So-called “alternative” poetics always end up construed as self-conscious investigations into what it means for poems to be poems. This is an important question—one not asked nearly enough—though it need not be the only question such a book can pose. The routine appearance of certain approaches to poetry can make one tack seem mainstream and another oddball, and it’s this very social comparison that results in the distinction between the two. Oakland resident Linda Norton’s The Public Gardens: Poems and History (Pressed Wafer, 2011), however, conforms neither to the expectations readers might have for the traditional or the experimental. A hybrid work of poems fused with journal entries to make one semi-autobiographical gestalt doesn’t give itself over to either template easily. One might want to look for formal innovation, and formal innovation is certainly there. But the unvarnished confessionalism of The Public Gardens refuses any singular lens, whether conventional or meta-poetic.
Through its combination of genres and styles, the collection—just recently nominated as a finalist for the 2012 Los Angeles Times Book Prize—examines conceptions of history and its drawing board, time, in a way as analytic as it is human. Norton’s sources and starting points are indiscriminate: her own notes, diaries, and apostrophic laments; quotations and epigraphs from Hazlitt, Castellanos, Berryman, Silesius, and others; a waterlogged Bible found in the Lower Ninth Ward two years after Hurricane Katrina. Along the way she documents her relationship with religion and spirituality, those metaphysical accounts themselves so dependent on the text of scripture for communication. But she keeps her eyes on the ground. “What she sees, we have all seen and passed by. But she has paused and noted it,” Fanny Howe writes in the book’s introduction, echoing Joan Didion’s comments on her own compulsion to take notes. And then later: “She hates what she loves.” Here we have both the raw data and the research materials, the hypotheses and the counterfactuals, the thoughts and the poems that follow, and the whole rainbow of emotions.
The Public Gardens might be read as a book of poems about how poems come into being, about how one should interpret or visualize the process of its creation, and thereby that of history. But more than this it is a handbook for that process: the moving in and out of the multiplicity of histories from which all works arise. In this way, the collection, if it offers a theory of anything, offers a theory of poetic practice in which experience and literature are continuous with one another. There’s a sense of unfinishedness about the book, and perhaps it is this that makes the meanings it toys with—some to keep, some to discard, all to consider—more likely to be real, more likely to stay.
I took some time last week to talk with Linda about her most recent book. Our conversation is reproduced below.
Kenyon Review: Let’s start with the title (The Public Gardens) and the subtitle (Poems and History). They both make sense to me in light of your project; the book weaves between more conventional-looking “poems” and the meditative, diary-esque section “Brooklyn Journals.” But in some ways, too, the subtitle seems redundant: could one write a poem without having some sort of history (setting aside the idea that language itself is a history)? Do you think it would be possible for a poet to write unaware of, or even in willful ignorance of, their own past?
Linda Norton: I certainly think it’s possible for a poet, young or old, to write in ignorance or unawareness of history. Happens all the time.
I took a poetry class at the 92nd Street Y in New York when I was 29. Most of the students were older. In that class I learned how ignorant I was. Not because the teacher told me I was stupid, but because I could see how much I hadn’t read. How much I had to learn. (I guess it’s not ignorance if you’re interested in remedying it.)
One definition of history is: the study of change over time. Songs and lyrics are made in time—but the time about which I am writing in this book is both lyric time and time writ large.
“History doesn’t repeat itself—but it rhymes.” (Sounds like something Twain would have said, though no one knows if he really did.) The prose section of my book is composed so that it contains lots of those sorts of rhymes. And then those internal prose rhymes are echoed again in the poems in the other three sections of The Public Gardens, which work more traditionally with the sort of time associated with lyric poetry.
When I gave a reading from my book last fall in New York, I had just come from the 9/11 Anniversary show at P.S. 1, and I was thinking about the artist Susan Hiller’s work about heroic acts that cut life short. There is the life lived in terms of years in the body, and the same life as it exists in terms of representation. This is another way of thinking about historical time and poetry and the work I am doing with language and documentary.
The natural history of disease—like the bubonic plague, or schizophrenia—of transmission, infection, or genetics—is also fascinating to me—the science, the geography, the pain, the fear—“Even these ashes might have been pleasures,” to quote Robert Duncan’s “This Place Rumord to Have Been Sodom”—the way HIV first appeared in the world, how it mutated and traveled, how long it took to get to San Francisco and New York, to David Wojnarowitz, Felix Gonzales-Torres, my brother Joseph, who died in 1986 at 24—to “the friend who did not save my life”—and so many others in so many circumstances. It was incubating. We didn’t know it. What else will we know in time?
KR: In “Brooklyn Journals” you describe a conversation with Stanley and Susan, two married friends who were Holocaust survivors—liberated from Auschwitz by the Russians. It was 1994, you write, and you’d all gone out to a diner after seeing Schindler’s List together. At one point, when Susan tries to dampen Stanley’s anger by changing the subject, the discomfort is palpable: “If only it weren’t the Holocaust, weren’t History that hurt so much.” I’m interested in your capitalization of history here. Is there a difference between history and History? If so, given that so much of the book is devoted to what might be called “personal history,” how do you see that divide?
LN: There’s Slavery and Jim Crow and the Holocaust and the Great Irish Famine and Ellis Island and the Risorgimento and AIDS—and then there are the people, my people—me. It used to shock me when the tragic would smash into the mundane or the absurd or the bathetic. I was idealistic and parochial, so I suppose I was more easily shocked than many. But that kind of abrasion—the past, in a body in the present—occurs when there’s intimacy—attention being a form of intimacy, and a responsibility.
I suppose in that instance you describe, I was also trying to understand something about marriage and gender in a very large historical context. I was young and married and was trying to understand what I was supposed to do with the male ego, which was turning out to be a big and confusing responsibility, though I was supposedly embarked on an egalitarian marriage. I’ve always been a student of marriage, bad ones and better ones, though I dropped out of that school.
KR: The book, as a whole, frequently samples from other works of art—or even, as is the case with Wittgenstein’s Remarks on Color, works about (in at least one way) works of art. Remarks on Color gets mentioned in the December 1, 1991 journal entry, and then an excerpt appears as the epigraph to “Patterns for Arans”: “We could paint semi-darkness in semi-darkness. And the ‘right’ lighting of a picture could be semi-darkness.” The poem takes as its subject matter the history and practical philosophy encoded in the weavings the women of the Aran Islands create. What do physical objects contribute to ideas of ancestry? To call a picture’s lighting “semi-dark” would seem, also, to call it “semi-light,” and so I wonder if there’s a sort of mute, existential relativism going on in the poem—a surrendering of history to its own devices, so to speak.
LN: Well—I was raised in a patriarchal religion and was trained to believe in absolutes, right and wrong, light and dark, all the usual polarities, particularly the ones associated with misogyny. I put myself through college at a nice Jesuit liberal arts college, but I lost my faith—as we say—and it was a faith to which I really did try to cling. Frantz Fanon said there are two kinds of people who suffer: those who know something and those who know nothing. I write of course from the position of being both kinds of people—an ambiguous position—though ambiguity was something against which I struggled well into my thirties. I wanted to know what was right and wrong so I could follow the rules and be good. Not a good place from which to become a free woman, or the mother of one.
After I had a baby, I had to give up the fight to be an irreproachable daughter, wife, worker. In other words, I had a nervous breakthrough—“negative capability” as a survival strategy, after I’d exhausted all other options. It was as if all my years of walking and looking and thinking and listening to music and reading became part of my body and my life—“I had the deed by heart, and so I owned it”—to quote from my own poem, “Landscaping for Privacy” (a poem inspired by the landscape architect and gardener, Gertrude Jekyll, and, more obscurely, by Robert Caro’s biography of New York’s “Master Builder,” Robert Moses).
KR: “Patterns for Arans,” you note in the back of the book, takes a good amount of its phrasing from a knitting manual. This seems directly related to the way sewn patterns are themselves passed down from one generation to the next, and so I was wondering if you think about text at all in terms of such patterns. Is the written or printed word even comparable to stitching in any sense, whether we’re speaking of structures or of the information those structures contain?
LN: Women’s history, or the lack of it, and a certain language-less-ness, and the hidden or lost world of maiden names, and the legacies of colonialism—these are themes that run throughout the book.
I grew up with only one living grandparent, my mother’s mother, who came from Sicily and never really learned to speak English. She and my mother and aunts and uncles spoke (or whispered or shouted—nothing in between) only Sicilian when they were together around us grandchildren.
But even without language, we all felt close to our grandmother. She was always sewing, mending, gardening, making rag rugs, crocheting, cooking. And we were with her when she did these things. There was nothing fussy or self-conscious about the craft or the materials.
My other grandmother, my father’s mother, was an Irish immigrant, a domestic who was unmarried when she gave birth to him in 1932. We didn’t know her and weren’t supposed to know about her. But seventeen years ago, I started to learn a great deal about her, and much of it complicated the narrative of shame and womanhood with which I was raised. So I suppose “Patterns for Arans” is a poem for both those women. I really don’t want to romanticize the white ethnic immigrant experience in America, and the “found language” of the poem allows me to pay tribute on a slant.
KR: The Public Gardens is full of references to artists and art—there’s a quote from de Kooning about Pollock, an excerpt from an errata slip in the MOMA edition of Van Gogh’s letters, and a few lines of “gestural descriptions” from da Vinci’s notebooks about the not-then-painted Last Supper. “Brooklyn Journals,” too, is filled with imagistic recollections of your brother prior to his death. On October 16, 1987, you write, “Today I had an urge to play a photograph on a turntable, as if the needle would find a groove in the picture and reveal a song, and information, that we cannot see.” The fascination with physical mediums of history is manifold, here. As information storage moves online, how much will history—both personal and even, say, national—change?
LN: I was married to a painter for fourteen years and lived in New York for much of that time. I spent a lot of time in the studio, around artists, and in galleries and museums.
I have been to Italy just once, when I was about two months pregnant. After looking at hundreds of paintings of the annunciation, the nativity, the crucifixion, the deposition, and the resurrection in Rome and Florence, it was fantastic to get to Venice and see modern abstraction in the Guggenheim—like eating steamed broccoli after a steady diet of bread and rare meat. But even Christian figurative painting is abstract, is paint and form, in addition to being “devotional”—a good lesson for someone like me—and one exemplified by the Sienese paintings that I love.
I’ve learned a lot about writing from looking at paintings and also photographs—particularly the photographs of August Sander and Walker Evans, “the master of the edge.” I like the shape of paragraphs and stanzas and pages and frames. And portraits. Rembrandt said he could see a person’s “term”—his life sentence, his end, already written—in the faces of the people he painted. If you look, you can see. (Certainly, nursing a child for several years, looking into her face, gave me a whole different idea about physicality and looking and seeing.)
And there’s something about the work of the hands—I keep diaries and journals and copy lots of things from the books I read, because the physical act of writing is important and liberating to me—it’s one thing to sing “la la la,” another to write it in cursive, and something altogether different to type it on a keyboard.
KR: You note that you wrote “The Stars,” an erasure of a page of the Book of Job, after finding a “rain-soaked” Bible in the Lower Ninth Ward two years after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. Is “write” the correct word to use when speaking about creating an erasure? In this case, both the text and the object containing the text were, in the most literal sense possible, “found.” Can one own or author an erasure, and are “original” poems themselves—if they’re constructed out of a deconstruction of history—sort of erasures?
You’re right—I should have said that I “found” that poem—or I “saw” it. I definitely didn’t write it. It’s from a series called “Wet Psalms.” I only put one of them in the book. I wish I’d included a few more of them. They’re erasures, or subtractions, from pages of that bible.
In this way these poems are like the collages that I make, and like “Brooklyn Journals”—composition as explanation, to quote Gertrude Stein. (Painters taught me about negative space—now I can find it or make it myself.)
I don’t think I mention Walter Benjamin in this book, though I do quote him in my online essay, “The Great Depression and Me.” But, like Benjamin, I have wanted to make “a tissue of quotations” (as we are each the tissue of flesh, blood, genetics and experience). He said he wanted to make something from language the way wine is made from grapes. Before I am a writer, I am reader. I want others to read the writers I quote—to go back to them, or to discover them.
KR: The poem-filled sections of The Public Gardens frequently incorporate bits of the Psalms, and of religious symbolism in general. Although you write about moving away from Catholicism, there seems to be a very definite lament for its mythology and aesthetic qualities in the book. Can the curation of one’s past be a way of appreciating that past while still moving out of it? When you were putting together The Public Gardens, did you find that your perception of your own history had changed?
I like your use of the word curation. But I don’t think I am so capable of picking and choosing in the way that word implies, at least not when it comes to the Catholic mythology, shame, iconography with which I was indoctrinated. It’s just in me, though I am not a Catholic anymore. I reject the Church, but not the materials, images, or rituals. And, yes, writing the book changed me, or made me realize how much I have changed. To make use of Catholicism, as a woman and a writer—to complicate it, own it, and to make my life and book whole with it—instead of having the Church split me, or shame me—that is a change.
In her introduction to the book, Fanny Howe mentions my use of Scripture. She credits me with doing something I had not known I was doing—which is of course a great thing about making art.
I do bring all my people together in this book, though they are people who are not together anywhere else in my life. The quotations from the common language of the Old Testament (along with music, and cities) are one of the things that made this possible.
John Brown read from his beloved Psalms on his way to the gallows. I think John Brown’s body is everywhere in my book, though I didn’t include him by name in the text.
KR: What is it about public gardens (or public spaces in general) that engenders fascination, a sense of the past, or of contemplation? Before the collection even begins, really, readers are faced with an epigraph by John Loudon, from an 1843 edition of Gardeners Magazine, that welds the privacy of grief to some far-off social utility: “The greater the number of present cemeteries, the greater the number of future present gardens.” Gardens appear in so many other places, too: George Berkeley’s treatise on perceptual relativity, Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous, begins when Philonous encounters Hylas in a garden—and one can’t forget, of course, the first book of Genesis. How does the notion of a shared physical space play into history, and what was the thinking behind the title?
The concept of an American cemetery as a public garden evolved out of the carnage of the Civil War. What do you do with all that death? (The older Puritan cemeteries in New England were scattered everywhere—beautiful, but more austere. We thought nothing of walking through cemeteries on the way to school, or to the store on a trip to get beer or gum—not something that kids do in California).
I didn’t consciously think of Robert Lowell when I first titled the book, though I write about him and his Boston Brahmins in “Brooklyn Journals.” But of course I am claiming a history and a space for myself and others when I use a title that refers to the author of “The Union Dead.” American history (democracy, slavery, Olmsted’s cemeteries and public gardens, the Robert Gould Shaw memorial in the Boston Common): these things are my inheritance as they were Lowell’s, though my grandparents didn’t arrive in this country until well into the twentieth century. My great-grandmothers could not read or write their names or anything else, and my grandmothers were seamstresses and domestics, working for people like the Lowells. In some ways, my being a writer is “an accident of literacy,” to use Edwige Danticat’s phrase, and the fact that I write in English is a legacy of colonialism.
In fact I am more like Lowell than not, now—unbelievably to me—and why is that, and what do I do with that, in a country built by people even more nameless than the poorest immigrants who came here from Europe hundreds of years later? (“The winners write the history, the losers write the songs”—poets being winner-losers.)
Historical legacies (including beauty, madness, mother wit, song) are everywhere in my book—and, for that matter, in streets, libraries, and cemeteries, and in all public spaces. I like the title, The Public Gardens, obviously; but I could just as well have called the book My Singing Teachers—the name of Mel Tormé’s memoir—a book I’ve never read, a title I’ve always loved.