30 August 2010

Norma Cole in Buffalo, 2005

[Note: I recently came across a file of "scholarly introductions" I delivered in Buffalo and thought to post some of them here. Over the years I've thought of expanding some of these into more "essayistic" form, but I maintain fidelity to these introductions as short critical blasts!] 

I made myself promise to forego introductions contingent on technical, scientific jargon I do not understand. But this specific introduction is different. My brother the physicist, has corroborated my findings and assures me that my reading, however tentative, can be confirmed by cold, hard scientific fact.

And so, the hologram:

The hologram is a three dimensional image produced by light-wave interference patterns, most often created by uniform laser sine waves. It’s helpful to think “interference” here in terms of the waves produced by the contact of a stone on the still surface of a pond. Say you drop two such stones. The nexus of interference, then, is where the two sets meet, crest, and still.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. This is how the hologram works: A single laser beam is split to create an interference beam and an object beam. As the beams are refracted, they are reflected against mirrors and sent through special amplifying lens, only to meet again on the surface of a unique film stock that is consequently saturated by the light of the lasers. The object beam, however, is delayed in reaching the film, because it first “impinges” on an object, carrying the information of its distorted shape to the film stock. Ultimately, “After development, if the hologram is illuminated by a beam of light from the direction of the reference beam, the object beam is recreated, and the object “appears.”

Which is all to say that an image is dimensionalized as consequence of a refracted force that amplifies the very manner in which the object is presented. In a sense, the hologram is a kind of distorted mimesis. Enter Norma Cole.


Move the Anarchy, there is a Sky musing on us. Performing
letters. This is vision image couldn’t hold. Radically negative
dread. It’s not about degrees. (10)

“This is vision image couldn’t hold.” I’m struck by this line, not only because it is a concise and startling way to speak of the work of poetry, but because it fundamentally characterizes Cole’s craft.

Couple this stanza with her further musings on process in the extraordinary poem The New Arcades: A Pocket Guide, and I think we’re on to something. She writes,

E “intervals,” we are the shape memory alloy, ultra-resilient, available and lit up

H room for difficulty, complexity, resistance, as in “please let me be misunderstood”

I in terms of the generation of a new system’s generations of systems

K the glass roof’s suspension of disbelief

S Hey sis, is freedom from memory freedom from sociality?

I see Cole’s work as the testing grounds of a vision that inundates image, a vision that saturates mere inscription by overdetermining presentation. Her vision dimensionalizes the image, escapes its arbitrary thresholds (especially fidelity to a single Idea), through a pattern of interference that splits phenomena from experience. It disrupts one to one correspondence, whether it be the thralldom of idea to form or the suture of memory to being-in-time. In short, Cole’s poetry attacks the image as a sine wave of lyrical distortion.

In My Bird Book, published by Littoral Books in 1991, the un-truth of memory is tested by a being-historical now-ness; the image is duplicated, doubled, made a palimpsest of mimetic inscriptions maximalized to the threshold of impotence. Phantom birds sing a present delayed from the presentation of its past:

your Memorance of Me package
stand stage deliver (14)

The lyric disrupts history’s composition of the present, and through the refraction of a memory from its truth, the apparition appears as unbounded vision, rising forth from the disaster piling around our feet. She writes,

separation is the first fact
Happenstance wrote how a letter became a body of forgetfulness flaring // (39)

In her collection Mars, Cole cites Deleuze:

“Your secret can always be seen on your face and in your eyes.
Lose your face. Become capable of loving without remembering,
without phantasm, without taking stock” (78)

Loving without remembrance is an ethical imperative in these poems; “oneself” becomes “the spacer,” reverberating between the object and its presentation. This directive is put to the test in Cole’s aptly titled prose poems “Artificial Memory” in her newest collection, Spinoza in Her Youth. But it is perhaps most obvious in the title poem of that volume, a homage to the blind photographer, Evgen Bavcar. She writes,

Afternoons in cities have colors as do voices and faces. Individuals
sitting for their portrait seek their subjectivity in the objectification
of the gaze of the photographer “How do I look.” Here is
the camera’s inanimate lens, and here is the operator whose gaze
is of an unprecedented interiority. What to “present” to this
circumstance. He tells her to look at his hand, an oblique vertical,
doubt’s exclusion. (38)

How to present interiority without relying on what’s known? For Cole, the ethical injunction of mimesis does without re-presentation—it dimensionalizes the nonidentical by over-amplifying the very process by which we come to experience, to know, to co-respond. This effort multiplies the resonance between sensing and knowing, drawing on the very surface of the image an image turning to face itself.

It is my great honor to introduce Norma Cole, newly materialized in her current three-dimensional form.

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