12 October 2012

CJ Martin on Norma Cole

The following is CJ Martin's review of Norma Cole's new Win These Posters and Other Unrelated Prizes Inside, just out from Omnidawn. This was published in the most recent American Book Review (available here), and is currently up at CJ's tumblr Rhyme Eats the Words. Here's Chris: 

Norma Cole’s new book of poems is a fact book. Two long sequences—“14000 Facts” and “More Facts”—comprise the bulk of what’s here. The poems are angular, explosive. Their crystalline syntax offers nothing short of an encounter with the remarkable world. But to clarify what’s at stake in even the poet’s own efforts at observation, Cole offers the opening poem, “Facetime,” as cautionary envoi:

Santa from a tank, sun over
The minarets
Signs of identity
Soundtrack—by and by

When the morning comes
Heartfelt thanks […]
(Win 13)

Even if American crusaders for democracy abroad startle at the fact that not everyone says thanks for the tanks, Cole’s poem doesn’t startle, but it sets out regardless. The inquiry that embarks blithely on a fact-finding mission conceals a threat that Cole works to lay bare throughout this book. Despite being fundamentally shared, event is multiple, refracted across cultures and continents, and mediated by observation itself—so that to seek out fact in a militarized world means not only sifting through the remains, but knowing that one’s efforts are likely implicated in the destruction.

In the aftermath of a (jolly) tank invasion, there’s this dance:

[…] One knee bent, the other
Straight out behind, as if

You turn suddenly
Deep into a pirouette
But instead stay still
Then fold to the ground

Arms, legs folded as fact […]
(Win 13)

Lightness is crucial in this work that strives to hold disparate facts aloft. The fallen body, “folded as fact,” also lifts off in an abstraction of body. The dance “you” do leaps nimbly across lines, but it’s also a danse macabre (i.e. your last). I linger on this first poem because it exemplifies the locomotion of Cole’s book: at every turn the poems turn, double, double back, pirouette then fold, often lighting on travel or exploration or thematizing a kind of itinerancy. Win navigates, divagates.

Throughout, Cole complicates our sense of how to establish a context for understanding the world, how to assemble a sketch of what happened, positing that, above all, our findings needn’t presume to be final. In “More Facts,” she clarifies: “illusions // questions / are facts” (Win 79). In “14000 Facts,” she adds translation to that list, which in her rendering multiplies a text, rather simply relocating it. Cole points to two different translations of a phrase from Song of Solomon 2:4: “He mistook ‘and his banner over me / was love’ for ‘set love in order in me’” (Win 32). Rather than test whether we recognize which phrase is a translation from the vulgate, these lines simply stress the mistake of conflating one phrase with another. But this is an observation, not a corrective: misunderstanding, mistake is a fact.

The book’s title resists grouping all of the contents under one heading in order to reassert relation itself, highlighting the interrelatedness of seemingly discrete parts of a world. Cole’s is a prosody of groups, multitudes. Though I’ve called the first poem an envoi, it’s also a piece in a set, one or two facts among many.

Part of what Cole curates in “Facetime” is arrangements of words as sets of sounds or textures—as part of a sonic progression moving alongside whatever’s taking shape in the syntactic or semantic meaning, and hovering just outside etymology. The path from “tank” to “Heartfelt thanks” is a traversal of sets announced from the very first word (“Santa”). Likewise, the move from “fact” to “maps” serves as this book’s manifest: one can’t simply catalogue without encountering the innumerable world, since a catalogue itself is dynamic, an encounter with “Things of time and space” (Win 13).

The book deploys several formal strategies for navigating that encounter. In the first long sequence, “14000 Facts,” Cole explores the line as concretized, adopting segmentivity itself as an organizing principle. Just a few poems in, the poet offers a succinct manifesto on the sculptural nature of poetic lines as perceptive units:

(Not the other way round)

thought shards
lined up

little ships
lit up
(Win 26)

Then later in the same sequence, these “little ships” measure time, thus serving as a stand-in for musical measure:

Slow walking, play
of evening, the silver
ships measuring time

Venus, a sliver
of time
beyond words
(Win 45)

To move from “silver ships” (as measure) to “a sliver of time beyond words” is to locate sound as a material slippage. Attached to words are “beyond words” (i.e.—sounds in excess of words, from the beyond, for the beyond). Though the poet doesn’t presume to see clearly, she does at least hazard an attempt to line up the little ships of perception.

If the procession of basically discrete poems in “14000 Facts” develops segmentivity itself as a perceptive strategy, “More Facts” relies on narrativity and propulsion, despite its visual similarity to the first sequence. The poems occupy as little page space as the ones in “14000 Facts,” but phrases often continue past the page break in twists of syntax and sense that send the reader reeling, rereading. One illustration of this poetics of vertigo (to borrow the title from Cole’s 1998 George Oppen Memorial Lecture) appears as part of two ostensibly separate poems:

[…] waiting at a bus stop

waving at a little
boy in a floppy orange
hat running

[page break]

towards soldiers […]
(Win 61-2)

The turn across the page break is a jolting image of contemporary life hurdling into a war zone. Alongside this sped-up narrative, sound itself speeds up, spills over:

[…] just
the sight
the eyes


[page break]


hanging on
to sound
Milwaukee […]
(Win 71-2)

Confronting words as physical shapes produces a lexical drift in these lines, so that what builds is an accumulation of sound. What follows is a plea: “tell me about / the driftless region” (Win 72). We can retrace our steps from “tell me” back through “Milwaukee” and the sound set that precedes it, but the poem turns here (stops on a dime) to consider how to proceed where there’s no discernable path. So there’s lexical drift, which is dizzying, but then there’s driftless (a “driftless region” being a geography where there’s little or no evidence of glacial drift). In “the driftless region,” bearing threatens to be entirely lost, evidence occluded. So there’s a heartening humanism in the next turn (across another page break) from “compass” to “compassion” (Win 72-3).

Cole’s book closes with a turn to more liminal perceptive realms in “If I’m Asleep,” which opens with a cloudy dream dialogue where the separation between the speaker and “the other” is barely discernable, as if spoken “with our general mind” (Win 89). In prose, scattered notes, lists and lines, the poem confronts, finally, the barely legible world. Cole offers Carroll Pickett, a former Death House Minister at a TX prison, as someone who can attest to a clarity beyond words: “‘you can hear the difference between pain and just air’” (Win 97). These poems inhabit a world where illegibilities do not necessarily limit understanding or engagement (our world).

“Existing in the moment,” reads a quote from Peter Sloterdijk inserted between the last two poems in Win, “means having survived oneself up to that point” (Win 83). I would argue that the formal strategies traversed in Cole’s book are attempts to arrive at such a state, which Lebanese writer Jalal Toufic might call “dying before dying”—the state wherein one is capable of “piercing sight.”

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