Norma Cole: 'Where Shadows Will' // 2009

street of the heart and / the street crossing it

My main man for poetry in Ithaca, New York — last residence prior to Oakland — was Joel Kuszai, a graduate of Buffalo’s poetics program and publisher of chapbooks (Meow Press) and print-on-demand perfect-bounds (Factory School). He published Taylor Brady’s Yesterday’s News, which blew my mind at the time, and brought back Alli Warren’s chapbook Hounds from a trip to San Francisco. It was Joel who told me I ought to go to hear Norma Cole when she came to Cornell. “You don’t want to miss a reading by Norma,” he said. (Not knowing any better, I missed it anyway.)

Thank God for second chances — Joel made me a gift of Norma’s two translations of Danielle Collobert, the unclassifiable and severe French writer rumored, I learned later, to have been involved with Samuel Beckett. These books did what poetry has been doing to me ever since — make me wonder what the hell I was reading. Sarah Kane was the only author I’d come across who combined such starkness of style with obvious deep passion and fury at the violence of the world, and particularly of patriarchy. Taylor, Alli, Norma: these were some of the mysterious hints I’d be tracking down upon arrival in the Bay.

I had one friend when I got to California, and he wasn’t a poet. Facebook and company had not yet colonized the world, so I scanned the listings of readings in the PoetryFlash newspaper I’d found at Moe’s Books until I found a name I recognized: Lyn Hejinian. She was reading at Timken Hall on the campus of the California College of the Arts. That was a long haul on mass transit from where I was living near Macarthur BART in Oakland, but like many a previous aspirant I decided the trek was worth it — little knowing that it would be the first of many, many schleps to Timken.

Lyn was introduced that night by Julian Brolaski, who I’d never met before. After the reading I was standing around awkwardly when I heard Julian mentioning to someone else that he would be reading the following night with — Taylor Brady! — at someplace called the Artifact Reading Series.  I cavalierly horned in to introduce myself and ask where that event would be taking place, and the next night there I was to hear Taylor and Julian and Dan Fisher, in my first visit to the best poetry reading series in the Bay Area.

Artifact’s defunct Blogger (last entry 2010) records that the series “was co-founded by Melissa Benham and Chana Morgenstern in November 2004 in the living room of their Mission District apartment.” In the blog’s “Interests” box the curators state: “our main intention in organizing this reading series was to bring together (socially & aesthetically) ‘younger’ innovative writers (prose, poetry, hybrid, performance, etc.) who may not have come together otherwise.” That was certainly me. I guess I might have met many of the writers I encountered at Artifact eventually, but it meant a lot to meet them all at once, and at a party, with great performances followed by everybody talking about everything all at once. It was an abiding inspiration for the many house reading series and fugitive one-offs I subsequently cocurated with Sara Larsen.

And Artifact, you may have guessed, is where I finally got to make good that reading of Norma’s at Cornell which I had missed. The night I heard her, some months after my first outing, Norma was presenting from her multimedia work SCOUT, published by Jocelyn Saidenberg’s Krupskaya Press.  Small Press Distribution still has five copies in stock, and specifies that the system requirements for the CD-ROM are Windows 98 and higher, Mac OS 9.2 and higher, and Mac OS 10.1 and higher. Screen resolution of at least 1. I remember being engaged and curious, but also not really getting it.  Afterwards I asked Taylor Brady, who had blurbed the publication, what it was all about. I can’t recall what he said.

Around this time, visiting the homes of poet-people, I began to see copies of Norma’s House of Hope broadside (in memoriam Montien Boonma). It was a poster version of an installation she’d made for the California Historical Society, the year before I’d come to California. Strips of paper descended from the ceiling, each printed with a quotation extracted from years of Norma’s notebooks. I can’t remember who gave me my copy, but it was on the wall wherever I was living for decades. I think of it as a poem, and it was the work that really helped me find my way into Norma’s practice as a poet and visual artist.

Meeting Norma and becoming her friend also helped. I was blessed to experience her generosity and her humility, behind which was enormous erudition. The range of reference in House of Hope attests to Norma’s vast and various reading. When we met up, we’d always talk about books and authors, and often the same shared favorites: Paul Celan, Samuel Beckett, Dante — and Jean Daive, whose work she continues to translate. (It turned out the volumes of Collobert were only a small piece of Norma’s oeuvre as translator.) She was the first poet I met for whom the practice of translation is inseparable from their artistic vocation and practice (Brandon Brown and Stacy Doris are others).  Her theoretical reflections on translation, taking on board Beckett’s translation of Rimbaud’s Bateau Ivre as well as Rene Daumal’s exposition of the Sanskrit grammatical doctrine of sphota, have remained with me for years.

I began to snap up her books as I came across them, including the almost-impossible-to-find Mace Hill Remap (an anagram of Michael Palmer), but Garrett Caples did me and everyone else a favor when he chose to publish Where Shadows Will, a volume of selected poems, as the inaugural selection of City Lights’ Spotlight imprint. In the editorial statement for the series, Caples stated: “We publish accomplished figures known in the poetry community as well as young emerging poets, using the cultural visibility of City Lights to bring their work to a larger audience.” The series has repeatedly, as in Norma’s case, made a judicious selection from the work of an established poet, allowing their work to be seen whole and their best qualities and specific quiddities to show forth.

For a long time I was under the impression that Norma’s title came from Dante (who appears, with Beckett’s lobster, in “M is for Moira”). She told me it was actually from her own work (the poem “You have to spit over your left shoulder”), but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t also be from the famous Florentine, who also makes an appearance in “Variations on some of Dante’s last lines.” This poem resonates not only with the dolce stil nuovo but also with Norma’s long friendship with Robert Duncan, whose last published work contains a series of “Dante Etudes.” In an atypically direct poem, “Dear Robert,” Norma addresses her friend to “see what’s happening,” and tell him she’s been reading his last book, GROUNDWORK: Before the War.

When I read Lisa Jarnot’s biography of Duncan I was struck by the presence, towards the end, of people I knew, who were close with the poet and assisted him as he grew sicker. Norma was one.  Like Jack Spicer, Duncan had always seemed like a figure from a prior epoch, untouchably distant.  But there was Norma in the book of his life — learning, helping, teaching, transmitting, gently, and with great authority.