Wednesday, November 28, 2012



Where Shadows Will: Selected Poems 1988-2008 by Norma Cole
(City Lights, San Francisco, 2009)

[First published in Steven Fama’s Blog and LARYNX GALAXY (Black Widow Press, 2012))

From “Mint, Mnemosyne, And Metal: Making Language Tangible”

Norma Cole was recently in town and I enjoyed her reading and bought her book, Where Shadows Will: Selected Poems 1988-2008. I have had a special fascination for Norma’s work for some time now and this is why: the words have a shiny, tangible brilliance, like knives. Not ordinary knives or hunting knives or those bizarre commando knives I sometimes see in the windows of the Army Navy Surplus store downtown, but Japanese knives, those beautifully balanced knives with linen textured resin handles and blades sharp enough to cut a proton in two.

The key word is ‘tangible.’ There is a peculiar sense in reading some poems that the words have three-dimensions, like rocks or gems, and that the phrases have been soldered together, so that their structure resembles the filigree of brooches or pins. This is not new. There has been a notable drive toward this presentation of words since at least Chaucer, in the western world. Its most salient address appeared with Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons, nearly a hundred years ago, in 1914, and Sherwood Anderson’s famous description of their effect on him as “rattling words one can throw into a box and shake, making a sharp, jingling sound, words that, when seen on the printed page, have a distinct arresting effect upon the eye, words that when they jump out from under the pen one may feel with the fingers as one might caress the cheeks of his beloved.”

I don’t know how to describe this phenomenon neurologically -- that would take the expertise of an Oliver Sacks -- but the sensation is acute, quite real.

What is the importance of this? Does it have any importance? To this day, Gertrude Stein is not generally the part of any college curriculum. And poets who choose to focus on the materiality of the language as opposed to its emotional charge or ability to convey sentiments and ideas still find themselves marginalized in the hapless alleys and lonely shelves of the small press ghetto.

Words, like money, are intended to symbolize ideas and experience so that we don’t have to lug around sacks or wagons full of objects we might want to assemble in order to make a sentence like “I want to marry you” or “I would like to eat that meat you are cooking.” It would be a complication to try to communicate the beauty of a sunset with two shoes and a rabbit pelt. So what is the point of setting one’s immediate feelings aside to communicate the very medium you rely upon to communicate anger, love, or hunger?

I don’t know. I just find it fascinating.

My real inquiry is focused on how poets like Cole are able to achieve this effect. In “Nano-Shades” the effect is apparent in her coupling of images and the way she delicately coerces attention on the individual words. It is pertinent that a “nano” means “extremely small.” A nanosecond, for instance, is one-billionth of a second. And we are talking shades here. The shade of a nano, which would not be sufficient to cool a Death Valley gnat, much less play in the retina of an attentive reader.

Or would it?

Here is the poem:

the male deliberately positions himself
over his lover’s fangs

the key is gravity
blankets, personal items

and clothing, extra-solar planets (class M)
like our sun, the memory

of history, empty or full
scared the daylights out of the name

The extreme dissimilarity between the first pair of lines, the male poised over his lover’s fangs, followed by the brusque non-sequitur (nano-sequitur?) “the key is gravity,” which itself is followed by the illogical blankets and personal items, generates a circuitry of hectic and broad associations. The human mind craves meaning, and will look for meaning where none apparently exists. So that in a situation such as the one created here, where the circuit is not, and cannot, ultimately be completed in any way that would satisfy the tenets of mathematics or logic, the process is ongoing. It is a virtual perpetual motion machine.

It’s important to point out that this would fizzle were it not for the artistry in its making. A lot of poetry I find online and in the few magazines and chapbooks that have made it to print attempts to imitate this structure, but is rarely successful, because it’s either too affected and obvious, or too oblique to work. The reason “the key is gravity/ blankets, personal items” works is because we can immediately see the folds of blankets, have felt blankets when we folded or slept under them. Blankets have a strong association with gravity; we are generally supine in relation to them. “Personal items” is a little more teasing, a little less obvious, but here I see perfume bottles, a can of shaving lather, little handheld mirrors, a set of keys, pocket change and combs, all arranged on a bureau, or bathroom countertop. These things may not pop into Stephen Hawking’s mind when he thinks about gravity, but I see a vivid relation there.

“The memory/ of history” is funny. Aren’t history and memory pretty much the same thing? Or has history disappeared, leaving a nano-shade of itself in memory? What a peculiar thought.

“Scared the daylights out of the name” is pretty funny, too. Is a name alive? Is a name an organism? Does it have scales? Cells? Cytoplasm? Are syllables cilia? The cartoonish character of a name (and what name? Jim? Martha? Galicia? Clarksville?) having the daylights scared out of it adds a comical and hallucinatory dimension to this curious work.


John Olson, a resident of Seattle, is the author of eight books of poetry and prose poetry, including Larynx Galaxy; Backscatter: New and Selected Work; THE NIGHT I DROPPED SHAKESPEARE ON THE CAT; OXBOW KAZOO; FREE STREAM VELOCITY; ECHO REGIME; Eggs & Mirrors; Logo Lagoon; and Swarm of Edges. He has also published three novels: SOULS OF WIND, which was shortlisted for a Believer Book of the Year Award in 2008; The Nothing That Is; and THE SEEING MACHINE. Some of his articles and essays have appeared in The Stranger and Seattle Weekly.

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