Embracing the Blatantly Poetic

water damage Peter NormanStuart Cole, of The Urge, has claimed Peter Norman possesses a “peculiar mastery” and that, formally, he “seems capable of writing anything he wants.” I have nothing to add to Cole’s typically astute, honest and accurate account of Norman’s poetry. (You should read his reviews).

But there’s one thing about Norman’s latest, Water Damage, that I’d like to dwell on.  It nearly knocked me off the laundry mat chair where I was reading it: the sheer rhythmic force that at times emerges in this book was as if it was beating back against the roaring washing machines amongst which I was terribly cocooned. You see, Norman’s rubbing off on me as I write this—or a part of Norman’s work is. His mastery is “peculiar,” as Cole puts it, because it’s from a “master whose suspicion of mastery leads him to self-sabotage,” leading to a “weird variousness” that stretches the tonal spectrum from “biblical” to the downright “silly,” with a formal range to match.

While like Cole I dig it all, I find the biblical-high-eloquence end of the spectrum especially refreshing. It’s like reading it heals my brain’s ear. Given his range, especially the humour, Norman is no old-fashioned poet, but he’s clearly comfortable hitting notes that might’ve perked up King James. Take part IV from “Dr. F Attends a Show,” and bear in mind that despite the eloquence, this poem is rife with playfulness.

This is no time to think of the lab, of you.
Diversion’s what you need. But like
your patient, you have shackles at your ankles,
the dun scar of branding at your navel.
Joints of you were finished by the weaver
of think black stitch. Ten donors gave your fingers.
Doctor, none’s more composite than you!
Nor more composed. You’re steely as the ropes
and webs of net that hold your organs in
and keep their insurrections down.
Rise now! It’s an ovation! It’s thunder fills the shell-
shaped hall. The patchwork plating of your skull
is hidden by your pilfered flesh, and you
regard the blazing stage with borrowed eyes.

I could write 500 words, easy, breaking down the prosody of this verse. Many poets wait half a book to get to something as strong as “dun scar”—and that’s sandwiched between “shackles at our ankles” and “branding at your navel.” Then there’s “thick black stitch,” “shell-shaped hall,” and “patchwork plating,” as well as the perfectly cadenced and alliterative “blazing stage with borrowed eyes.” I could go on and on. It’s gorgeous. Like, W.S. Merwin gorgeous.

This is what I mean by the “blatantly poetic:” a refusal to be embarrassed by the fact that you’re writing poems, like people always have, and that you don’t have to run away from what’s always worked. Lisa Pasold put her trust in narrative, and Norman’s done the same here with rhythm and sound. There’s nothing “new” in either poet’s work, but both make vigorous books. Perhaps one rule you can follow, then, is “make it fresh.”

That in no way dismisses the search for the “new” or the pushing against tradition—lord knows we need that. But Norman’s proved that you can write poems unmistakably of this time—hilariously so—while writing others that are beautiful in the most old-fashioned, romantic sense of the word. And sometimes you can do both at once.

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