Thursday, July 15, 2010
When does a master poet achieve that indelible (if impossible to generalize) state we call mastery? With a few poets, there is a moment that clearly announces the occasion, such as Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, an instance so defined that everything else by this same author can clearly be characterized as before or after. In many cases, the process appears so gradually you don’t see it, maybe don’t even guess that it’s coming, until one day you look at a book and it shines, transcendent, and you realize, looking backward, that’s this is something that has been there for some time. William Carlos Williams is like that. Spring and All glows from cover to cover, pulsing with so much life you can almost hear its heart beating from the bookshelf. But if you read his work over the previous ten years, much of it is terrific. He didn’t go straight from the awkward juvenile pseudo-Keats poems to “The rose is obsolete” at the age of 38.
I recall, when I saw the Georgia O’Keeffe exhibition of abstractions in New York last December, that there was a moment in 1926 when suddenly everything clicked & she stopped being the precocious protégé of Alfred Stieglitz & was from that moment forward completely herself, a master of painting. It has something to do with comfort using one’s materials, so that it’s apparent to anyone that one is capable of doing whatever one wants with the medium at hand. It stops being about grappling with the medium and instead becomes a question of the choices one makes.
There is a moment like that as well in Norma Cole’s Where Shadows Will: Selected Poems, 1988 – 2008. For me it occurs with the poem “: Well” on p. 46 – that colon is part of the title. It reads
Eating and shitting pearls, we
tell each other stories, listening for difference
A starfish sits on your foot, an effect of fog in London
There is a thin film of dust on the leaves. We
eat this dust
Life is eclipsed by work, an island of fire in the
burning sea, consolation of desire
The invisibilities would live inside the well
dropping their arms
“with such grace”
“As for sleep”
untimely in our summer house
the space refuses rationalization
This is a poem that will, I think, resist attempts at explication. Action is minimal: telling stories, eating dust, listening (an action so slight, at least from outward appearance, we might miss it entirely). There are the great foreign cities of Westciv, but there is an island also, a very isolate thing, related here to work & to desire. And there are moments of sheer magic: the starfish that sits on your foot, the creatures that cannot be seen but which we know (as only children can) live inside the well. There is an entire infrastructure invoked by that noun, as by island in the previous couplet, and neither have anything to do with London / or Paris. Tho they might with summer house. When I read that final line, I hear it both in a mathematical & a psychological sense.
This poem took my breath away when I first read it. Its tone reflects total confidence with the language. Cole knows how ungainly, how proselike, that truncated or Paris looks. In fact, that is precisely what she is after, something to offset the starfish magic, to lend the poem its dreamlike quality (hence, many lines later, sleep). That distance, could we but capture it, would indeed be the difference between the real & the remembered, between shitting pearls & islands of desire. Do I hear Olson here?
Offshore, by islands hidden the blood
jewels & miracles
The very first words of The Maximus Poems come very close to “: Well,” perhaps more so in spirit than as actual reference. It is only at the end of Cole’s poem that I realize both why the colon in the title as well as the absent article. This is not The Well, which it might have become in any lesser hands. Rather, the world of memory & desire, of stories, even of work, lead inevitably to it, an object or trope from childhood endowed with the powers of youthful imagination. That is why (& how) life, work & stories are entangled here, and why sleep is posed as “untimely” – this is about dream, not rest.
This is one of those poems that lets you know its writer could do / can do anything. I stand in front of it much the way I did the first time I saw the great Jackson Pollock No. 1 at the National Art Gallery in DC, tears streaming down my face just to realize that somebody could do this, that I live in a world where such grace is possible. Against all odds. Against tent cities in Haiti, fighting in Darfur or the valleys of Afghanistan, the poisoning of the entire Gulf of Mexico & the utter prevarication that inundates us the instant we turn on “the news.”
I read poetry, have read poetry my entire adult life, since I was 16 years old, precisely because from time to time I will come across something like this, which throws everything I know into relief. And I wonder if I am alone in “getting” just what a great poem this is. I hope not.
Going backward from “: Well” toward the beginning of this book, it seems apparent that Cole had been building up to such utter clarity for several years, more than I had recognized back when I lived in San Francisco & would see Norma regularly at readings & other literary occasions. And reading the remainder of Where Shadows Will, it’s evident that she has gone forward in her mastery. She has had health problems in recent years, but if there has been any diminution in her powers as an artist, it sure is not evident in this book. It makes me hungry to know what comes next.
Labels: Norma Cole