Saturday, August 29, 2009

Norma Cole, Joseph Ceravolo, Clark Coolidge

Mint, Mnemosyne, And Metal:
Making Language Tangible

-- An Essay by John Olson --

Introductory Note:
Today the glade – this here blog – presents an essay by John Olson.
This is the essay’s first publication.


Norma Cole was recently in town (editor’s note: that’s Seattle, where Olson lives) 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.


Another poet who is superb at promoting the materiality of language is Joseph Ceravolo. I remember the intense joy I felt when I first read “Drunken Winter” sometime in the 70s.
Oak! oak! like like
it then
   cold some wild paddle
so sky then;
flea you say
“geese geese” the boy
June of winter
of again
Oak sky
What I like immediately about this poem was that it was just so completely GOOFY. It sounded like speech, but who would ever begin a statement by shouting oak! oak! and follow it with like, like? Oak is hard. ‘Like” has no substance whatever. And here they are linked, as if there were an actual equivalence between the two.

And there is. They’re both words. Oak (the sound of which is strangely compelling as it begins with the open-o and ends with the hard velar ‘k’) is a sign, not the actual wood, though that is what immediately pops up in the mind, the weight of it, heft of it, smell of oak. It’s grain. It’s gnarly trunk and big star-like leaves. Then, ‘like.’ Which frequently has the habit of weakening a statement by comparison. “My heart is like a red red rose” is not as firm as “My heart is a rose.” Or, as a predicate, “I like you” does not have the same force as “I love you.”

“it then” is just plain silly.

As is “cold some wild paddle.” And yet I see, feel, hear, a paddle smack the water in the wild woods of northern Ontario.

“so sky then.” I would like to say that to someone sometime. “so sky then” you fool.

“flea you say” I hear in return, as if in some Dada-like fusion with Shakespeare.

“‘geese geese’ the boy” sounds like something out of a North American Indian tale.

“June of winter” could be a balmy day in mid-December.

“of again” makes sense but I could not tell you why.

“Oak sky” completes the ring cycle of this mini-opera.

I was not surprised when I discovered that Joseph Ceravolo had made a living as a civil engineer. Many of his poems, as Norma Cole’s, feel constructed. Assembled. The syntax is always a bit off, or sometimes way off, as if the construction were not yet complete, or Ceravolo wanted us to feel the torque in the metal supports, the tensions and strains that exist in grammar.

Added to this is an opposite effect, spontaneous, emotional outbursts, such as “O targets!” or “Yet prize!” or “conch of frolick!” Ceravolo’s wikipedia entry links him to the conversational style of the New York poets, and there is some of that, certainly, but how many times do we say in conversation “Be world to any apples!” or “O candy for our sore” or “How many steps to take to mud around, across, Ixtapalapa green canal?” If we could enter into conversation with fire hydrants and dogs, I imagine that these are the kinds of sentences we would be examining in the parliaments of our minds.


Clark Coolidge is, perhaps, the Santa Claus of this genre, the ultimate cornucopia, horn of Amalthea. He is abundance personified. He mints words with the solid determination of the coin dies in the Denver mint. The words have the tangibility and beauty of bone. Yet they read smoothly. They do not have the delicacy of Cole, or the engineered torque of Ceravolo. Their energy is different, more like bebop, or drumming.

In “How To Open,” from Own Face, one of his earlier books, Coolidge cleverly reverses the usual “window to the world” quality of most writers who want us to see through the words to the adventure, the drama, as if transparency were greatest virtue writing could possess.
the twig has hug from the whole porch a season
a break in the bottle of amberhood sauce
a gleam without a cleavage or a typer to trammel it
here is the window that there are the words.
In the first line, Coolidge has robbed ‘hug’ of its properties as a predicate and given it the quality of a noun. ‘Hug’ is a pun on hung, but far more interesting than a mere pun because a literal hanging is not as metaphorically charged as feeling the energy of ‘hug’ in that twig. It is not just hanging. One feels as if it has been fully and firmly encompassed by its surrounding on the porch.

“Typer” is redolent of ‘typewriter.’ Own Face was first published in 1978, when writers used typewriters. Those old enough to remember using typewriters remembers how noisy they were, the clackety-clack-clack-clack of the metal keys striking the paper wrapped around the platen. Writing had real solidity then.

It astonishes and baffles me that the younger writers are content to read their work online. I’m slowly coming around to the idea that publication online is as meaningful as publication on paper, but the lack of tangibility is disturbing. I enjoy the fact that work is so much more readily accessed electronically, at least by those privileged enough to have access to computers, but I am able to see a linkage between the kind of unrealities our economy has taken with the pixilated giddiness of virtual reality. There is a potential for harm there.

I should be happy, too, that so many graduates of the MFA programs have chosen to go in the direction of Cole, Ceravolo, and Coolidge. Yet so much of it seems slipshod and precious when it should be hot with intention, as if the soldering iron had just been taken away and the sentences were still smoking.

What is the solution? Miners were able to distinguish true gold from fool’s gold (iron pyrite) by biting it. True gold is malleable. A tooth will leave a dent. You can’t bite words, but you can assay their quality in other ways. Have sex with them. Cook them. Eat them. Incorporate them into your living. It is a personal matter, not a science. Subjective, not objective. And therein lies the frustration: how to give palpability to what is essentially a mental, intellectual experience?

“There’s no way out but in,” writes Coolidge in “The Cave Remain,” “Grunt and compare the stretched body to rock in its literal sluice.”


End Notes and Sources

Norma Cole’s Where Shadows Will: Selected Poems 1988-2008 was published this year (2009) by City Lights.

A podcast of Norma Cole reading at Moe’s Books in Berkeley, on May 18, 2009, can be heard via a mp3 file that will play simply by clicking here.

Sherwood Anderson’s comment about the writing of Gertrude Stein (“rattling words one can throw into a box . . .”) was first published at page 7 of his Introduction to Stein’s Geography And Plays (Boston: the Four Seas Company, 1922).

The most readily available book of Joseph Ceravolo poetry is The Green Lake Is Awake (Coffee House Press 1994), a volume of selected poems. This book includes “Drunken Winter,” the Ceravolo poem Olson discusses in his essay.

Clark Coolidge’s Own Face was first published in 1978 by Angel Hair, and then reprinted in 1993 by Sun & Moon. New and used copies of the re-print are readily available (click here to see).

John Olson has published numerous reviews and essays on poetry. Examples on-line include his recent essay on experimental poetry (click through here); a short essay regarding poetry as
Lightning on Paper” (click here); a review of Clayton Eshleman’s Everwhat (click here, if you please); and a longer essay on Bob Dylan’s Tarantula (go via clicking here). Olson’s most recent book of poems is Backscatter: New and Selected Poems (Boston: Black Widow Press, 2008).


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