Natural Light
Norma Cole

Paula Koneazny

American Book Review, March/April 2010

Norma Cole accomplishes a great with an almost minimalist poetry that opens outward both politically and materially from the personal and close-at-hand to the global and universal. Yet, characteristically, in her latest collection, Natural Light, the dynamics of sound are primary. As with "tap…/talk…/Town” and “Here…heart/…hay (harvest)” in the opening poem, “Water is Best,” alliteration, assonance, and elision both counter and accord with dire political realities. Each successive poem supports the claim made by the editors at Libellum Books that Natural Light can be characterized as a book in which “Music controls the tone…as everyday life takes place under a political specter.”

    The first of the book’s three sections, “Pluto’s Disgrace,” is composed of a series of short poems best described as elemental, in that they concern elements such as iron, “Fe / Atomic number 26 / Atomic weight 55.845 (2),” and are themselves vital and necessary. This sequence begins with “Water is Best,” not the pristine or primordial water of spring, ocean, lake, or river, but water that flows from a tap through metal or plastic, polluted water from the pipes of “Poison Town.” Poison Town stands in for all the makeshift homes and holding areas filled with those displaced by war or other disaster. The dominant element in the poems of “Pluto’s Disgrace,” however, is not so much water as iron and its derivatives. The second poem in this section, “In Fishville,” begins with a series of verbal extractions that mirrors the extraction of metal from the Earth:

the dice are loaded with
eggs over easy on buttered
whole wheat toast or without

the eggs, no butter, no toast, no
table, no water, no glass.

This mining through negation ends with “barbed wire, mesh, bricks” and by implication, pit, camp, prison. On the other hand, we are reminded in “And Many Types of Stars” that

metal is very
reactive, rapidly
corrodes, has

magnetic properties,

a trio of more ambiguous attributes that could just as easily describe the poems in this collection.

Norma Cole’s poetry creases a seam, teeters on the edge of that no-place
where, in the poem “Concrete,” something as benign as a fence is seen first as “security fence, separation / fence” (not quite threatening, still recalling Robert Frost’s dictum that “Good fences make good neighbors”) then as “security barrier, separation / barrier,” and finally as “annexation wall.” The words “separation” and “security” carry so much baggage—from notions of co-existence to the hurtful consequences of a notorious American idiom “separate but equal,” as well as the fear and discord often disguised as “security.” “Here a wall // for instance, down the middle / of the main street” brings to mind all the formally and informally named Division Streets, some of which actually divide one neighborhood from another. These walls, however damaging, are largely imagined, whereas the wall Cole specifically names is “Sharon’s Wall,” not at all a figurative one. The word concrete here refers both to the material from which this physical wall has been built and to the transformation of an abstract idea of separation into the fact of such separation.

Films, both as source and as the ghost of form, unwind through Cole’s poems.
For example, the scene in the movie Five Easy Pieces (1970) in which Jack Nicholson orders breakfast in a café flickers as an afterimage in the poem “In Fishville,” quoted above; while “Murnau’s ‘Sunrise,’” one of the last films of the silent era, is specifically mentioned in “Moving Time.” In these poems, movies seem halted in flagrante delicto; they are not so much moving pictures as arrested ones, stilled for our inspection, frame by frame, and at close range. At the center of the poem “Missing Person,” Cole includes a prose description of what could well be a scene from a movie: “a man with a black and white umbrella in one hand, a full-length translucent skeleton in another. across the street the second floor is empty, no window shades. a second tier word like compost, not abstract.” Whatever action there is in this scene comes afterwards, implied in the word compost. Cole intimates that everything described here, both the reality portrayed and the medium of its portrayal, will eventually break down.

The final poem in this first section, “Plutocracy,” brings us back to the notion of
“Pluto’s Disgrace.” Cole suggests that plutocracy, a system in which wealth and political power are synonymous, characterizes our own political/economic system of “have-/mores” and, assumedly, many more who have less.

While the title of the second section of the book, “In Our Own Backyard,” may bring to mind the nature magazine for young children Your Big Backyard, the poem more closely resembles one of Romare Bearden’s urban landscape paintings, one in which the façade of a building has been cut away to reveal domestic interiors, while out on the street, public life carries on. Cole juxtaposes

Vast numbers of people, faces
turned to the east. Four nurses holding four
swaddled babes, four bottles.

Six men walking forward on a country road
all wearing suits, coats, vests, and ties

with “One man, naked, his back turned to the / window, light on inside.” Moving from one vignette to the next, it isn’t clear whether the poet is directing our gaze toward a series of individual paintings or, rather, specific areas of a single large collage.

“Collective Memory,” the third and final section of the book, revels in slippage from one word to the next. Indeed, the word “slippage” itself comes into play in a poem where the line “for all intents and purposes I has slippage” precedes “slip / slippage / slam / slam dunk / applies.” Such lexical gymnastics are practiced by many writers and often function as a kind of free-write or brainstorming exercise. However, although “Collective Memory” may feel like a light-hearted jam session, it reiterates some of the earlier concerns of “Pluto’s Disgrace.” Here, the “applies” quoted above are closely followed by “to Syria, from the Golan Heights.” Numerous references to people and ideas, including “Negt & Kluge / Sappho / Borges / Cortázar / Pindar / BavĨar / or Bavchar,” add complexity to the sheer joyfulness of the word play. Particularly intriguing is the inclusion of “Negt & Kluge,” as these sociologists are best known for theorizing a plurality of public spheres and public disclosures. Cole seems to be working out within her poems a similar set of notions or relationships: interior vis-à-vis exterior, public versus private. In turn, readers might consider whether and how a poem is a private or a public space, whether its concerns are personal, communal, or both.

The poet poses questions to herself and her readers: “Why would I like the word moving like a cripple among the leaves and why would I like to repeat the words without meaning?” In a poetry infused with music, with language as sound, she proposes that words do not come to us devoid of meaning, nor do poets write without intention, and such meanings and intentions are multiple. Poems, she implies, are not simply aesthetic events but also civic ones. Such an assessment is all the more astounding when one considers just how syntactically spare her poetry can be, often simply a sequence of words connected by sound or suggestion. Each word in Norma Cole’s poems leads many lives, however; from elemental rock to wire fences to apartheid; from the fun and stars to “the children and the / women who were / trying to shield them.”