Thursday, 2 May 2013

The Poet, Inturped:
A Review of Peter Norman's Water Damage

Water Damage
Peter Norman
(Mansfield, 2013)

The last poem in Peter Norman’s debut collection At the Gates of the Theme Park (Mansfield, 2010), entitled “Judgment,” provides an apt entry point into the work of this remarkable poet. I quote the full poem:

I saw a girl begging for change.
I gave her change, for she was beautiful.
But nothing shifted: next day she was there
still beautiful and begging. And the eye
she cast was cold, its judgment terrible.

My boss returned the annual report.
I’d written it. He’d circled things in red
that needed fixing. So I fixed those things
and sent it back. He sent it back again.
A dozen circles blotted every word.

Three storks delivered babies to my door.
The babies made much noise and ate much food.
What can you do? What else would you have done?
I fed them food and bore the noise
and one by one they crawled to better homes. 

As throughout Norman’s work, the plainspokenness here conceals great linguistic and even (for lack of a better word) philosophical depth. Notice, for instance, how the first stanza collapses the two definitions of change—i.e., as money and as alteration—to reveal the disconnect between them: the speaker gives the girl small change when she seeks a more thoroughgoing one, and so he returns the next day to find “nothing shifted.” Motivated in his gift primarily by her beauty (“for she was beautiful”), he returns to find her gaze turned back on him and coldened, “its judgment terrible”—a reflection of his sense of culpability in paying for her as an aesthetic object rather than meaningfully engaging with her disenfranchised humanity. This speaks to one of the key elements of Norman’s worldview: his speakers never try to occupy a moral high ground, instead acknowledging themselves as creatures of folly, eternally culpable. In the often-hapless way they shunt from incident to incident, they can remind us of the Everyman of medieval morality plays, running his gauntlet of tribulations. But Norman never allows this sense of anonymity to lapse into a false universality; though “Judgment” alone may not convey this, taken as a whole his work makes clear that the sorts of quotidian worlds portrayed in this poem—as stanza by stanza it moves from the sphere of society to that of work to that of family—belong not to every man but to a specific kind of white middleish-class Western one. Indeed, Norman’s work derives great power from its continual acknowledgement that to occupy such a subject-position is in some sense to be always already guilty. This can be seen in the last lines of stanzas two and three above (“A dozen circles blotted every word” … “and one by one they crawled to better homes”), which achieve their surrealistic impact by amplifying this pervasive sense of guilt to almost terrifying degrees.

Technically speaking, there is much else to admire here. Notice, for instance, how the archaic twinges of “for she was beautiful” and “made much noise and ate much food” evoke a Biblical context of judgment. Or how frequently and subtly Norman falls into perfect iambs, using music to sell his difficult twists of logic. Or, more generally, how the plainness of diction and syntax work in tension with the surrealistic imagery to produce a tone poised ambiguously between humour and inner turmoil—a technique used to great effect in the best work of his editor, Stuart Ross, and indeed a central element in what has almost become Mansfield Press’s ‘house style’, though Norman imbues it with his own peculiar brand of mastery. I know it may seem odd to qualify “mastery” as “peculiar,” but this near-paradox captures the weird variousness of Norman’s work: he seems capable of writing anything he wants—ranging in his two collections from brilliant sonnets and rhymed quatrains to fragmentary free-verse narratives and prose poems—and yet every display of metrical virtuosity or musical uplift seems counterpointed by a moment of bizarre incompletion or even just silliness. Put simply, Norman is a master whose suspicion of mastery leads him to self-sabotage, and—and this is the kicker—rightly so, for in continually emphasizing our fallibility, the worldview embodied in his work depends for its persuasiveness on the poet’s showing himself to be fallible. Thus, in addition to exemplifying all the fine qualities I’ve named above, At the Gates of the Theme Park also presents itself as a catalogue of lapses, and it is all the better for it.

This is not to fully excuse Norman’s occasionally too-high tolerance for triviality and non sequitur: several of the least effective poems in At the Gates use asterisks to link their disparate sections rather than the figurative connections he proves so adept at building elsewhere, and several of the shortest pieces read like anecdotal sketches rather than fully drawn poems. But for the most part even the least substantial pieces contain some glimmer of off-kilter insight, and overall At the Gates of the Theme Park coheres because rather than in spite of its lightest moments, while still containing poems that, in their thoroughness of development, tantalize us with what a Peter Norman less consistently suspicious of his own mastery might achieve. Witness “Recursion”:

I fall awake alone. Outside,
nocturnal rain ascends.

Alarms rage, summoning a thief
who hurries to the store,
unpacks his duffel sack,
replaces items on the shelf.

Morning. The plane dispenses you.
We enfold each other,
celebrating your undeparture.    
Tears scroll up your cheeks,
nestle into ducts.

Last night we wake
sweat-soaked and sated,
breathe flame to candlewick
and fuse, hips coaxing sheets
to smoothness.

Years ago, our meeting is unmade.
My life hurries back into ignorance,
days spent unrolling snowballs,
being chased by the ice cream truck,
gathering bread spat by ducks
beside a cool lake.

We will never disentangle
at the baggage check.
You won’t be tugged from me
by announcements,
gates, corridors, customs.

I am three years old.
I urge spilled milk into a jug,
right it on the table.
My mother’s alarmed eyes
flash calm.

Outside, a robin
cocks her head,
feeds worms
to the hungry soil.

“Recursion” constitutes a feat of defamiliarization on par with Craig Raine’s classic “A Martian Sends a Postcard Home,” transcending what might be dismissed as its ‘gimmick’ through the way each verse paragraph serves both to advance (or, rather, claw back) the narrative while also functioning as a little imagistic prism through which our desire to turn back time is warped to reveal its laughable poignancy. Everything here is apt, as each few lines reveal a fresh figuration of the essential futility of the enterprise, until in the penultimate verse paragraph the poet even finds a way to reinvigorate the proverbial “spilled milk,” before ending on the startling image (a perfect example of what Jonathan Ball has referred to as Norman’s “soft surrealism”) of a robin feeding worms to the “hungry soil.” It’s a brilliant ending to a brilliant poem—you can see how adjectives fail me—as that closing image functions not just as a surrealist depiction of a carnivorous earth, but more generally as an evocation of the grave that will swallow us all, the universal refutation of the poem’s animating impulse. “Recursion” is one of those poems that makes me see the book around it in a more vivid light—a kind of beacon newly illumining the essential seriousness (not to be confused with solemnity) of Norman’s funny, smart, imaginative vision.

Norman’s recently released second collection, Water Damage, finds this vision both intact and expanded upon. Whereas the longest poem in At the Gates—the very fine “Sentences”—ran four narrow pages, Water Damage contains two much longer and bulkier poems, “Dr. F. Attends a Show” (in which the last word of each line mirrors the corresponding line in Margaret Atwood’s 1966 “Speeches for Doctor Frankenstein”) and “The Flood,” both of which find Norman deploying his talents for narrative emplotment on the one hand and surrealistic shifts on the other to poise the reader between vividness and incomprehension, suspending us in a kind of impressionistic supra-clarity. “The Flood,” in particular—as its speaker weaves together an account of his troubled marriage and his clerical duties, “sift[ing] through pages of reports / filed by those requiring recompense” after his town is struck by a catastrophic flood—reads like the bastard child of Rich’s “Diving into the Wreck” and Ashbery’s “The Instruction Manual,” achieving a tonal and metaphorical range new to Norman’s work and largely successful. Though consisting of varied, amorphous verse paragraphs—and so not thoroughly illustrative of the poet’s formal skill—it finds ways (as his poems often do) of justifying its form through its subject matter, as in the following verse paragraph from near the poem’s midpoint:

Those who came here afterward
to cash in on cheapened real estate
never really dug the flood's extent.
Wrecked lots were scoured flat,
subjected to construction. One by one
the porches filled with barbecues and bikes
and lawn chairs folded anytime it rained.
Newcomers found their powers ailing here.
A softness in their joints, a squashy sloth.
Emerging from a troubled sleep,
they’d sense that something fluid caked their eyes
and everything they saw looked somehow warped.

How could such a poem—which elsewhere describes how after the flood “the old stream flowed / as it always had, but / thicker, muddied, snarled with all our lives”—be written in anything other than its amorphous verse paragraphs, which warp and flow along with the convolutions of the speaker’s mind and the flood that occupies it, evoking the dual blank-verse traditions of epic and remembrance while also making space for a more postmodern sense of lineation reflective of the psyche’s inherent fragmentariness? Content-wise, this passage enacts many of Norman’s typical gestures: an alertness to socio-economic realities (“cheapened real estate”), a nod to the workaday world of the Western white middle-class male (“barbecues and bikes / and lawn chairs”), and then the distorting, abnormalizing, undermining gesture, thrusting the reader into contingency (“something fluid caked their eyes / and everything they saw looked somehow warped”). Indeed, perceptual confusion or uncertainty—not just visual, but across the senses—is one of Water Damage’s signal motifs, as even a brief list of titles can illustrate: “What I Meant,” “Dried My Eyes,” “Everything Arises from the Sound,” “Nothing Arises from the Sound,” “Sometimes Hypochondriacs Get Genuinely Ill,” “Sorry If You Feel I Misspoke,” “I Helped Them Draw Your Picture at the Station”…and so on. This motif is inaugurated in the collection’s opening poem, “Up Near Wawa,” the first verse paragraph of which reads:

Up near Wawa, where the 17
was lightning-lit and slicked
with flagellating rain and hit
repeatedly with hailstones;
up near Wawa, weary
of the pummelled 17, we saw a buck
self-mortify on an advancing rig.
I say self-mortify, which is to say
in fact it ran, confused or mad,
straight for the grille, the brights, but like
atoners and their sniping whips perhaps
it thought the sins of herbivores,
or just its own, or those of every deer,
might gather in its blood and dissipate,
run guttered on the gleaming grate,
spatter on the road and disappear.

Perhaps the most immediately forceful thing about this passage is its sonic heft. Many threads of alliteration, assonance, and consonance can be traced through it; for example, the thread of “lightning,” “lit,” “slicked,” “flagellating,” “hit,” “with,” “self-mortify,” “rig,” “grille,” “whips,” “sins,” “herbivores,” “dissipate,” “disappear,” which provides a sonic analogue to the patter of rain and frantic wipers, as well as the figurative whips of the “atoners.” This dense sonic patterning, combined with the predominantly four- and five-stress lines, evokes an Anglo-Saxon poetic context of exile, loss, and (returning to one of Norman’s signal themes) guilt. Beginning in a Purdyesque descriptive mode, with the speaker glorying in the tribulations of Northern Ontario car travel, the paragraph undergoes a shift around the word “self-mortify,” which leads the speaker down a trail of self-relflexive clarification, bizarrely personifying the deer and comparing it through simile to “atoners and their sniping whips,” leaving us to wonder what “sins” any deer might feel warranted suicide. None, of course: we already sense the speaker projecting some guilt of his own onto the deer. This act of projection is signalled formally, as what begins in sonically woven free verse resolves itself into a rhymed quatrain of iambic pentameter that serves as a kind of code, as if the poet is saying, “Here I am! See how I just alerted you to my artifice at the very moment that I spoke of the dissipation of sin? I’m trying to tell you that this is my sin, not the deer’s, and that absolution, like the coherence sought by poetic form, can only ever be snatched at and missed, can only ever gild failure.” The second and final verse paragraph reads:

But wait.
I got it wrong.
There never was a buck.
Or moose. No elk, no lowly mole.
The rain was real as hooves for sure and kept
the frantic wipers set on highest whine
and lightning really lit the way
with winking glimpses of the broken line.
Up near Wawa, yes, the 17,
and rigs for sure, their bright relentless chain,
and yes, there was this one oncoming truck
with high beams, nearly croaked us in the rain.
The rest, I guess, was wrong. There was no buck.  

Norman isn’t interested in self-disclosure, but in exploring language’s capacity to veil as much as reveal—in exploring the way that, in attempting to disclose ourselves through language, we often end up confronting our own opacity. This opacity is encapsulated in the last line’s “The rest, I guess, was wrong”—as though the speaker, in exerting his poetic faculties upon the incident, is by the end of the poem somewhat unsure whether he has in fact fully created this incident of self-mortification. And in a sense, I think, he hasn’t—I read this as partly a poem about being gripped by the fleeting compulsion to swerve one’s car into oncoming traffic, and then displacing that compulsion onto an invented deer—but in another sense—and again, as both verse paragraphs’ resolution into rhymed quatrains serves to highlight—the poem is pure artifice, a verbal event whose biographical roots are entirely beside the point. Neither of these angles in itself can do the poem justice, however: it’s important to the poem’s impact that Wawa is a place that many of Norman’s readers will be familiar with, but just as important that we accept as (fictional) fact that “There was no buck”—that it was invented purely as a poetic emblem. Seen in this dual light, “Up Near Wawa” is about the agony of artifice, the artistic impulse to experience one’s life as ‘material’, the delicious sin of supplanting life-and-death reality with made-up junk.

This act of supplanting is also often illuminating, however, as the artist’s outlandish fabulations serve to reveal hidden aspects of the quotidian. Take “Letter from a Creditor,” for instance, which uses its surrealism to dredge up the often-catastrophic undercurrents of our fears of financial precarity:

Dear Mr. Norman:
We have not received the payment due November 1st.
Within three days, reply to this notice
or your service will be cut off.

We strongly advise you to pay these funds
without delay. We’re loath
to terminate this service.
Please don’t make us do this.

We know there are circumstances.
We’re sure you’ve had a painful day
and something roams behind your brow,
a lost fly trapped by a pane.

We can surmise the state of your surroundings.
Yes, we figure we can see you now,
slouched and weeping in the tattered chair
marked with stains from when you lost control.

It’s clear you lost control.
Control took leave at a date unspecified
before November 1st. That much is plain;
the rest we’ve merely guessed.

Enclosed please find a sheaf of charts
delineating what you should have paid and when.
This info will not help you, but the sheets ensure
a fanning-out of papers at your feet

as you sob and let them drop.
We hear the termites moving in your walls
and sense their hunger hollowing the planks
beneath your seat. Please pay the fees

outstanding. Insect bellies fill
with floor. Your chair will plunge
straight down and ever down. How far you’ll fall,
we’re sad to say, is way past our surmise.

Again, and like most of Norman’s poems, this exudes linguistic skill: in the way it falls into subtly perfect iambs at just the right moments to offset its apparent plainspokenness, for example (“This info will not help you, but the sheets ensure / a fanning-out of papers at your feet”), or in its deft appropriation and creepy amplification of bureaucratic cadence (“We can surmise the state of your surroundings”). Like “Recursion” from the earlier collection, it is also a masterpiece of pacing; Norman doesn’t feel the need to load every line with metaphoric and sonic tension, instead allowing the first seven lines to flow straightforwardly, even blandly, until the sinister twist of line eight (“Please don’t make us do this”), and from then on gradually amping up the menace, stanza by stanza, building to the alarming shift to the immediate present in the climatic “Insect bellies fill / with floor.” Also like “Recursion,” “Letter from a Creditor” serves as a sort of anchor poem which holds in its orbit the lighter pieces that surround it. A superficially silly poem like “In Praise of the Top Three Cellphone Manufacturers, as Determined by Global Market Share in 2010”—which begins, “O Nokia. Noblest of providers, number one / by far in market share”—though in one sense trivial, is revealed by its proximity to poems such as “Letter to a Creditor” to comprise yet another aspect of the collection’s undercurrent of engagement with the colonization of our collective consciousness by power, whether corporate (as in “To Staples,” an apostrophe to the office supplies vendor), political (“On the Occasion of Her Majesty’s Passing My House in a Boat”), medical (“Dried My Eyes,” “In the Clinic,” “Dr. F. Attends a Show”), educational (“School Day”), or religious (“Tracts”). More generally, “Letter to a Creditor” also represents one of the most lucid instances of an apocalyptic current that runs through not just Water Damage but At the Gates of the Theme Park as well, identifiable at least two dozen poems, with Norman’s surrealism serving to illuminate—and, through its frequently quirky tone, conceal—a genuine horror at what we allow ourselves to mistake for normalcy.

I must be careful, however, not to misrepresent Norman’s work by shoehorning its more purely funny or whimsical elements into this serious framework. On the other hand, I must admit that once I latch on to his apocalyptic sensibility, it becomes difficult to not see almost every poem arising out of it. Take “The Turnips,” for example, perhaps the most overtly comedic performance in Water Damage:

The turnips ooze a juice just visible on his chin.
Etiquette-bereft, the cad inturps the conversation I was in.
In the urn’s pit, ash accumulates: mortality’s pith.
A tin spur goads moans from the lover I lie with.
Poking the proxy doll with a rustpin makes for anguish.
Don’t stunrip the ne’er-do-wells. Just let ‘em languish.
Pit urns fill with spit-out pits of fruit.
Baffling ritpuns offend the ruling brute.
Punstir the ticklish for a ribald effect.
A nut rips when the razor swipes. Your denim won’t protect.
On the suntrip, bronzed-up tourists tipple plonk.
Untrips are offered. The unship’s waiting at the dock.
Writhe and spin, rut and grunt among the scented sheets.
Runspit in thickets like a rabid boar in heat.
Pitnurs leave me stumped. From a small stump I orate.
Runt, sip that rancid wine. You’ll find it tastes of acetate.
Bail out the punt, sir, or the ferried souls will drown.
Your turn: sip the sugared venom, force it down.
The tip runs off on tipsy legs, leaving the servers broke.
Turps in turpish venues tell the filthiest of jokes.
            Spurtin’ depravity, he mounted the stump—and spoke—

It’s utterly typical of Norman’s brand of mastery—and of what I’ve said about his suspicion of such mastery—that he should reserve his most virtuosic technical performance for his most ostensibly ridiculous subject matter. Each line of “The Turnips” incorporates the anagram of the word “turnips” from the corresponding line of bpNichol’s “Historical Implications of Turnips” (“turnips are / inturps are / urnspit are…”) and the result strikes me as—I don’t use this word lightly—genius. Not just for the way it incorporates each anagram, whether semi-familiar compound (“The tip runs off on tipsy legs, leaving the servers broke”) or coinage (“Turps in turpish venues tell the filthiest of jokes”) into an utterly appropriate context. Nor for its formal virtuosity, with each rhymed couplet forming a ballad stanza (by each individual line following a four-stress/three-stress pattern) and thus lending the proceedings a folkish orality. But for the way these linguistic and formal felicities build the illusion of this being spoken from another dimension, somewhere both antediluvian and postapocalyptic at once, possessed of a language both primitive and futuristic, akin to the “Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After” section of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. As I finish the poem, I imagine the depravity-spurtin’ figure mounting the stump to deliver a prophetic lament, ragin’ at the loss of an old world and drivin’ us towards the new. There is a sense in which “The Turnips” is one of the most serious poems I’ve read in months, if by “serious” we mean committed to language as both aesthetic and social material, traversing past communicative horizons to probe out new ones. This may sound far-fetched; but Norman’s work across both At the Gates of the Theme Park and Water Damage lends itself to far-fetchedness on the reader’s part: it is smart, funny, skillful, and various enough to tug our imaginations in all sorts of strange and contradictory directions. Read both books the way you’d listen to one of the great double albums—plugged in for the long haul, prepared to see any apparent inconsistencies as in the service of the whole—and let them subtly stunrip you.