Norma Cole TO BE AT MUSIC: Essays & Talks (Omnidawn 2010)
Norma Cole’s essays and talks work less as trajectory than by accretion. This might frustrate a certain kind of reading, one looking for a direct thesis and development structure, but for those ready for a tour of thinking, which includes points and examples, this will be a rewarding read. I wish more essays were written in this style. Three exerpts:
Improvisation and progression are development, orienting each other. Development, which is motion, is involved with preference. Preference is involved with subjectivity and direction and creates expectation. Writing is involved with movement, development, subjectivity, preference and direction. Subjectivity, which does not depend on pronouns, occurs in movement, development, writing and preference.
Improvisation and progression, their motion, include rupture, discontinuity. Discontinuity is startling, shatters expectation. The questions become how great a surprise can you tolerate and how small a surprise can you register? Linkages, not always lineages, like lists and like submerged autonomic systems, have direction.
Oppen writes another, slightly different version of this explanation to his friend Julian Zimer, where the reference to the relationship between writing and family life, or more specifically, parental responsibility, is foregrounded:
“Julian: there were only some fifteen years that political loyalties prevented me from writing poetry. After that I had to wait for Linda to grow up. Yes: the poem says I don’t like to die. Papa couldn’t say it: Buddy [Oppen’s nickname] says it. Go lean on someone else.”
Go lean on someone else. Here is a glimpse of the fathomless crack between the biography and the life, between Papa and Buddy/George Oppen/Poet. This split is related to the startling moment where Mallarmé inscribes a copy of the sumptuous limited edition of L’Après-midi d’un Faune (“The Afternoon of a Faun”), illustrated by Manet, to his young son Anatole:
“ne le déchire pas
“To ’tole, don’t tear it, Stéphane Mallarmé.” The intimate nickname, the paternal finger raised in warning, the formal signature of the poet, all on the same page. There will be a time in the future of both these parent/poets where these distinctions blur. For Mallarmé, this will occur after his son’s death.
For George Oppen, there have been things he cannot imagine saying to his daughter. For instance, “Go lean on someone else.” From a crossed-out paragraph, “some ideas are not politically useful, or useful to the childhood of a daughter.” (Selected Letters 66)
But the poem will not abide such restrictions. There is a statement of this law with which many of us are already familiar. This is where Jack Spicer says, in his first Vancouver Lecture, 1965: “Like if you want to say something about your beloved’s eyebrows and the poem says the eyes should fall out, and you don’t really want the eyes to fall out or have any vague connection. Or you’re trying to write a poem about Vietnam and you write a poem about skating in Vermont.”
Curiously, in a letter from 1963, Oppen, responding to Gil Sorrentino, writes, “I haven’t read Spicer but I will.” Immediately following is a letter to Denise Levertov in which Oppen writes: “There are things we believe, or would like to believe, or think we believe, which ‘will not substantiate themselves in the concrete materials of the poem.’” (SL 81)
The asocial radicality claimed by and for poetry is explicit in the work of Oppen’s contemporary, Lorine Niedecker . . .
The state had come to us fragmentary. Our writing was unavoidable.