Natural Light by Norma Cole
(New York: Libellum, 2009)

Review by Jim Feast

A lot of bad (and occasionally good) poetry has flown under the banner of renewing readers’ feelings for language, not by refining that sense, but by disturbing and shattering it at some level, perhaps doing so by breaking with normal syntactical order, mixing together snippets of various discourse or by other means. This is passed off (with a degree of truth) as a postmodernist reflection on our current, unsettled times, running from the end of the Cold War, with the collapse of so many former Communist states, and continuing with the stormy transition in which (as some see it) China and the other Asian dragons are replacing the U.S. as world hegemon.

To me, the problem with most of such writing, the bad sort, is that it has no intrinsic reason for being. In it, twisted language is laid on top of material that in no thought-through way is added to or subtracted from by the use of this technique.

In another place, I have written of how poet Zhang Er (in Bob Holman’s magnificent translation) uses a degree of fragmentation in her verse in a deliberate and passionate way so as to convey certain facets of city life. From another, more somber direction, Norma Cole also pairs style and content in her extraordinary new book, Natural Light. Instead of the streetscapes of the Chinese poet, Cole concentrates on describing embattled locations: war zones, trains on which are perched displaced persons, prisons. For her, the elements of strain and dislocation in the language aptly correspond to the subject: a strife-torn world.

But there’s more than that. Much more. For, in distinction again from lesser postmodernists, her three-part work charts a carefully delineated progressive fracturing of language, each section graphing a different, worse breakdown.

But before explaining this more fully, it might be excusable to give some thought to why it is that so few poets use this postmodern form profitably. In other words, why are there are so many bad describers of chaos? It can hardly be a question of skill or perspicuity, since these are often not lacking. Rather, I think, we should follow Schiller in his reasoning on a similar topic and put it down to the question of the poet’s ability to maintain a moral center, which means to hold an unruffled relation to the ideal. In “On Naïve and Sentimental Poetry,” Schiller, in discussing satire, but in a way that applies to all poets, puts it like this: “Pathetic satire must, therefore, always derive from a temperament that is vigorously permeated by the ideal.” Later, he characterizes, with equal justice, the poetic spirit, saying it “must flow out of a burning impulse for the ideal.”

What he is talking of here is not narrow adherence to any particular religious or philosophical doctrine, but a poet’s sure sense of what positive relations, of cooperation and communitarian effort, humans are capable, capable though little enough in evidence in our modern age. Without holding firm to such an ideal, Schiller avers, the poet will never be able to join cogency with intensity.

Obviously, Cole fits the bill here, possessing, we can assume, an impulse for the ideal, which allows her the vision to notate a parallel between a feeling for our times (the early 2000s when national savagery and xenophobia run amuck) and the increasing collapse of any language that would be able to cope with this blasted environment.

In the first part of Cole’s book, which is titled “Pluto’s Disgrace” – Pluto is revealed at the titular deity of plutocracy – the poems are cut apart, juxtaposing such things as data from astronomy, news reports on countries’ building walls to keep out foreigners, and observations of people moving through refugee camps, fleeing cities torn down by firepower. All this is rendered in stripped-down, collaged pieces that sometimes crystallize into startling vignettes as in:

____Horizontal (bosses)
____Vertical (miners)
____All silent
____In the living rock

Other times, she distills a bleak wisdom in a sharp couplet: “the universal message // more massacre.” Or she builds to a devastating conclusion as in this poem, which begins with a bombardier looking at the map of a city and ends:

____payload the dreamshapes
____in astronomical units
____a nice gentle city – there
____must be one , soldier

Part 2 of the book shifts move heavily to sober description, using a language that is less strident, though not without an undercurrent of dread. Take the following stanza:

____Six men walking forward on a country road
____all wearing suits, coats, vests, and ties. Upon
____his shoulders, one of the men carries a man with
____no legs. The man with no legs is wearing a
____bathrobe. In a landscape a train passes from
____top right to bottom left. People are packed inside
____as well as on the roof and holding on at the sides.

You can see this writing is seemlier than that found in the previous section. In Part 1, the writing, though less linear and adroit, rises to spikes of anguish while the language of Part 2 is less flamboyant as if the product of a numbed sensibility, one worn down by the relentless slaughter of the innocents chronicled in the previous part.

Part 3, “Collective Memory,” is complex, but one particular degeneration of language is particularly striking, namely, the undermining of word association. Look at this sequence:

____Metaphysical physicist (string theorist)
____Psychoactive physicists
____Psychotic episode

Speaking specifically, I read this as suggesting that physics, which at this point in the book can only be understood as the science of bomb-making, is the first word on a list which is determined not, as it might have been in the past, through random sound connections, but because physics is now master, and other words fall under its domination, which extends from the physical to the psychic. To speak more generally, since such lists appear for the first time in this section where they play many roles, this suggests that, in a time filled with terror and counter-terror, even the innocence of word association (including the relative innocence of Freudian play with the sexual backgrounds of such usages) has been eliminated. It is subsumed under the aggression that now dominates all aspects of living. More direly, Cole suggests that the very couplings of the mind, the pathways that guide thought, are being retooled to reflect a world so ruled by violence.

So, in Cole’s chilling and riveting Natural Light, each section takes us on a further turn down the spiral in which communication is replaced by force. Still, paradoxically enough, she challenges all the resources of language to eloquently and movingly make this point.