Jacket 31 — October 2006        link Jacket 31 Contents page        link Jacket Homepage

Marjorie Welish reviews

Spinoza in Her Youth
by Norma Cole

123pp. Omnidawn. $12.95. 1-890650-09-9 paper

This review is about 4 printed pages long.

Contemplating Table(t)s

The fragment is a indispensable thought form for early Romantic poetry. Where the break occurs – where the fragment breaks – continues to fascinate, for it is generative of a poetics that comprehends a contingency that has its way with cultural circumstance.

Norma Cole’s Spinoza in Her Youth gathers some previous chapbooks of writing, which, while acknowledging the fragmentary nature of cultural experience, makes this a most probing poetics. The table of contents lists books that are themselves pieces: inconclusive thought experiments that hold the definition of “poetic” in suspension. In the section “The Vulgar Tongue,” for instance, one reads across a sort of public space that does render an arcade from already-read fragments, prose poems, free verse, and a verbal album, the heterogeneity of its construction more pronounced for relying on graphic display. Or as Cole says in this last piece, “Q”: SEE/ HOW THERE’S A/ FRAME AND THEN A FALSE FRAME? The contextual frame that would define a field of vision to be consistent within itself cedes to a frame that would discover the field to be discontinuous, heterogeneous and incommensurate, within and without.

The break that describes a field of inquiry and so separates sense from nonsense
is nowhere more intriguingly interrogated than in the very words captured through the title of the book, Spinoza in Her Youth. If the frame provides contextual reference and ground for certain knowledge, knowledge nonetheless dilating to include interdisciplinary fields, if not theoretical prospects from which to reexamine knowledge as given, then the break messes with our mind. It goes against even progressive critique wherein skepticism tests rational thought against empirical instrumentalities of evidence, however anomalous. The breaks in Cole’s syntactical book of knowledge incorporate contingent happenings we call accident and error, out of respect for knowledge unpredicted through the frame of the sentence. Or, rather, the frame of the proposition, if treated as a construction of verbal materials, however, may break at the word, any word. Although it is possible to reconstruct a plausible sentence for “Spinoza in her youth,” that grammatical impulse is to be resisted in favor of the cultural fragment emerging from cropping against sense. From “Xtreme Reading” (in “The Vulgar Tongue”), is a similar way with words:

Union station the person reading

breaks a sentence, and yet elides sense, Oppen-like, to produce a tincture of narrative theory within a zone of cultural studies. The poem continues:

would like to thank this
work and the person reading would
never think
this narrative already
so inexorably in place the
work could only be
borrowed nature, neighborhood.

Waiting for a train is commonplace enough as reading is, or would be were it not for the nicely destabilizing questions intimated here. What is the relation of reading to the social space in which one is reading, a space with its own patterns of human traffic in entrances and exits unfolding within the regulated world one has come to expect? What is the nature of reading under such circumstances, and how does reading mark one social space rather than another? Objectivist deixis is productive here and extends to the implied “polis is this” community..

The section “Spinoza in Her Youth” may be said to make the issue of framing a critical theme, and not only because to select a relevant passage for citation here is to disrupt the flow of thought by cropping it for sense:

                                   Take away
the forms that are known
“no one knows”
“we remain in the dark”
the oil poured out therefore
transparency become
no experience
and so keep writing it
lyric is a continuous beginning
and again
“cut it out”
traffic in the form of a street
kind of atomizing and
unclaimed images, subjects
of fear and fascination
contingency: an aside
because time is this
column of air earned
by light

In the life work of a photographer going blind, the contextual frame of the photography still persists even as perceptual framing is diminished and aesthetic choice made irrelevant.

Conspicuous is the insistent graphical device (merely approximated here) separating Cole’s thoughts on photography under these circumstances. What the hard graphical spacing accomplishes is to ensure that poetic entries be read as journal notes accumulating subjectivity in an open-ended speculative field. Her isolated speculative notes comparable to his – the photographer Evgen Bavčar’s – ocular speculations in the dark, Cole has found a way for breaks to express a phenomenologically-shared domain articulated as somatic idea:

unison: I go with the
There you are closer to it. Entering through a keyhole of light.
Signs of the body. At first I could not believe it. Borders. The
body of. The land mass.

Conspicuous also is the thematic unity of this piece — all of a piece, paradoxically enough, considering the fragmentary nature of  note-taking: “(Further notes on vision and thought.)”, Cole writes. Well, this is an exaggeration given the miscellany that renders notebooks an annals of readings, writings and speech, but even so, coherence takes place through this procedural zone even as thoughts become journal entries exploring the subject that fascinates. Meanwhile, whether or not she entirely subscribes to Spinoza’s idea of a universal substance constituted of sensory thought, Cole does allow the body to investigate experiential limits, physical limitations, all the while furthering the exploration of the experimental limits of description. Grasping an idea occurs as senses register unfolding differential sense.

Completing the book are “Desire and Its Double,” which opens by reimagining “a unified theory of the senses,” and the short sequences “Conjunctions” and “The End,” from which we read:

Reading backwards the first word is “End.” This is its single

occurrence, singular. A stark and simple direction, directive,
indication to reverse, a reversal, a notion, not in italics,

Into the sign of completion is introduced remainder, and through the non-identical sense established between “single” and “singular” the sign in slippage is underway. Thus the narrative, not complete, is available for iteration in reverse, and other forms of retelling. This particular narrative within the lyric shimmies back through lexical forces that reconstitute

“an object exchanged for infinite debt or the
emptiness of interval. The space between the eyes.

A certain raveling of story returns the sign to concrete specificity but also its undoing. Cole’s post-structural instrumentality is actually performative , tacking back through linguistic non-equivalence to a break, a break that is not a terminus but a point of attention.

The poetry of the fragment may have a long lyrical tradition, but Norma Cole renovates it most strenuously through syntactical instrumentalities that create shards made of language, not form – not form, but verbal artifact organized through informing differences, linguistic and cultural, which the phenomenal mind reads and rereads.