Here we are talking about the playful
handling of an object
the negotiation with an imagined acceptable
That the poem is a toy
with the structure of insomnia
That garden being lit thus saved
just to know and not have
in local practice
given up that control
“in your dreams”
That time, that spiral marrow
(the space between shoulder blades)
that hyphen without reason
lashed to death by virtue=reason=virtue
(the reason between knowledge and fact)
I wash my feet
before going to bed
contrafact: one complete thought
p. xxv, Contrafact (Potes and Poets Press, Elmwood, CT 1996)
Toronto poet Norma Cole has been active in San Francisco for twenty years, and comes to poetry with a painter’s eye and translator’s ear. In her work, meanings unfurl and gesture, resonate, play emphatic and contrapuntal gamings with language’s fluency. She uses longer forms where the music of several structures can reverberate in ways that are often conceptual, minimal, where narrative is holographic, almost. Construction frameworks are visible, and language shifts, is not always mellifluous. As well there is always a strong probing of notions of responsibility and space: our responsibilities as humans to one another in social space.
The reader must enter her work like a swimmer into water; only after the swim can you say the lake was or was not cold, was deep, was weedy or dropped off, precipitous.
Here the aim is not to “represent” a world or give us truths or beauties, but to offer contrafacts, leaps and dis-junctions, particles that reverse, coalesce, echo. To Cole, such poetic attempts as “naming a world” would ring false – what does naming do, after all, but cement some possibilities while ignoring others?
But how does the poem, then, work?
The excerpt above has a regular motion, apart from the slippery positioning of the repeated word “that.” Here, poetry itself is a toy, a playful handling, a negotiation with what we imagine is acceptable (how often we are reduced by our failure to imagine!). It keeps us awake, as insomnia does – by repetitions and jags of perspective, shifts. It lights gardens. Dream control is not given up “in local practice.” We hold time in us. And “that,” as a particle of vocabulary, how it shifts in syntactic role! If the contrafact is “one complete thought” so the poem’s fact is perhaps: several and beckoning.
The key to such work is not that old query “what does the poem mean?” (it means: language is great joy!) but how does it awaken possibility? How does it amaze or interlock or call? Ask these questions of Cole freely; her work is rich and refractory, as life is.
Erín Moure's most recent book of poetry is O Cadoiro (Anansi, 2007)... her translation of Chus Pato's m-Talá will appear from Shearsman (UK) and BuschekBooks (Can) in April of this year, and in the fall two books, essays from NeWest, My Beloved Wager, and a collaborative book of authorial impossibilities written with Oana Avasilichioaei, Expeditions of a Chimæra (BookThug). This is one of five pieces to be reprinted here. They originally appeared in the Globe and Mail in 2000.