Jan 3 2023
Poetry review – SOLACE: John Forth looks for clues among Rosemary Norman’s teasing and riddle-like poems
The weekly competition from O Bheal in Cork is a word-game requiring five random words to be submitted in a poem within a week. I mention this because Rosemary Norman declares that ‘about half’ of the 35 poems in Solace had this as a starting point. Aside from the virtuosity, one is struck by the sparsity and even brittleness of the resultant style: the thirty-five poems are in alphabetical order of titles (as with her earlier books). Each one reveals her careful and precise observation of both objects and processes. In the title poem she has to set out ‘all the pressing questions’ a poet might confront, with the aim being merely ‘the solace of having said so’. We learn at the start that ‘Pencils know what I mean’ and at the end that there’s no call to insert ‘from what? for what? with regard to ‘solace’ – but that ‘the pencil allows it / like an erasable knife’. Whichever half of the book this poem occupies, the cleverness, control and understatement are clearly evident, as with the neighbouring ‘South Kensington’ – a poem ostensibly presenting details of a heart operation: ‘Error is not / to be thought of and some elegance is / necessary’.
The collection is book-ended by ‘After Life’ and ‘Tea’ (true to alphabetical principles) and in both poems the boundary between living and dead is blurred. How would she achieve the ‘blurring’ bearing in mind such precision and meticulous care? One answer is to rebuild clichés and ride roughshod over fact (or is that two answers?):
Now they rise naked, flesh in ashy folds off bone, and edge along on metal frames. [“After Life”]
The challenge comes with a question: ‘what joy’s in this /for any demon /given to lechery?’ At the end of the book, ‘Tea’ brings together a mother and daughter: ‘They make us up, // the living, she says. / Can’t help it.’ There’s seemingly a hard edge to some of the poems: the child whom we won’t let alone ‘to be a new-born / in a bin’ is redeemed in an imagined return when we’re told ‘She is/ indeed hard to guess/ like an ordinary daughter’ (“April”). It’s as if a kind of transparency paired with restraint frees Norman to take liberties. But her method serves for ‘light touch’ too. The bag left on a bus with bread and daily paper ends with ‘I want butter for you. Good news / too, or not as bad as you fear’ (“Bag”).
I was once advised that it’s useful to identify poets in terms of where they stand on a continuum (perhaps?) between a picture of experience and a language game. I was reminded of this while reading poems that seem to stand right on the cusp, teetering. A quote from “The World’s Stupidest Signs” informs us that ‘if you can’t see this sign the river is underwater’:
...so he rides a year and a day until it’s April and he can hope once again for a sign, not the jutting board or alphabet that leapfrogs when he looks but sky illegibly at work on flat water overcome by what it announces. [“Sign”]
This poem is representative because there’s something at its heart that won’t be resolved, and also because there is something relentlessly playful about this whole enterprise or ‘language game’, played out in crisp short lines. In fact, a number of the poems are comic. “Ben” features a discard from a novel in which the ‘I’ is invited to replace him because deemed to have a more suitable name, although ‘I am not as bright’. The ending reads:
It’s me, is it, Ben or not, sits in a bar here where art isn’t coming for us and we drink on past her story’s end?
“Between” is a good joke about the meaning of ‘up’ (as in ‘up early’) and getting ready, followed by ‘I’m up once the door’s/ pulled shut on the between’. Some poems reveal ways of digesting the quotidian; others play with abstractions:
If it could be summer again and you could leave your book outside… ...you too might soften and step over into your own delicious fiction with its no bad weather or harm done. [“Fiction”]
One of this poet’s favourite tricks might be described as ‘leaving out most of the middle’ for us to ponder the rest on our own. What better way to exploit this than by enlisting “Lady Mondegreen” – a woman who never existed but who gave her (misheard) name to occurrences of aural mistake (did Jimi Hendrix sing ‘kiss the sky’ or ‘kiss this guy’?) ‘Mondegreen’ is a coinage and it’s everywhere, and yet in a Rosemary Norman poem she’ll get to speak:
I pass at will through all the murderous world… ...There’s no unhearing a companion whose only dwelling this is, who won’t let go.
These poems are riddles, and as with riddles the solution is often in plain sight. Other poems, such as “Rag Doll” employ a more conventional narrative of nostalgia, beginning with an object and allowing it to suggest meanings. A gift from an old school-friend changes over time:
...never sat like us and answered ‘present’ to a pair of name-words, nothing in them of herself.
In some ways this is about as down-to-earth as it gets, allowing the reader to relax into a context where genuine objectivity is at least possible. Yet its ‘partner’ on the next page, “Ringmaster”, filled as it is with tangible detail, is another one keeping us guessing about its intent – complete with the darker side of Norman: ‘No -one knows how it happened/ but the ringmaster’s dead // and good riddance…’ The villain turns out to be, or resemble, a ring of fire that, when discarded, leaves the performers free to play in their circus paradise: ‘We do what we can. It is enough’.
To end where I began, the word-game element may mean that some readers will tease themselves trying to guess which half of this book, which poems, which words were based on competition entries. The same readers will probably realise quickly that they’ll never manage it. As I write this, just before Christmas 2022, the week’s words are: renew, five, suit, between and cork.