sustaining mantra, and a last gift from Chris. I think he knew I was sensitive and prone to emotional meltdowns and that poetry was stronger for me than religion in a crisis.
When people I love die, I worry about their last conscious thought. Was it a peaceful one? Was it fill’d with hangups, terror? Mercifully, Chris answered that anxiety: He was nobody. He was a snowflake. He melted in a bonfire.
Mike Young: I remember the enormous book of conspiracy theories Chris gave me for my birthday (“the real stuff about the universe”), and how when I asked him if he’d read it he said he didn’t need to because he already knew it all. And I remember him giving me rides home in his VW bug, explaining about the aliens you could see if you watched the right videos. His bookThe Disinformation Phase, I told him on Facebook, was like this: “Pop sci-fi Lorca waiting in line to mail Tom Waits some tom tom drums and muttering invocations while he waits.” And now I guess it’s the rest of us waiting for Chris, or waiting with our memories of Chris, or living with the invocations he’s left. It’s hard for me to pick a favorite poem of his, but I am thinking right now a lot about “The Abyss Has No Biographer,” and specifically these lines: “How long can I stay in in the inn in innocent? Love is so hard, and it’s all we came to do.”
Christophe Cassamassima: Chris was always calling out to the aether. Or through it. And now the aether has come to claim its most notorious yet soft-spoken spokesperson. He will be missed, but most certainly be celebrated.
Melissa Broder: Chris Toll has left the planet, for now. Chris knew about outer space—he went there and he wrote about it. He also wrote about inner space, for those of us who are sometimes scared to go inside our hearts. He did these things in a funny way so we would not be frightened. As a human, in person, Chris was kind, soothing and fun. Wishing you peace, Chris.
David Beaudouin: From the time I first met him in the late 70’s, Chris was always (as they say) on the Poetry Case. He carried the torch brilliantly for poetry in our fair burg, promoting and publishing other poets, editing lit mags, sponsoring countless readings, and generally being the Guy Who Always Showed Up For Your Reading. Generous does not even begin to describe him. He was also one of most authentic people and writers I’ve ever known, unwavering in his dedication to ars poetica, which is why he was such an extraordinary maker of poems. He leaves behind many friends of the Old Guard as well as a whole new crop of the New Guard, with whom he was enthusiastically involved up to the end. He never gave up and always burned brightly.
Joseph Crespo: I wasn’t ever sure Chris liked me much, but then the first time we ever spoke at length it was about a periodical that only featured transmissions from channeled beings. We only had a few other conversations, but they, too were completely substantial and of some kind of significance. I began to understand that he really meant what he said in his poetry.
Rupert Wondolowski: Chris Toll was a living transmitter of the Spirit. A “True Believer” as our friend Asa says. A writer who wrote because words and images moved through him. For me he will always be a shining Emily Dickinson of Mars who kept searching with and through words for a better, gentler world and a shapely Space T-Rex in a tight cashmere sweater. His passing leaves a devastating hole in my heart and the Baltimore poetry world, which he engaged with in all its transmutations passionately for decades.
Buck Downs: Probably Chris would take issue with this, that he was I think my first grown-up friend—by which I mean to say, not a school-mate or a neighborhood pal, but someone I met outside the nurturing hothouses of school and family, out in the thicket, in the wild. Through him I got to see in actual practice something that I’d really only glimpsed in study previously: a poetry scene, populated by working poets, people with jobs who also worked at a vocation, to write and read, print and produce and perform. Through Chris, I met Sandie Castle, David Franks, Tom DiVenti, Richard Sober, and another dozen or more such names, men and women who created what their city had for them as poets and artists. Chris did this for himself and his peers, for them and among them, and got to see succeeding waves of younger poets take up the charge in turn, and got to be a peer among them, too. “28 is the new 53” Chris wrote in a poem, and knew that from his own experience; he did grow lighter, more astute and spiritually nimble with the passing of time.
Heather Christle: I only met Chris once, in Baltimore, and he joked about how his full name could be mistaken for my surname. He was funny and sweet, with a mind quick to make words leap. It was in the dark on the sidewalk after a reading, and then he told me where to find pizza. I wish there had been other nights.
Aparna Jonnal: Chris was so unpretentious, despite being as brilliant and accomplished as he was, he always stopped to sincerely listen and speak with people. I remember when we first got cats and I was beside myself with worry over small things in their lives, Chris was one of the only people I knew who did not laugh off my nervousness. He understood completely and talked about how very much he loved his cats. He told me to talk to them, because that may help them and would certainly help me and he was right. He was a gentle, intelligent presence at so many social things we did in Baltimore. He was never looking over my shoulder at who else was there, he could be still in the moment. The world can benefit from more people like him and I wish he had more time.
The way Justin would yell “Tollllll!” when you arrived
The way I’d call Margaret from the bathroom to hear some of the most heartbreaking lines ever written
The way you’d lean in to say good night before you ambled off into the dark
Adam Shutz: I sat in the back. “He’s wearing an Edgar suit.” My friend nodded. Chris’s head wobbled and jerked to stress the coming and going of lines on stage. He kept reading. He repeated the same poem again. Then again. He was faint. He wore black and was standing against a black ground. The rest of the walls were named with graffiti. There is something inside him that makes his head move like that. He’s trying to make this thing work. He said the poem again. We clapped. A few whistled and shouted. He sat down. There were bugs crawling all over the basement floor. This is Baltimore. Now this is all on YouTube.
Jamie Iredell: When I met Chris Toll he bought my book and gave me his. When I offered him his money back, to exchange books, he refused, explaining that I was on tour and probably could use the beer money. He was right, and that’s what kind of generous he was. In the copy of his book that he gifted me he wrote “Great to meet you in Tinytown!” It’s because of writers–people–like Chris Toll that “Beside a grammar difficult highway, / I brainwash my harmonica.” Chris had mastered his harmonica. Everyone should read him, to hear him play.
Nicolle Elizabeth: i became friends with chris after adam sent me his book to read and consider for review. i was so moved by chris’ depth, one might say he had an eerily gifted sense of heart and intuition. he and i began to talk a lot of intuition and became buds. we shared our lives, talked about our relationships, our sense of sense, our poetry. we began emailing and mailing each other packages back and forth with things we’d written, things we were working on. he offered to help put zines in diy amazing places, he held in his heart. i feel like if he had actually known that he was going to die ahead of time, he would have been like, “man, what a trip.” in chris i found a deep profound sense of a sort gregorian monklike chant hum universal vibe. and it will resonate within me all the rest of my days.
Dorothea Lasky: What I remember most clearly about Chris was the sharpness of his mind. Talking to him was like looking into the brightest, most pointed light. It was as if he knew everything. Like he contained everything there was to know.
He also reminded me of the dragon-dog on The Neverending Story. And I’ve always been in love with that dragon-dog. His name is Falcor. Here he is.
Sweet Memories of an Old Friend & Budding Poet
Ode to Chris
Listening intently to albums by Dylan and the Tims- Buckley & Hardin
Needing a Reason to Believe
Riding the bus to the Circle Theatre in DC
Trying to capture the meaning of a Bergman movie
It was a virgin spring when we looked through a glass darkly, but nearly full
We dared to play chess with Death.
Part of my soul belongs to Chris Toll
You shared your love of Dylan and Rainer Maria Rilke with me
Deeply saddened and shaken,
I grieve to waken not believing this planet has lost you.
We once were and long to be One again.
Dave K: Not only was Chris Toll the rarest kind of poet, one whose work was abstract and intense and yet very approachable, he was the nicest kind of guy, too. Chris attended just about every reading series in Baltimore, made a lot of newcomers into Baltimore’s literary community (myself included) feel welcome, and his willingness to talk shop and support the work of his colleagues was (and still is) an inspiration to me. I’m sad now, and I will be for a while, but I consider myself lucky to have known him, and the nature and quality of his work are such that he’ll never truly be gone. Goodbye, Chris. Be light.
Amelia Gray: I only got to meet him a few times but he was a kind, decent, sweet guy. His energy remains in the world.
I was dizzy and couldn’t remember where I parked my car.
It was dark, and I thought I might go in ever-widening circles
around the library until I found it so that I could rest and go home.
I had just met Chris Toll, and he said, in his calm and level steadfast way,
(not smiling or changing his own determined compass) that he
would walk me to my car.
He offered his arm. We did not chat.
The only consultation he took was my blabber that I thought I parked west of the
library—north or south I did not know.
We walked slowly; he steadied me.
It took ten minutes, for us to find my car.
“Thank you so much, Chris.”
He just ducked his head the way he did, already past that—acknowledging my
thanks but not taking a debt from them.
He didn’t smile or wave goodbye.
He kept his inner eye on his own direction. Back into the night.
That night I met the “Is” in Chris, and the “To” in Toll.
He was always there, but now he is here.
There is nothing past tense about Chris, he will continue
To go into, toward, as far as we go, then further than that … to, to, to.
Fifi LaBella: I first met Chris in college. We were fellow English majors, and Chris was the real deal wordsmith of our class. My most vivid memory of Chris is from the dinner our senior seminar professor gave for the class at which the professor, normally dressed as a Mormon missionary, appeared in a wig and flamboyantly mod attire. I see the influence of this seminal incident in much of Chris’s work. Fifi LaBella, Hello Kitty, Naked Mole Rat, Killer Bunny, and especially Ted would miss you like crazy, except that you’re now with them more than ever.
“The Word is my shepherd,
I shall be wanted.”
Rita Stein: Chris and I struck up an epistolary friendship in 2006 but we would get together on occasion. On our first hang-out I came down to Baltimore and he told me he had something I had to see. So after we had lunch he drove me to the back of some store off of Northern Parkway and Belair Road, I think. There was a beautiful rusty door of some sort waiting to be discarded. He knew I like old derelict things, urban or otherwise. And it really was a sight to see.
The last time I saw him was this past April. He edited a few poems of mine with me over a few beers. He cracked me up by crossing out so much in the poems and substituting different phrasing or word choice. Then he wrote down three books and the specific translators that I needed to locate. So I asked him what his editing process was and he said, so matter of fact, “‘Oh, I just didn’t like the way that sounded.” We had a good time editing and hanging out and that was the last time I saw him. I will miss him and his curious blend of innocence and cynicism.
Why is there a Chit in Chris Toll?
paying forward Charon’s fare in Cheetos
for orange eyeshadow applied with a puff
for bees up the nose
for jet engines on all the neighborhood boys’ flying skateboards
We had afternoon crawfish pizzas in the Zodiac.
His collages raise swords and light sabers,
his poetry is a totem.
He was the Invisible Girl till the day he died –
“Why is a loss in colossal?”
Lucid dreaming has nothing on his waking
warp core breach
We looked out front windows of the Zodiac
onto North Charles in the afternoon.
Then I saw what he saw.
Joe Hall: My heart is in my mouth. Chris Toll is dead. I just met Chris in 2011 when I moved to Baltimore. It was hard to get to know him on account of what I admired most in him: he was a true weirdo. When he said things about receiving poems from the dead or aliens or when the world would end, Chris didn’t wink. He believed in what he said—a whole strange, warm metaphysics that involved aliens, celebrities, astral bodies, and golden age comic book heroes. He wasn’t wrong. Adam Robinson had arranged for my manuscript to get the Chris Toll treatment over drinks at Club Charles. Chris blazed through it. Some of his comments were blistering. On some of the small stuff I thought he was wrong. But on the big stuff—on which he was fervently direct—he was utterly right. He knew what had to happen. He knew the secrets to what puzzles the rest of us and now we can just turn back to what he wrote:
I’m in stealth mode / and I sing beneath the clouds.
May 2nd, 11:05 AM. Last lines of last email from Chris.
Clarinda Harriss: I have tried for the past day and a half to get my mind around the concept of poetry-in-Baltimore without Chris Toll. I simply cannot do it. He is so much a part of it, of us, that I will be expecting him to be physically present Monday night. He never missed a poetry event, or so it seems to me. How could he miss his own funeral? I hope it will be an occasion for celebration as well as sorrow—perhaps on par with the superlative festivity in Station North that celebrated the publication of his recent collection. Celebratory praises to you, dear Chris.
Once I watched Chris Toll exchange seats with someone in an idling VW Bug
an Original Bug
in front of Penn Station.
Everything he did was poetry.
Dave Eberhardt: I saw the best minds of my generation/ walking down Greenmount Avenue/ mumbling “the stars wear trousers”/ past Pete’s Grill and the Rite Aid.
Samantha Solomon: I never actually met Chris. I stole his seat at a reading once and he gave me a sour look. A few days after that he messaged me to tell me how much he liked my poem and that he wished I had read more. We started up a conversation about writing. He said, “I’m really not much of a believer in a disciplined writing program. In fact, I distrust people who write every day for poetry. I don’t think they’re listening to Silence and I don’t think they’re preparing themselves to hear the Voices in the wind. They’re just filling pages with the tiny constructions of a limited mind.”
William Merricle: In the mid-80s, chris welcomed this Ohio boy to the Baltimore poetry scene with open, loving arms. He often put me up when I visited there. Oh the stories we could tell! He will not be replaced. His departure already leaves an aching void so unlike the beautiful ache of his poetry.
Les Wade: I think everyone has their favorite Chris Toll poem, and there are quite a few of them to choose from, which is a real testimony to Chris as a poet. Here’s one that I first read a while ago. It’s taken from a short poem sequence entitled “I Take the Blue Pill and the Red Pill.”
The Third Station of the Double-Crossed
I build my mansion
on a thunderbolt.
Attorneys are movie stars,
movie stars are junkies,
and rivers are blood.
Why is justice just ice?
The first shall be fast
and the last shall be lost.
Love has no rules.
A woman wearing a dog collar
and a wedding gown
is weeping in the rain.
My mission is so secret
I don’t know it myself.
For me, this piece and especially those last two lines really drive home what Chris’s work was all about—a search for a Mystery. And for Chris, that word should always be capitalized. Yet Chris always recognized that a sense of play was essential to that search; indeed, that invitation to play was as essential as the Mystery itself. I think that’s why he was always such a great person to meet up with at a poetry reading. That combination of wonder and welcome. And wherever there was poetry in Baltimore, Chris was there.
Megg Magee: I’ve known Chris Toll, the poet, since the mid-eighties, when I was still in high school and a young poet: he was one of the familiar faces at all the readings I went to—although it was not until February of 2010 that we became friends. It was during one of those three feet snowstorms and we found each other on Facebook—snowbound and stir crazy—both of us watching the TV show LOST and expounding on our love of cats and poems. When I asked him to name a favorite poem I was a bit surprised his answer was Emily Dickinson’s #1162. Here it is:
The Life we have is very great.
The Life that we shall see
Surpasses it, we know, because
It is Infinity.
But when all Space has been beheld
And all Dominion shown
The smallest Human Heart’s extent
Reduces it to none.
And the snow kept coming. Chris wrote to me, “Take a moment and listen for a poem in the howling wind—it might be mine. Write it down and share it with me sometime—I’ll let you know if it is.” It got me writing again. He also encouraged me to step back in to the Baltimore poetry scene I’d neglected and hid from for years. He showed up at Singers when I did my first reading in years for the “Speak Your Piece” series run by Mark Sanders. In fact, he came to all the readings I did since then. He helped me edit and perfect my poem, “Saving The Blow-up Doll At Loch Raven”—and when I acknowledged it at one of the readings he raised his glass to me, bowed humbly. He introduced me to Patrick King, who ran the “Last Sunday, Last Rites” series, picking me up in his little VW bug for the slowest ride through Glen Arm I ever had.
Often our emails to each other were exchanges of poems and thoughts on writing. His were always filled with an over abundance of exclamation points. When asked why he wrote, “I like to use an abundance of punctuation!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! It annoys some people!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Does it annoy you??????????”
In the last email he sent me he wrote, ” As far as I know, I’m not doing anything for the rest of my life.”
Patrick King: You, Chris Toll, the sweet little elf man of Baltimore letters. I think of your surreal sci-fi poetry, your time traveling Emily, your celestial goof. I used to see you everywhere, all at once. I think about being socially inept but seeing you there are knowing I’d have someone to talk to until you had to leave early to feed your cats. Look! There goes Chris, ambling down the sidewalk, cut off jeans and black socks, stoically following to the next destination. I’ll keep your memory close, but your pages closer.
Aaron Cohick: I distinctly remember the first time I heard Chris read. It was in 2003, at one of the DC reading series, whichever one was at the Washington Printmakers Gallery back then. I do not remember who Chris read with. I remember seeing the initial email announcement about it, and the bio for Chris saying that he lived in Baltimore—which was exciting, because here was some other poet person in Baltimore that we didn’t know yet. The poems were wild, earnest. Chris was strange & earnest, quiet but friendly. After that initial meeting I saw him everywhere (not just at poetry events), and he started to read regularly with the Mobtown Writers Collective. We used to do a chapbook for every reading, and I know that we had some pieces from Chris in those once, maybe twice. I remember designing a title page for him, with a UFO made out of curly braces.
Chris was the Real Deal. He wrote poetry because he loved it, because he loved people and the universe, and loved being a part of all of this. What else is there to say? I’m not sure. Love, again, maybe, love. And good-bye Chris, see you soon.
Ann Buki: I am a college friend of his who first met him when we attended a meeting of a small peace group during freshman year. He was a passionate advocate for bringing students together to protest the war in Vietnam. In 1966 this was a minority point of view at Catholic U.
We had many friends and interests in common. As fellow English majors, we took many courses together, and he always added a spark to class discussions. He told stories, wrote poetry and was an all-around good guy.
Through facebook I got back in touch with Chris. My fellow classmate Mary (a.k.a. Fifi LaBella) and I attended a very lively poetry reading that he gave in DC. We joined Chris and his friends at a restaurant after the reading, and it was a delight to reconnect with him. I have a book of his poetry as a memento, and will be forever grateful to have had the opportunity to reconnect with Chris.
We have lost a beautiful, gentle soul. Shine on, Chris.
Chris Mason: Chris Toll was a humble, open-hearted visionary. He worked very hard at his job so he was grounded in the everyday world even when he was peering into deep space. His deep space peerings had the wry humor of someone looking into space from a chair and a desk. He was always at poetry readings but sometimes you’d forget he was there because he was so busy listening, but not just to the poetry. I loved when he secretly planted some small Xeroxed poetry chapbooks published by Jamie Gaughran-Perez in random books at Barnes and Noble, so that people would stumble onto poetry by chance. I had a lot of great conversations with Chris over the last 25 years, but I wish I’d had more.