Reviews, Vol. 5.4, Dec. 2011
Omnidawn Publishing, 2010
Pperfect bound, 184 pp., $16.95
Review by Cynthia Reeser
Norma Cole’s extensive body of work includes poetry, translations, essays, and speeches. Her 2010 Omnidawn publication, To Be At Music: Essays & Talks ―sometimes impenetrable, often disjointed ―nonetheless has a keen, curious intellect standing behind it. This collection of 21 essays and speeches is woven together by its interpretation of poetics, and elements such as musicality that comprise a basis from which to interpret poetics.
The collection begins with a longer essay, “The Poetics of Vertigo.” This vertiginous essay, while thought-provoking, is often too abstracted, assumptive; too piecemeal. Phrases of certain academic appeal are tossed out (“Writing and the body”) and the seeming expectation is for the reader to piece together the pre-designated ideas surrounding such tropes, meaning from the pastiche of annotative interpretation with quotes pulled from multiple sources (most frequently, George Oppen). Astute, investigative, patient readers will enjoy the mazework investigation inherent in the meaning-making in these essays, but will sometimes seek in vain for a narrative framework from which to level some sense of understanding. We get more of a sense of things than a full grounding in the author’s point or purpose. That being said, I believe it must be the author’s intent for the writing in form and approach to open to meaning in a multifoliate manner, and in that sense, the writing has met its target.
“The Poetics of Vertigo” discusses approaches to meaning from the standpoint of language itself, not just ideas. Then ideas, phenomenology, liminality, perception, interpretation ―specifically the ideas of the fringe, margins, horizon ―are employed in the attempt to place the reader and thereby the text and context within its framework. Without a point of interpretation, a standpoint or point of view or structure of concepts, there can be no place from which to begin a journey, whether as reader, writer, or interpreter. Cole writes near the end of the essay’s first section (there are four) that “[t]he poem itself is an abstract space defined by its being.” This conclusion seems both the point of the essay and the launchpad for the interpretation and understanding of poetry itself. The fragmenting of the essay into sections furthers the disjointed overall sense. Section II of the essay is a poet’s essay, comprised entirely of a listing of titles. Further on, the exploration of the essay’s theme and theories (in subsequent sections) using George Oppen as the point from which to locate its vertigo, is an interpretive talking point that will be found in many of the essays in the collection.
Another essay, “Start Singing,” provides further insight into what meanings this poet-as-essayist is after, providing what has been thus far in the collection an occasional glimpse, between the poetics structured as essays, of sapience from observations such as the ruminative, “This is where theory tries to catch up with poetry,” remarked on a quote from Nate Mackey, from a Talisman interview, on language and its inheritance (“‘You know, in language we inherit the voices of the dead'”), moments that serve as loci of rationale and interpretive bases of understanding. But of course, we have this predesignated idea already from the book’s title, which implies a musicality inherent within poetics, and that that is what the book will be “about.”
And indeed one of language’s primal cadences―rhythm―is present within the hermeneutics. Yes, there is talk of context, of contextual shaping, or implications of narrative frameworks, but here there is dialogue on the sensibility of poetics. From “Goldie and Ruby: A Piece of Short Sets”:
A musical element, a little song or magic chant, celebration or elegy, interrupts the tracking of thought, the solemnity of thought unfolding in all inconclusiveness.
I am speaking of the procedure of montage: the superimposed element disrupts the context in which it is inserted…. Only interruption here has not the character of a stimulant but an organizing function.
―Walter Benjamin, “The Author as Producer”
There are glimpses, tiny threads, like those mentioned above, that become visible here and there throughout the essays, but much of the writing continues its fragmented, disjointed path, making much of the work difficult to connect with. My sense is that, had one the familiarity with the author’s work as a whole, the context in which these speeches were given, and a greater familiarity with Oppen, one could better connect the fragmented dots to arrive at some understanding.
But wait, essays nearer the end of the collection sometimes better cohere. One such is “Singularities: The Paintings of Stanley Whitney,” which brilliantly interprets the artwork suggested in the essay’s title. Descriptions such as,
The first circle recapitulates the ones to come. Each one will be different. Aphoristic dashes pin them down, at first from within, later from all possible directions. The elements can’t all be moving at the same time. Where hesitation becomes rhythmic assertion, a dance steps into the recognizable system of moves called the physical lyric. In its transgression of its own system, each painting questions assumptions about generalizations. The universe is composed of singularities.
make me want to pick up every book of poetry Cole has ever written. Cole is at her best when her ideas cohere and the interpretation is less introspective, less claustrophobic, and more accessible. This, “Singularities…,” begins with an idea that drives itself rather than propelling obfuscative, circumlocutory writing.
But however dense or disjointed the writing, it is always interesting and rewards, without a doubt, rereading.