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Jul/Aug 2008 Reviews & Interviews

What I Did Over the Summer

Days of Creativity: A Collection of Poems by Jon Norman
Edited by James Stidfole
Little Red Tree Publishing. 2007. 172 pp.
ISBN 978-0978944612.

Review by Gilbert Wesley Purdy


In May of 2007, I received an e-mail from Michael Linnard, co-owner and CEO of Little Red Tree Publishing. The company was in the process of publishing a selection from the poems of Jon Norman. Jon's father had been Victor Norman, the founder of the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra, who also conducted the orchestra from 1946 to 1981. In the words of the elder Norman's New York Times obituary:

One could not make a living conducting the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra and Mr. Norman taught music, worked as an administrator at the Electric Boat shipyard and was the organist at New London's Congregation Beth El synagogue for 46 years.

From out of this impressive energy, Mr. Norman managed to purchase a large Victorian "cottage," with a spacious wrap-around porch, on Pequot Avenue, in New London, Connecticut, next door to the Monte Cristo Cottage (boyhood home of Eugene O'Neill). It was in this spacious house, in a small New England town dominated by the Electric Boat Naval Shipyard (located almost directly across the Thames River, in neighboring Groton), that Jon grew up.

After graduating high school, Jon traveled to Israel. The trip marked the beginning of years searching for himself throughout the world. In time, the itinerary came to include Haight Ashbury, Stinson Beach, Echo Park and Timothy Leary's Millbrook commune. Heroin and periods of madness eventually became prominent aspects of the journey.

The Jon Norman I first met, years later, on the New London poetry scene, was gaunt. He habitually wore a black leather jacket, long unwashed hair and a pronounced slouch. While these were badges he had earned (the hard way) he had returned to the family home as part of a struggle to put aside the life they represented, aware that, should he fail, his body and mind could not take the punishment much longer.

He lived some ten more years before he was found drowned in a meditation pool at the Hunter Ashram, in New York State, in 1988. He had spoken of the Ashram many times, with love, as a place of which he was particularly fond, a place of inner peace. The Jon who was pulled from the pool sported clean, medium length hair, carelessly combed, and boyish features. If he was in his street clothes, he was almost certainly wearing blue jeans and loafers and a simple button-down shirt.

Victor Norman and I exchanged a handful of letters in the two or three years that followed Jon's death. He established a memorial fund in order to have his son's work published and spoke of collecting the manuscripts together. For a brief time, Victor extended me the title of "Director" of the project although I was then living at the distance of nearly two hundred miles. I was able to be the Director in no more than name, however, and soon realized that in good conscience I could only resign.

It was during this period that I sent Victor a memoriam I had written for Jon. He placed it among those papers he had managed to collect to that point where it was discovered, nearly twenty years later, during the process of preparing for the present volume, Days of Creativity. Michael Linnard had written me to ask for permission to print the memoriam in the volume. Jon's brother, Bob Norman (de facto senior editor for the volume), and sister-in-law, Clara, in particular, had found it deeply touching. The project was about to come to fruition, at long last, satisfying a provision of Victor Norman's last will and testament, and Jon's work about to be published in a suitable format.

Not only did I freely give my permission, but, before all was said and done, I was solicited by Linnard to write a reminiscence to be included in the book, as well. I could not imagine any reasonably truthful version of certain events that would be acceptable to those from among the New London literati who had been active during Jon's final years, and who had remained in the area, and actually held out little hope that the reminiscence would be included. But then stranger things have happened (I rationalized to myself) and the experience was bound to prove informative.  I rather enjoyed imagining the Hamlet's ghost aspect of the thing. I agreed to send the piece along as expeditiously as possible.

Jon had published a chapbook of his own poems not long before he died, entitled Forest Songs. (His eldest daughter is named "Forest.") We talked late into many an evening about the volume as it gestated in Jon's brain. While, for reasons I still can not understand, I could not convince him, try as I might, to include page numbers, I was impressed to the point of astonishment to discover that Jon was otherwise his own best editor.

I had been listening to Jon's poetry for years, to that point, as he read it at various venues. If those readings seemed to lack anything it had been selectivity. He had written many hundreds of poems and did not seem to be able consistently to distinguish the better from the worse. It is a common trait of such extremely intuitive poets as Jon. The poems that came to compose the text of Forest Songs, however, were uniformly his better. The demanding and practical role of editor, with a severely limited budget, had brought out a critical faculty of which I had thitherto not been aware.

It was a faculty which continued to serve him well in a second chapbook (paginated, on this occasion), A Song of Degrees, which had nearly reached the end of its editorial process at the time of Jon's death. (Victor finished seeing the volume through the press.) The results, however, were less effective, Jon already having chosen his best work for the earlier volume.

Days of Creativity, on the other hand, has enjoyed a budget sufficient to produce a text many times the length of the chapbooks, together with a trade-paper format and simple but elegant gloss cover. The present editor did not suffer under the same "disadvantages," as it were, and the text reflects the fact. The better poems are those that first appeared in the earlier chapbooks, as the rule, particularly in Forest Songs. The poems that appear for the first time in this book are generally a grade below.

This in itself is not necessarily a negative, however. Even the less finished poems, and those that didn't make the grade, are filled with Jon Norman's personality and process.  They were the proving grounds for the tropes that would eventually arrive at the striking, trademark imagery of the later poems.

The first three stanzas of the poem "Antagonistic Fears," for one example, make a remarkable poem in themselves. Madness is handled in the surprisingly quotidian fashion which suggests a later, in-progress poem:

A blinding blur from sideshow streets
           swirls round the shell of my daily delirium

The handling is also less suggestive of a Dylan song than a contemporary poem, again suggesting Norman's later attempts to bring his style more into the mainstream. In the third stanza, anger is launched by inscrutable subconscious buttons being pushed:

In the elevator thoughts like ballistic missiles
           vault unevenly upward through ferroconcrete chambers,
           at the unseen pressing of unseen buttons,
exploding the illusory peace of a momentary springtime.

The remaining 13 lines, however, don't quite manage to cohere. It is presumably for this reason that the poem was not included in either of the chapbooks.

Uneven quality did not always prevent Jon Norman from including a pet favorite in A Song of Degrees, however. The second stanza of "from Skyward" (also included in Days of Creativity) is almost cacophonous with a remarkable profusion of consonance, internal and external bi-syllabic rhyme, and verbal counterpoint:

Saxophones sway dolefully on the launching crib,
           musical metaphors, harmonic dreams, analogous idioms,
among caterwauling contusions, a shattering profusion,
           herded steers crowding, demonic entropic effusion,
demandin' understandin'--by a city kid's pain--Lord
           forgive me for the sin of confusion.

But the "almost" is everything. The result is a real verbal jazz that results, in turn, in a greater rational-intuitive counterpoint of image. All the more astonishing, then, to find the seventh stanza filled with lame clichés:

All things come to him who waits; actions speak louder than words.
           You were in an awful state
                      from everything I heard...
                                                       ...It seems
           you had to be in pieces before you attained your dream.

Such disparities are, again, the product of a profoundly intuitive approach. Everything depends upon the "feel" of the poem as a whole. A cold, rational eye can rewrite an individual stanza, but only at the cost of the feel. A poem is either ready, blemishes notwithstanding, or it must wait on the chance that "the feeling" might return making changes possible.

However much Jon Norman, returned to a decidedly middle-class New England town, sought to transition toward a more recognizably contemporary "poetic" style, the influence of Bob Dylan's song lyrics remained supreme. Among the finer poems in Days of Creativity is a late poem, not, in fact, completed in time to be included in either of the chapbooks. The poem "Workin' on the Bomb Squad" is an unabashed Dylan-esque romp:

down in Washington they were
           plottin' a few more crimes
you got to watch out for lyin' dwarves
           with calculatin' minds
when you're workin' on the bomb squad
           you don't have to think it very odd

Nor was it Dylan alone whose influence was happily unshakeable. As is evident in his better work, Jon repeatedly went back to school with Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Whitman and Pound. Generally speaking, this diversity resulted in his having available several distinct templates into which he loaded images redolent of Dylan and Rimbaud.

While the uneven quality of the poems chosen for Days of Creativity is not necessarily a problem, the sins of omission are altogether another matter. "Jon Norman: Tortured Enfant Anti-Hero," the prose reminiscence I'd been asked to provide for Days of Creativity, did not prove acceptable in the end. I first received an e-mail from James Stidfole, editor of the volume, and longtime member of the New London arts and lit scene:

It is interesting that your memories are so clear that only a minimal bit of detail correction needed to be made to make the whole historically accurate...

In addition, a couple points were felt by the family to hold sufficient potential for wounding that they felt minor editing would eliminate that potential.

    So, with a cc of this email to Michael as notification to him that I have contacted you, Michael will email you a three part communication:  a. a listing of those minor changes we have made; b. the final draft as it now reads; and c. a full copy of your original draft.

The changes numbered more than 20, many being anything but minor. Among them, I was to ascribe the brutal finale in New London, now over 20 years ago, solely to my own "personal problems":

[Change #] 18        Paragraph 34, entire paragraph.

            change to: omitted entirely

            (Bob & James' comment: this is not really relevant to Jon.)

[Change #] 20        Paragraph 37, entire.

            change to: omitted entirely

            (Bob & James' comment: this is not really relevant to Jon)

 

[Change #] 21        Paragraph 38, entire paragraph.

            change to: omitted entirely and replaced with:

             Shortly after this I encountered a number a personal problems and for several months I ventured out as little as possible. Consequently, I saw little of Jon before I left to move to upstate New York where my daughter had been relocated and my own family resided.

            (Bob & James' comment: this is not really relevant to Jon. The           replacement paragraph merely glosses over the details and states the fact of your leaving.)

The paragraphs in question read as follows:

34. I found myself without a job into the bargain. I took up cab-driving, the only job I could get, locally, that paid more than minimum wage, and enrolled in a local college. In actuality, I found myself pursuing a post-graduate degree at the University of Hard Knocks. My specialization was "Mob Psychology." My thesis is still in progress being published piece-meal.

37. Eventually, however, a remnant of the hornet's nest, associated with the local drug culture, that had somehow become headquartered in an old farmhouse, a short distance from the Old Colchester Road, in Oakdale, just north of New London, managed to deal me a sundering blow. My thinking became slow, labored, barely thinking at all. There was 'such a thing as "situational ethics,"' I was informed. They described the bleak life ahead for me as a gape-mouthed moron. Detailed lectures were included on the most humane methods of ending one's own life.

38. Afterwards I was an exposed nerve one minute, exquisitely sensitive to any stimulation, and in an anesthetic cloud the next. The simplest task required enormous effort. The police dismissed my claims with derision. I had no choice but to move to upstate New York where my daughter had been relocated and my own family resided. I remained in New London, in a rental cabin, for several months trying to recover enough for the move, ventured out as little as possible. I saw Jon, once, briefly, before I left for New York. 'It's called "drug-bombing,"' he said.

Furthermore, at least one of the family members was to have total editorial control over any- and everything written about him/her or that might be construed as reflecting upon him/her. His/her required changes were also provided to me by e-mail and telephone. These ex post facto requirements were, of course, utterly unacceptable and I withdrew permission to publish the edited version of the piece.

The single evidence of "Tortured Enfant Anti-Hero," in the volume is the inclusion of the prose poem "Les Mains Sales" in the final text of Days of Creativity. The reminiscence quoted from the poem, easily one of Jon's finest. Having been made aware of its existence, Michael Linnard lobbied for it to be incorporated. As the result, it appears with a single altered word. The original line,

Gold of my youth, spikenard of my virtuous lust, Easy Lady, what you took in hate and violence was in my hands epilepsy violence and hate;...

reads "...Easy Land..." rather than "Easy Lady." Typo or bowdlerization of an original line "felt by the family to hold sufficient potential for wounding," who can say?

"Les Mains Sales" is one of four highly political prose poems redolent of Arthur Rimbaud, none of which had been selected for the text of Days of Creativity. All had appeared in Forest Songs. They are Jon's finest poems. Together with "Munitions Factory," "The Plains of Our Mutual Rage," and, perhaps, "Workin' on the Bomb Squad," they compose the core of the work that make it worth having published A Collection of Poems by Jon Norman in the first place. It would not be an exaggeration to call them "among the finer Late Beat poems ever written."

All of this said, many of Jon Norman's better poems did make it into the text of Days of Creativity. Moreover, the less effective poems often prove to contain individual images or brief lyrical swatches that are well worth a reader's effort to cull. Post-mortem volumes edited by family and/or friends have a highly problematical history. Days of Creativity: A Collection of Poems by Jon Norman continues the tradition, it is true, but it also continues the tradition of keeping alive the work of an exceptional poet little known during his lifetime.

Little Red Tree is a short run publisher. Printers' galleys are computer files in these remarkable times and can more easily be improved. The publisher and editors are well-advised to find a place for the prose poems from Forest Songs in a second edition; Days of Creativity is seriously flawed without them.

 

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