Clearview/Lie by Ted Greenwald
(United Artists, New York, 2011)
The Public Gardens: poems and history by Linda Norton
(Pressed Wafer, Boston, MA, 2011)
Both Ted Greenwald and Linda Norton have produced poetry memoirs (sort of) which knock the socks off. Greenwald’s is a book-length poem whereas Norton’s contains individual poems in sections along with a long selection from her personal journals from the late 1980s into the 1990s (Brooklyn Journals). While Greenwald is extremely prolific and rather well recognized as a poet Norton has been operating rather more below the radar but it is now obvious she's been hanging around quietly amassing a remarkably skillful body of work.
Greenwald’s book is a clear indicator that he’s lived a pretty good life, in fact, rather happily so. "For me it's kind of the magic land of the 50s. Lots of nature, lots of possibility if I can keep my mind following itself." This is his record of "following" his own discovery. Discovery of how things work: "Cut myself with a razor blade. What's this? Ow." Alongside discovery of his own self, his background, his parents and siblings as they age together. The Jewish and Marxist roots of his family past fade and are (re-)discovered by him as his family becomes increasingly middle-class. His uncle has shady dealings on the other side of the law, his grandmother and one of his sisters become mentally unstable. He details his life of changing neighborhoods, girlfriends, hanging out with the guys, shoplifting, having the basement room as his own space; all laid out and detailed casually, quite agreeably.
The humor is rampant. Going to the movies while growing up was a regular thing for Greenwald, he recalls one life lesson, "the mores of the movies," he picked up from Hollywood that didn't translate well to the family dinner table.
After eating I guess buffalo meat sitting around the campfire
Ira Gossel, from Brooklyn, who is Cochise finishes eating with
his hands and uses his biceps as a napkin, wiping off the fat
rubbing it into his arms, opines how it wards off the chill.
That night for dinner we have chicken. I pick up a piece,
munch away from my hand, finish, put down the bone,
proceed to rub the grease on my fingers into my arms,
dignified with a thousand mile stare. My parents, everyone at
the table, don't talk all at once, what they hell are you doing.
Just rubbing the fat in, I say, it's good to ward off the chill.
Go wash. Don't do that again.
These are life lessons: how to get on. And get by. It's encouraging and enjoyable reading. And the tales are as much about living well as about writing well.
When Greenwald touches upon his own thoughts as far as his having any kind of poetics goes, these instances are as mirthful as the rest of the book.
After I'm publishing work more than ten years I teach a
workshop, never let people in it discuss what a work means.
Anything can mean anything.
My reasoning, the people who show up, they're ambitious
about what they're doing, and I figure, okay, you're ambitious,
you have something there you don't know what you have, sort
of, let's look at it. Find where is it, if there's a poem here.
On the other hand, Linda Norton doesn't strike me as being particularly ambitious in this sense. But her writing is honed to a clear gleam.
Self Portrait with a Grudge
Bow down Your ear,
O lord, hear me; for
I am poor and needy.
He took everything
though I gave him so much more.
She looks back on her personal history with tough self-reckoning which she then crystal cuts to near sparkling perfection. Her bearing down on experience to yield the truths of life lived has no fluff. She holds to hard facts, "Bathetic to say: my family was like that. Oblivion looked good to us." ("January 8, 1993") Her family is a chief subject of the book: the ups and mostly downs of the family roots from which she has come.
February 13, 1993
My father's birthday. My brother Michael called me, drunk and sobbing:
"I'm doomed, Linda. I'm doomed. Look what happened to the other two.
I'm doomed, I'm next."
Brooklyn Journals serves as a hymn to the loss of her brother Joseph. Her journal writing searches to find her own place in his absence, both from and in reaction to her family as well as within herself.
Since Joey died—an inability to believe I have a future—a feeling that it is vulgar to go on—to think that I could have time—when that was denied him. My mother says, "Linda, you are smart, but Joey—he was brilliant." While he was alive she found his intelligence and his homosexuality so—queer. Now his intelligence is invoked to put me in my place. He grows larger and larger in death while I disappear. ("August 23, 1987")
She continually measures herself against her brother. Remembering his sense of style and how ahead of her he seemed, with music, with poetry even, reading O'Hara before her, recalling to herself how shocked she was by "The cover, a drawing of the poet, naked, uncircumcised." She finds evidence and reminders of him scattered throughout her memories of the period. He dies and she continues detailing her work life and her marriage life. But his presence is inescapable, the era of AIDS contributing to the list of daily reminders as another member of her community are struck by its blow.
Went to see Robert at the Algonquin. He's in town to live it up while he dies. Last year when he was here, he took me to lunch in Soho and tossed his AZT pills on the table dramatically as he announced that he had AIDS. He looked fabulous as usual in a great suit with his head of gorgeous silver hair. (My brother died the week before the discovery of AZT was announced. It has changed what is possible after the diagnosis, at least for some people.) ("October 18, 1988")
Norton lives on. Switches through jobs, moves to a new house in a new neighborhood with her husband, and becomes pregnant. The entries detailing the pregnancy, birth, and baby years with changes in her body and sense of herself shifting as she enters motherhood are as stringently lean and direct as any other. Facing the visceral realities of living, the writing continues, rocked by memory.
October 2, 1994
Another anniversary, eight years, Joseph; two days before I am due to
give birth. It's the other half of my New York parentheses: that death,
She is due, or I am due, or we are both due, on October 4th.
I can see the baby's heel under my left rib.
Norton's unflinching willingness to reality check herself in writing while retaining the allure of the lyric is demonstrative of her skill at distancing herself from the facts of which she writes without losing any of the charms or pain which it may hold for her. Even when relationships with loved ones are pained or beyond repair, the all too human responses remain.
After we gave up, you put a record on.
Django Reinhardt played hard
on the other side of the room.
You started to snore.
An hour into it
A sideman shouted
And woke you up.
("Goodness and Mercy")
Norton shares her losses: at the death of brothers, the unfolding of her marriage, historical readings/visions of society in her visits home to family in Boston, and finally her relocation to California for work. She's found what abides is observing moments of one's life, being aware of what's happening as it happens. There's joy to be found round daily business.
Lots of pelicans diving into and rising out of Lake Merritt this morning.
Stopped my bike to watch. Perfectly happy.
On the way home I stop for an egret in the crosswalk.
("The Days: San Francisco, Oakland, New York")
And that's enough, really. Poetry, after all, is commonly made up of such stuff, especially when accompanied along with the weight of knowledge that there's so much more back of it.
As Greenwald asks, "Is anyone, how happy really?" It's more rhetorical than anything. For "what makes a person, how's / anyone think let alone, let it alone, feel that way" is an open condition everybody wakes and walks into every day of life. These are a couple of books that take pleasure in demonstrating how life goes, as Greenwald says:
Books, really great. Have a long romance going with them.
Even write some.
Sometimes you really are that lucky.
Patrick James Dunagan lives in San Francisco and works in Gleeson library at University of San Francisco. His most recent book is There Are People Who Think That Painters Shouldn't Talk: A GUSTONBOOK (Post Apollo, 2011), other writing of his appears in Amerarcana, Barzakh, The Critical Flame, Fulcrum, House Organ, New Pages, Poetry Project Newsletter, Rain Taxi, Sous les Paves, Switchback, and Wild Orchids.