Poetry Pamphlet Reviews & Features

Run by HappenStance Press

hearing eye, 2009    £3.00

www.hearingeye.org/

Reviewed by Paul Lee, Matt Merritt and D A Prince

 

Paul Lee:

I like poetry with verve.  I like poetry that is clever and seriously playful, in the style that the French call jouissance (one of whose meanings is ‘orgasm’).  Minus the orgasms, it’s all here in this too-brief collection. Rosemary Norman writes with great confidence, primarily from the intellect, and enjoys playing with language. Her poem ‘simple simple simple’, for example, cleverly re-arranges the words of the final paragraph of Alice in Wonderland into four logical and coherent stanzas. Not only does she manage to retain the tone and essence of the book, she produces a poem that is also lyrical and strikingly elegiac. This is virtuoso writing.

 

She repeats this re-arranging trick in another poem, ‘while I dream of rain’, this time using WS Merwin’s ‘RainTravel’, and again she produces a fine and logical poem.

 

Her Shakespearean sonnet, ‘Elegy for Elsie Graham. . .’ made me laugh aloud on the bus, and is actually also very tender towards its departed subject. Yes, Rosemary, I too hope Elsie enjoyed a full love life, and also thank her for the sonnets (by Edna St Vincent Millay), and thence your poem.

 

Art in its various forms is clearly an inspiration to Rosemary Norman, and is the catalyst for 13 of the 16 poems collected here, either as commentary on their source, or as hommage. Nothing wrong with that at all. It is most successful in the title poem, ‘The Song of the No Bird’, a gloss on Keats’s ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’. My one reservation here was that I wished the poet had not used the phrase ‘Game over’, a modern intrusion I felt out of keeping with the archaic tone. Otherwise, the poem cleverly commentates on itself in its last three stanzas, launching into menacing surrealism:

 

Music will stretch and wind

out through your ears at the first notes

of any desolate string quartet.

Beaten water. The stiff, metallic trees.

A nobird, rising tight as a lark

into the sag of the sky.

 

It holds to its internal logic with a steely grip, as do all of these quirky and original poems. I hope Rosemary Norman has a full and sizeable collection impatiently tapping its foot, and that a perceptive publisher ends its wait. Her poetry deserves no less.

 

 

Matt Merritt:

Taking someone else’s art (be it poetry, paintings, music or film footage) as a starting point for a poetry chapbook is a strategy fraught with risk. For a start, there’s the possibility that the reader will feel they’re missing something if they don’t have the inspirational work in front of them, too. And, if they get over that hurdle, will they immediately compare your work unfavourably with that point of inspiration?

 

It’s to the credit of Rosemary Norman, then, that she avoids both of those traps, and comes up with a pamphlet that engages with a wide range of arts, and the reader too. It doesn’t always make the obvious connections, either. The opening poem (‘Why I am reading this book’) immediately intrigues, with the stanza:

 

I have fallen in love with a man

in another book by the same author.

I am unhappy

in parts, with the writing

but he has cut himself off

from the book’s faults. They are elsewhere.

 

By the end of the poem, though, we are all “bemused narrators” of the characters of our own lives. It’s simultaneously (and subtly) disorientating and thought-provoking, and it repays repeated reading.

 

Norman is formally adept when she wants to be, as displayed in a couple of fine sonnets, but generally she uses rather looser forms. In both modes, though, her language is precise and controlled.

 

It’s certainly not po-faced, either. ‘Where’s Rumi’ manages to be both funny and touching, and there’s a playfulness throughout. ‘Room 22’, the long prose-poem that closes the book, on the other hand, highlights Norman’s willingness to tackle weighty, difficult matters, and it’s her skill at combining both that makes this collection slight only in size, never ambition or achievement.

 

 

D A Prince:

The descriptive paragraph on the back cover tells us that Rosemary Norman “sees writing and the arts as a conversation across place, time and medium.”  She demonstrates this by pulling together fifteen poems, plus one prose piece, using other people’s work as the starting point. Sometimes it’s a painter, sometimes a poet—and not the most obvious choices, which means that the reading (for me) doesn’t stop within the covers of this pamphlet. Each piece—and they sit separately, relating to the overriding idea rather than to each other—rises out of the alternatives/ideas that Norman sees in individual artworks.

 

The title is taken from Keats’ ‘La belle dame sans merci’—“The sedge is withered from the lake/  And no birds sing”—a witty idea, updated to the structure of a computer game, with the Nobirds as a vocal group.  I like it as an original play on the idea, just as I enjoyed the sonnet ‘Henri Rousseau: The Poet and his Muse, 1909’:

 

He stands beside her. What can he compare

to her, large as she is?

 

(This painting came to the Royal Academy as part of the Russian exhibition last year—and this Muse is formidably solid.) Norman’s words give her all the weighty substance she requires.

 

But I struggled with ‘simple simple simple’, in which the words in the final paragraph of Alice in Wonderland were rearranged; I could see it was clever, but it had too much of a suggestion of an exercise, and once that idea had seeded itself (and this is only the second poem) I found that I was looking at the pamphlet differently.

 

This is the problem, for me, with this pamphlet: the poems conform to the controlling idea, not to a relationship with each other. I wonder if they would be happier if placed strategically in a longer collection, within the context of poems not connected directly to named works? The best poem is the first— ‘Why I am reading this book’ —and it is deliberately not attached to any named text.

 

if you want to know what love is, ask

why I am reading this book.

 

I have fallen in love with a man

in another book by the same author.

 

I know this feeling, and I can’t remember seeing it on the page before. I’m intrigued, and moved by Norman’s reflections on death, extending from this unnamed fictional character to real, flesh-and-blood people, who are part of a greater fiction, narrated by those around them. Perhaps I’ll have to wait for a full-length collection to satisfy this desire to know more, to confront the best of this poet. The poems in a collection should have a conversation with each other, and I couldn’t hear it in this pamphlet. But that won’t stop me listening for it in her next publication.