The American Journal of Poetry
"Strong Rx Medicine"®




James Tolan (1964-2017)



To Our Readership,

          On September 12th, 2001, (1 day after 9/11), we presented Volume One of MARGIE / The American Journal of Poetry, our 400-500 page print annual.  Jim was with us from the very start. And he appeared in numerous issues of the journal over the next decade.


          The first advice given to me as a poet (Robert speaking, for the moment) was: Go deeper.  James Tolan’s poetry engraved itself on me. 


          Jim understood the mix of fragility and the strength of the human condition. Here was that rare, rare poet who reminded us all, that as human beings, we are not so much connected by our strengths—as by our weaknesses.  In the many poems we published of Jim’s—there was, more often than not, the subtle and elegant element of holiness; not in a religious sense so much and certainly never in a preachy way.


          It is the poet’s job, if you will, to have a finely honed awareness.  To our way of feeling and thinking, awareness equals spirituality—with orthodoxy seldom paid mind.  Jim was a poet’s poet.  As writers and editors we recognized the deep thinking, compassion, frustration, searching, the turmoil, and the unconditional love which permeated his poetry—even if, as happened so often , as deep undercurrent.


          Many of our readers already know ours is a family review—not so much family in a collegial way (although it is)—but, more importantly as blood.  Jim was a family man as well, making him ever the more attractive to us.


          When we learned of Jim’s passing earlier this year, we were heart-stricken.


          It hit us a terrible blow; Jim  shared his work with us in three of four issues of our newest iteration, The American Journal of Poetry: –with his customary kindness and generosity.


          Of so many poets writing, there will be precious few whose work will stand the arduous test of time.  Jim’s poems will live on and on.  We have long subscribed to the belief that the only two purposes of poetry are to disturb and to console.  And in only the most rare of cases, a poet comes along whose work accomplishes both.          


          Such a poet was our longtime friend, Jim Tolan.  It is an honor and great, great privilege to present this Memoriam, inadequate as it may be—with sadness, to be sure, but more importantly, with love and deep affection for our friend.




Kelly and James, Elisabeth and Robert





"Rooting for Relic:  The Poetry of James Tolan"

by Holly Messitt, (December, 2017)



            At some point in his early 20s, Jim decided to become a poet rather than a priest.  He had already taken steps to study at seminary, but in an about-face, he rejected the hierarchy of the church for the democracy of poetry.  His poetry, however, retains an awareness of the world as mystical, an acceptance that there are forces at work we cannot see, a sense of awe, an inherent curiosity and a tendency to look for and celebrate the good in other people.  He truly believed, as he wrote in his poem "Conjecture," that "love might be the kindness/that bathes the crust from life."  Sometimes he was an idealist with an impish sense of humor, a chanter and a storyteller.  He had faith in the wisdom of the fairytales.


            But there was another side.  If we stick with "Conjecture," we see in the lines following another side of Jim.  In the next stanza he compares this love to being "like scalding milk/and a wire brush/to thick and brutish hides."  He recognzed something brutish about the human condition and knew that he was part of it too. 


            The sardonic voice of "Whiskey and the Rake of Mourning" fits into this category, as do many of the poems in his first collection Mass of the Forgotten (Autumn House Press).  These poems do not flinch from alcoholism, raw sexuality, and loss.  But they never get lost there, or they never stay there.  The anger of an early poem like "The Coup" where he characterizes his parents as Mussolini and an IRA skinhead and slips his father "last year's Father's Day letter bomb," changes by the time we get to poems like "Filched" or "Perfect, Wet With Poison."  Now, his father gone, he goes "rooting/for some relic I could hold."  There is his acknowledged grief, but there is something instinctual and brutish in his rooting and filching.


            In a poem like "Spikes Driven into Oak," the speaker destroys the tree in the name of love and wisdom, but we sense a real shift when he himself becomes a father and allows his son to teach him to move in his body and to let it sing, as he writes in "Poem Beginning with a Line By My Son Junuh," "My body/moving alone among others moving/and singing until I am one with the other/bodies/my soul sings to," or in the heartbreaking poem "The MRI," where he and Junuh Charge! into the waves on the beach.


            In his willingness to reveal his imperfections, his anger, his love, Jim brings us as readers into an intimacy with the speaker that was so typical of him in person.  In life, he never flinched from the difficult topics, but to counter he could quickly make you feel that you were his friend.  He had a whiplash wit that he followed with a winning smile.  But this charm was never only surface deep.  His substance was solid, committed, and passionate. 


            He loved reading his poems, loved any opportunity to talk to people about poetry.  I will end here allowing him to speak for himself.  While Jim wrote each of the paragraphs I'm including below, he never put them together this way.  I pulled them together from different documents that he wrote in the last year of his life as he began thinking about writing a book on poetry as practice. I will call them "Three Visions of Poetry":


Here's the first one:

            Robert Duncan said all poetry was some measure music and some mystery. And while mystery may sound perilously close to Lorca’s duende or Etheridge Knight’s belly, no one’s blood or guts is equal to the glimpse of a god passing or the presence of our dead among us, of a wind that lifts the hair from your arms and neck or the leaves from still branches or that rouses the feathers from stopped birds, something worthy of tears and a faith beyond belief. Romantic love is close, since it too opens us to what is other, but romance begets the erotic, the tangible joining with the other that mystery won’t allow.


The second one:

            I remember as a young poet being told—in a loose translation of Goethe--that poems were comprised of three aspects: the personal, the metaphoric, and the formal, and that of these three aspects the formal was the closest to the body. This last claim made no sense to me. Clearly, I thought, what was personal to me was most intimate and hence closest to my body. My lost loves and childhood trauma were unique to me, were what defined me until I came to realize that the stories of those experiences were imminently comparable to the stories of countless others.

To think the thing that drives your art is predominantly yourself limits your art to ego—reduces art to self and self to the singular. Art teaches us that the personal is limited and largely dull. The figurative complicates, deepens and makes inclusive the larger world, the larger self, the other, the natural world, night consciousness. The formal contains the wild energy of the figurative/the metaphoric v. the mundane personal.


And yet another:

            Voice before alphabets. Before words, sound. Poetry, older than writing, born of saying, sound, and song, made to be heard, is most alive as an oral and communal art, a gift bodily and shared. Poetry that ignores such rootedness, even when full of invention and thoughtful musing, lacks in essential ways the fully human. Readers and listeners have turned to poetry from its inception for an opening and acknowledgment, a deepening and confirmation, of our lives at their most moving, dire, intense, conflicted, paradoxical, and quiet. Full of grief or joy, despair and sorrow, a sense of life as more than willed, literal and prescribed, of our lives as metaphoric and uncanny, deeply experienced and sung.


            This is a small bit of what I am discovering slowly but surely in his journals and documents, a cross he began making between prose poem and critical essay.  I am searching for what more there is to put together so that this voice can also become part of what lives on after him.



James Tolan

Perfect, Wet with Poison


At Edwards’ Field, near the marsh, ours was the blood

the mosquitoes in their gangly stealth sought. At dusk

the city sent a truck, its sprinkler spraying

a cascade of malathion, foul line to foul line,

from out past the chain-link fence. Time called,


we spread our arms and turned like we’d been told,

spinning slow circles, left field to right

and across the infield dirt, the chemical mist 

wafting over us, its sting

like sharp dew settling into the corners of our eyes.


The umpire tossed a dry ball to the tall boy on the hill,

who rubbed it slowly between bare hands

as he peered up at the crowd. The drumming in his ears

dulling to a drone, he stepped to the rubber

and leaned in. No runners to check, hadn’t been all game.


Where but here was perfect even possible

for a gawky boy with elbows thicker than his arms? 

Glove to chest, fingers to four seams, blow out.

Fielders pounding their mitts, chanting and swaying.

The gloam falling across the mound. And in the stands


his mother done with her cursing of the city and its truck.

Chapped hands over her stung eyes, she didn’t see

her boy kick high and hurl one

sharp-eyed home. Only heard the hush before

the leather popped and those around her rose.


Her husband roared with all the rest

before he dropped a hand

to her bent back and with the other waved.

Caught his long son’s gaze, clenched a fist

and beamed before their boy was swarmed.


Then sat down, leaned in, angled for her ear.

His right hand at her elbow, she lifted

her eyes at last to gather in

the ruckus their son’s left arm had wrought.

Worry later, Mary Lou. Stand up and let him see you proud.



James Tolan



Is that vintage? they ask. 


It was my father’s, I say and think of a man for whom

that word meant only a crack about drink—


          Gimme a tall one of your finest vintage!


I found it among tie pins and cufflinks in his top drawer,

filched it years before I knew the word,


           knew only that I wanted something I could take from him

           who knew work and the bar better than home,


           something I would have never called

          beautiful and ruined.


Crystal scratched, leather dry and stitching frayed.

He never noticed it was gone,


           or else he never said.


From his dresser to the carved wooden box I buried

inside my hand-me-down chest,


           until the no more of him sent me rooting

           for some relic I could hold.


Glass polished and gears set right, new band strapped around my wrist.




It’s beautiful, they say. 


It was my father’s, and I let them assume,


                      inheritance or gift,


that he was a man of taste, who shared it with his son.



James Tolan

Whiskey and the Rake of Mourning

When my father’s father died,

   my daddy didn’t cry a bit,

just grabbed a fifth of whiskey

   and a rake all bent to shit


then dragged himself out the backdoor

   to do what he did best—

work and drink till the drink was done

   and the work was put to rest.


When he was through, what he had done

   was sheered instead of raked. 

The lawn, like a black sheep greened,

   was gone for a dead man’s sake,


and the earthen wounds left behind

   gathered a still life of waste,

broken rake and broken man,

   blue-nosed and red-faced.


I hauled his hump into the house

   and poured him to the floor.

The dogs licked vomit from his jowls

   then brayed at the backdoor.


If God is love and father too

   then love is a bare bone.

I left the dogs out in the yard

  and him to rouse his hide alone.   


Instead he snored and pissed himself

   there on the kitchen tile,

slack-jawed his partial from his gums

   and bloomed a toothless smile.



James Tolan

Red Walls


Where I come from

we take bricks

one by one.


We take them red

and muddied

from the earth.


Where I come from

we take bricks

from the earth.


We take them

one by one.

Where I come from


masons worked.

Ground grew up,

ate what


they left behind.

Where I come from

bricks got swallowed.


And it’s our job

to loose them

from the soil.


Where I come from

each takes his bricks

and builds a wall


to protect

what we’ve been given,

to make special


those we invite in.

Where I come from

the odor of one city


mixes with others

on the wind

that finds its way.


Where I come from

a wolf blows hot

against the walls all day


and bricks are how

we build a home.

Where I come from


hunches grow

from safe places

in the soil, and a soul


builds walls to protect

what must not die.

Where I come from walls


are a kind of flesh

and it’s a blessing

to be invited in.


Where I come from

is red bricks from here.



James Tolan



Ted Stein, who had been dying slowly,

is now quickly dying


and wants to write one really good poem.


The chemo and narcotics make it difficult,

muddle his once clear mind.


For what will be his last workshop,

Ted finds an old word


and uses it in a poem no better than dying.


Now he is certain he will never write

that one good poem.


I, without prognosis yet, ask if I can use


the word he has discovered

like an island no one inhabits anymore.


Ted says, Sure. Tells me,

Go ahead, without resentment or joy


but resignation that he will die

without one good poem to his name.


I lay a hand to his shoulder, bend

my knees to thank him eye to eye.


He lifts his gaze, a moment

free of the toxic haze,


and bequeaths to me that word

he might still save, tells me


to write something as good as breathing.



James Tolan

Spikes Driven into Oak


He must have come alone at night –

no mercenary soul to squawk

the story of what would seem the moon-

dropped madness of a man who knew

only bold and repeated injury could save

what would otherwise become

barrel, box, or beam, and not

the final pillar of a cathedral’s ruin.


To be wise you must do more than know

the hum of sap within your timbre

or an oak’s. You must own

the strength to drive spike after spike

into the fragrant body of what you love.

To save it from another’s necessity and saw.



James Tolan

No Bethlehem


No manger.

No blessed night.

Not one

bright star to guide us,

arms heavy with our gifts.


Her death, faceless as our God

and her, came without the customary

civilities and comforts. No last rites

to help her on her way. No wake

to mark her moment in the light.

No weeping mass. No funeral

or formal prayers. No kneeling or

bowed heads. No hymns

or hearse-led cars in slow procession.

No spades in earth, black veils

and dark suits, no clots of dirt

raining on her lacquered lid. No one

to cry with but ourselves. No memories

but those we can’t seem to stop inventing.




James Tolan

Poem Beginning with a Line by My Son Junuh


Every head should have a body.


Every body

           a soul the size

                      of a jukebox loaded


with tunes our bodies know without us.


My hips begin

           to remember

                      the pleasure I was born to


my mouth to hum the songs I never knew


I didn’t know.

            My body

                       moving alone among others moving


and singing until I am one with the other



            my soul sings to.

                       Each honkytonk hymn making holy


what my head forgot to love.



James Tolan



Inside this grave

womb that drums

and groans

as it takes





of my spine


I hear it

seem to say


go        /        you go            


don’t   /        you go


don’t go        /        don’t               


go now         /        don’t


I’m 52, inside

this calibrated tube, this

picture box

and singing machine


that will tell

my doctors if

the drugs and



marrow have

been killing

the tumors set

on killing me


go        /         don’t grow     


don’t    /         go


The droning

chant of this

temporary tomb

returns me


to Junuh at the ocean

only four

and screaming

into the waves


the two of us

charging, arms

flailing like

the fleshy swords they are


the water beating us

back before

we Charge! again,

roaring the whole time.


We can’t give up. We

have to fight, he says.

And back in we go

wild into the wake.


don’t go           /         don’t


go                  /          don’t               


go now            /          grow   


grow    /         you     


grow    /         no       


don’t    /        go                   


don’t    /        grow   


go        /        no






“Perfect, Wet with Poison” from Filched, (Dos Madres Press)

“Filched" first appeared in J Journal before Filched, (Dos Madres Press)

“Whiskey and the Rake of Mourning” first appeared in MARGIE before Mass of the Forgotten.  Copyright 2013 by James Tolan.  Reprinted by permission of Autumn House Press.


“Red Walls” first appeared in MARGIE before Mass of the Forgotten.  Copyright 2013 by James Tolan.  Reprinted by permission of Autumn House Press.

“Spoom” from Filched, (Dos Madres Press)

“Spikes Driven into Oak” first appeared in The American Journal of Poetry before Filched, (Dos Madres Press)

“No Bethlehem" first appeared in The American Journal of Poetry.


“Poem Beginning with a Line by My Son Junuh" from Filched, (Dos Madres Press)


“The MRI" from Filched, (Dos Madres Press)