Norma Cole and Gail Scott hosted by the Poetry Center

The Poetry Center presented Norma Cole and Gail Scott on a dark and windy Saturday night at the Hosfelt Gallery on Utah Street in San Francisco. What a space--large and white with Jay DeFeo's artwork around us, darkness and a spattering of rain outside that withheld its full measure for the precise moment when we left.

Jay DeFeo's "Untitled" from the Jewelry Series,
 part of the Mechanics Exhibition at the Hosfelt Gallery

The acoustics were a bit of a challenge, but the warehouse gallery's austere beauty was an appropriate setting. The large crowd shivered and leaned forward to listen. Yedda Morrison's daughter, Eve, busied herself with an array of small rolls of colored tape, producing her own artwork in the midst of DeFeo, Cole, and Scott.

Eve's reading art
photo courtesy of Yedda Morrison

Norma Cole with Jay DeFeo's work in the background
photo courtesy of Amy Trachtenberg

Beginning the evening by honoring the memory of the recently deceased Anne-Marie Albiach, Norma read her translation of Albiach's "Gradiva," meaning "the woman who walks." The Gradiva is a neo-Attic Roman bas relief depicting a woman striding forward, lifting her robe as she goes. Norma told us that Wilhelm Jensen wrote a novel entitled Gradiva and Freud analyzed it. The word has a rich artistic lineage:  Salvador Dali used it as a nickname for his wife, Gala Dali, and Andre Breton named a Paris gallery after it.

Éditions Spectres familiers, 1984


            She keeps—a vocal issue “Stretched” in the hangings’ dark weight.  Water repeating eats away the panes :  falls :  overhangs the black drop.  Night.  voice.  It leaches myth from she who, torch in hand, plunges into the glassworks of night.  Characters keep watch for the rising theme.  voice provides alternative and recovers, while the actors’ tears mime disappearances.  she undergoes the torment of repeated absence, and voice restates the tones of the encounter and of the disappearance.
            the absence in voice plays several times.  As the painted tone dis-plays color’s fixity, to several degrees. white is disrobed; the body bound closely in sweet-smelling bindings  “the lied pierces a naked body a tapestry devours” the everpresent threat sways with the night.  She keeps to the passageway
            Again to the lips rise destitution’s archaic formulas. An alternate structure of formulation: everything that happens as though on stage at an opera unfolding plunges into the wings, archives of an almost forgotten act with a factitious wound throbbing beneath its dressings:they play with alternating instants a close game. A body shatters falls back on the couch: “voice mounts in a stain that flattens on the canvas” the nape bears the dark drapery’s fall
            Is there an answer to this discontinuous line that bears myth?
            Is there an answer they repeat?      the jewels—the jewels that keep the symbolic body protect it from falling through the pane.   the song   A formulated city and its stratified pillars.  From which emerge the steps of a Gradiva dressed for the second encounter.
            In the leaves they come slowly back to their body.  They could run on the slick grounds, sliding voice has unfolded, the dressings fall. This hurt ankle does not prevent him from going to meet her
            Light will gather in the awakening of memory put to death and in this array of colors

Translated from the French by Norma Cole
 [AVEC 7, Spring 1994]

Norma then read some work from her new book, WIN THESE POSTERS AND OTHER UNRELATED PRIZES INSIDE, published by Omnidawn.

About this book, Jean Daive has written:

I think deeply that Win These Posters comes first of all from the voice and the modalities of its call. I also deeply think the poems come from the wall and modalities of shouting out like posters, announcements, notices, placards, tags/graffiti, in short anything that cries out, calls, protests exactly like Mayakovsky's posters/signs that set the revolutionary crowds on fire.

And from Etal Adnan:

I really love WIN THESE POSTERS...These poems give us an intense and subtle pleasure, while they sink into a double melancholy: theirs, and ours. Why? "Because [they bring the news that] even the sun has cancer," "which means we're in a war," on "a page of flames." Norma's vision is of a world of ordinary violence mixing with ordinary life, but also of an extreme violence raping the soul. That vision has here surpassed her own intellectual powers, which are amazing, has traversed ages and galaxies, and moved by a seldom encountered profound tenderness for the pain of living, has reached the ultimate unity between mind, heart, and events, in words that leave us totally disarmed."

Here are some excerpts from the spare and shimmering

14000 Facts

Their lives are longer
than they look

in those days, we had
the windows open

there was another freezer
under the freezer


Further harmony
falling from the sky
              lavender oil, meteor
              dust, flakes of gold
              and cinnabar)

                                    too close

     or something

once heard


The limits of my
language are not
the limits of my

blasted world
the dread
the pink cloud

was flesh
and blood


Was killed at, in
can't quite picture it

border imagination
what's locus?

staring at the fog
                       out of




so far you've
failed to die

music                     still
at hand or arm's length

Hermes, the sun
is not ours


Held up at gunpoint
respond with fire

They fished his coat out of the
river and held it up to the fire

to dry.  When moved to
speak, you spoke


Slow walking, play
of evening, the silver
ships measuring time

Venus, a sliver
of time
beyond words        (37-43)

The pleasures are legion in Cole's book, here resonant hum of Keats and Spicer; words lean in and stretch out to one another, become entwined, are pulled apart. I look forward to spending more time with this book.  You should buy it as a holiday present for yourself or someone you love.


Gail Scott was up next and she read from her new book The Obituary, published by Nightboat Books.

Here's some background info about the novel from Scott's blog:

Gail Scott. In the foreground Steve Dickison
photo courtesy of Amy Trachtenberg
Rosine is surrounded by ghosts. Ghosts of family. Ghosts of past lovers. Ghosts of an old Montreal and its politics. Ghosts of the Montreal quarry workers who, in the 1880s, frequented the Crystal Palace gardens, upon whose ruins her Mile-End triplex sits. Her dead maternal family is there, too, with their restlessness, their stories, their forgotten indigenous ancestry, their little crimes and glories. There’s even the ghost of an ancient Parisian gendarme lurking in the dark stairwell, peering through her keyhole.

Rosine herself may be a ghost, her voice splintered -- sometimes a prurient fly buzzing over the action, sometimes a politically correct historian, a woman perpetually travelling on a bus or lying in bed -- and so too is our understanding of narrative. In offering up a kaleidoscopic view of Rosine and her city, The Obituary fractures our expectations of what a novel should be -- allowing the history of assimilation, so violent in the West and so often sidelined by the French–English conflicts of Montreal, to burble up and infect the very language we use.

Though a mystery, possibly involving murder, The Obituary is less a whodunnit than an investigation of who speaks when we speak.
--from Gail Scott's blog

Scott explained that the "plot" of her novel borrows from Dial M for Murder. It includes multiple voices, a lesbian who speaks in footnotes to keep the story on track, a fly, two cops who are surveilling the character, Rosine. The novel is a multilingual work, rich and demanding, and I am eager to have time to dive in. Here's a bit from the delightful beginning:

These Wars on the Radio
Are Keeping Us from Our Own

In pale Mile-End, behind the night sheds, little pink clouds come tippling tippling down. And huge yellow maple leaves, not cold enough to turn red, tumbling, tumbling on regrowing November grass, to lie like yellow hands. From the kitchen radio, the ack-ack-swat of the most sophisticated of bombs weighing up to two tons falling on rubbles of sand + broken stone desert people called home.......Oh X
                                                 do you remember
                                      when Afghan spelt dope
                                         embroidered vests, vast
                                              windswept steppes
                                        with tanned shaggy fashion models
                                                standing slant on them?


I'm that Face on the 3rd. She looks out, barely visible behind those grey venetians in upper Triplex window. This former resident of madame B's in the town of S-D has a reputation for hating children. I also liking cats. Enough not to have one. That overconfident ground-floor Potter with chocolate Lab named Latte feigning shock when I told her that. She's from The Outers, so instead of the friendly tangled back courtyards we used to have, now looking down from Settler-Nun flats onto North American's biggest crop: lawn. Hours get spent artfully arranging plastic lawn sets shaped like dinosaurs in it. Her chocolate Lab following her all day, nuzzling nuzzling trying to get attention. Occasionally she throwing a crumb his way, just enough for keeping addicted.

But whatever inciting me to say my name means French pet, diminutive of multiple layers + possibilities? Rest assured, dear X, a tale's encrypted mid all these future comings + goings of parlour queens, telephone girls, leather divas, Grandpa's little split-tailed fis'. A tale unspeakable as owls in ceaseless vigil staring from eyes round + amber as that  cat Etta's [more of whom soon]. Please be further advised only epiphanic afternoons shall herein be remembered.Circumstantially, I am posturing as woman of inchoate origin [problematically, I can hear you saying]. To underscore how we are haunted by secrets of others. Such as they colporting spite from The Outers to rue Settler-Nun, Mile-End, QC. Further absorbing under surface of community amenity, bitter particles of those going there before--the Shale Pit Workers! Floating up from burnt-down Crystal Palace, whose rotting pylons still directly under. Where once upon a time, when it not being used for smallpox hospice, British officers use to hold their
They were rumored not to like girls like me very much
They also hated Indians.
This is better documented.
By the end of our tale, we may likewise be dead.     (5-7)

About Gail's mesmerizing book, Bob Gluck writes:

It seems to me that Scott's superb novel, The Obituary, is a model for what can be accomplished. It tells a story from all fronts at once and locates itself between English and French. It's a no holds barred book in that it conveys a huge and even brutal sadness, a daring sadness...The alienations that occur inside the self (class, race) are realized on a formal level, and so here is an example of a splendid leap over that great divide, from content to form.

And Carla Harryman notes:

Gail Scott's gorgeous, innovative prose is incomparable. Here we find it in the service of profound work on ethnicity and sexuality. This novel's polyphonic, multi-sited transpositions of the historical past and its ghosts of everyday life, construct a modern subjectivity that has no choice but to refuse historical denial at its sutured core. This is one of the most compelling works of our new century.

I am eager to read more of Scott's book. Aren't you?

Find out more about Norma Cole and Gail Scott at the Poetry Center website.

Buy these and other fabulous small press books at Small Press Distribution.

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