Thursday, August 24, 2006


Some manuscripts become published because they present a unique way of organizing and presenting the material. They provide a novel context. Some manuscripts get published based on the strength of the language, sound, rhythm and content of the writing. Camille Norton’s Corruption was probably chosen for both its concept and its content. Corruption is the story of a life as it becomes corrupted (read educated?) by pleasure and learning, by the internecine warfare between the heart and the mind.

In the first part of Corruption the National Poetry Series winning book, Camille Norton deftly weaves a contemporary speaker into the lives of Florentine paintings done during the age of Medici rule, a ruling family that was as noted for its corruption as it was the birth of the Italian Renaissance.

Using the material culture of the Medicis, a green baize (felt) table, paintings by Caravaggio, Savonarola’s cape, Norton meditates on their significance during their time while she marries them with a contemporary speaker who is in the midst of various sorts of bodily corruption. In doing so, she seems to be equating the era of licentiousness among the Medicis to the obsession with bodily pleasure in our own.

The speaker in these poems, however, is more than nostalgically equating these two eras in human history. The setting in both this time and Medici Florence serves the purpose of letting the speaker explore the mysteries of desire, particularly that of the feminine in its complicated system of restrictions and allowances. She sees hints of the feminine in a painting by Buonaroti hanging in The Gallery of Slaves. A slave that is depicted appears to be indistinct with regard to gender, but despite the young slave’s beauty, Norton’s contemporary speaker sees the slave as “imitating that look we call femininity.” The speaker recognizes the submissive role of the slave as one that inscribes the feminine, and it is this role that the contemporary speaker in the book continually negotiates, negotiating how the submissive must subjugate desire.

Paired with this contemporary speaker’s focus on the curtailment of desire is another concern for the life of the mind. The speaker sees the life of the mind as a dark and heavy counterpart to the life in the physical world where beauty reigns.

The Ideal City

Anonymous, c. 1475, Tempera on Panel,
Calleria Nazionale Delle Marche, Urbino

for Maurine Stuart, Roshi (1922-1990)

After a long exile, the city of the mind must look like this—
placid because uninterrupted by what happens next

and therefore pleasing, pleasing and empty.

Here the light clicks across the white and gray
Carrara marble and pietra serena

going nowhere, intending nothing.
It is beautiful. It is itself.

Light then, light as it breezes through
vacant piazzas and quiet loggias,

light as it unravels,
illuminating interiors where no one lives or dies or loses ground.

Light as a systematic display of single point perspective
hastening now around the columns of the rotunda

then slipping through a small red door
into the refuge of a stanza.

All your life you thought of such a room and then you found it.

When a woman starting up from the sensible world
catches sight of beauty, she should not look back

at all she used to love. Her body moves
into a light so absolute it casts no shadow.

Nobody here, nothing to do, you said in your hospital bed.

Then you disappeared.

The body is pitted against the mind in its ideal city, empty and therefore beautiful. Yet it is surprising how frequently Norton champions the mind despite what is signaled in the verse. These poems are intelligent, scholarly. It is not surprising to see how Campbell McGrath would find this collection so appealing. The poems make their mark because of the careful attention employed and the connections derived from these observations, connections which range all over the map. This is not to say that Norton has as much of a prose-ish ear as McGrath. There are many areas in the book where image and sound take precedent, and it is clear that Norton finds the feminine beauty more attractive than male logos.

In section 2 of Corruption Norton turns her gaze away from historic depictions as they appear in works of art and towards a speaker’s experience (presumably Norton’s own experience).

But in “Camera Obscura” the poem that serves as the title for section 2 of the book, Norton reveals:

When I looked down I could see
straight into the heart of a scene, only in reverse,
so that I saw history first, then the transfer
of the present bleeding through the pinholes
like light on the screen of my mother’s face,
the way it settled unhappily there

Seeing first the past in the present is an obscure perspective for sure. But it helps to explain why the past is always cropping up in section 1, where the Medici Era seems more securely fastened to her work than the present day. The Medici helps to explain the temperament of our own time. This obscure perspective also helps to explain why in section 2, as Norton reflects on the construction of her self, she finds her first impulse to see how the past helped to shape her temperament, her push to pursue the life of the mind as compensation for an apparent lack of it in her childhood.

Section 2 is the autobiographical section, the section where Norton spreads her life (especially her familial life) before the reader. None of these is more affecting than her poem for her father where she tries to visit him after he has died through an opening into the dream world. She does so in order to repair what had been damaged between them, but she is rebuked and finds the settling of the real material world has exacted a resolution to their relationship.


The night my father died the salt and the rain went out of him.

leaving behind a reverberation
like sunlight skimming through glass

It was like that just after
and for some time
it was like that

like light behind film strip, a ticking mutability in everything
left behind on the nightstand, it was so little, it was nothing
in the way of effects
He had nothing to leave us—

his poor man’s watch winding down imperceptibly in its steel case,
the narcotic trade in empty pill cups, nine copies of his brother’s
face on nine 1987 Mass cards, his radios, his radio batteries,
his hearing aid (despised, cast off, it never fit),
The Philadelphia Inquirer folded at the spine as he would have
folded it,
his white cotton handkerchiefs, clean and triple-creased—
he did not die penniless, exactly—

the object world survived him
And it was animate

Animate with its own disappearance
as if it had bubbles in it, tiny apertures
and pinpricks of negative space
through which we would all disappear sooner or later

Why this should console me I cannot say but it did
and I knew, even as I stood in the door of his closet,
that when the scent of his shirts began to degrade
I could do nothing to stop it
though I must have felt I could follow it as if it were

a thread
leading to the other side of matter
where the problem of matter is repaired

They say that you should not importune the dead
too soon in their dying

because they go on dying awhile elsewhere

But one night soon after we buried him,
while I lay sleeping in my father’s bed,
I knocked at his dream and entered it

He seemed surprised, as if I were an acquaintance
who had climbed the stairs on a whim, without invitation
He was sitting mildly on a small chair in a clean blue shirt
He was young and slim, my bachelor’s father, he was unaware
that he was young and slim, that his hair was black
as a pirate’s, that he would ever grow old or that I
would ever be born
Until he said: I’m dead, can’t you see that?
Get away from here
And I was out, out with a force

I trespassed and survived it

Then my sister’s hands were on me.
She was warm, she smelled of chocolate
She brought me water in a bathroom cup
that had ridges in it from where it had melted
in the dishwasher a long time ago
We talked ourselves to sleep, we slept
past the broad stripes of July sun
ticking across the pavement
We slept all afternoon
and when we woke

the surface of the world had slipped
and locked into place
between our bodies and the myriad portals
through which the branching streams
flow in the darkness

From this poem Norton further explores the nature of an indeterminate intermediate state between the living and the dead. In a series of poems related tobardos (a Tibetan word that refers to, among Buddhists, the state of existence between incarnations), she enters into a dialog with her parents (though mostly her mother) while they are in their transitional states and wonders why they were the way they were. Norton’s “mind is crying out” to them and contemplating some regrets (her mother’s dissembling mind) she still has, wondering what piece of her parents is left in her.

What part of you belongs to me,

bitter, beautiful woman?
Spit on the ground.

Come back to your body.
Your own mind’s shining before you,

all that willfulness, bad temper,
all that toughness carried lightly

The contemplation of her parent’s imprint brings the speaker in section 2 to examine herself for the choices she has made in her life, (“and if we choose, what do we choose—the manner of our arrival or of our departure?) the choice of where love’s pleasures have been taken, the choices of relationships squandered and built. All the while the speaker is badgered about these choices by the mother.

I’m forty-eight and I hear my mother
in the well of my bed, like a bellwether rising late

from the dream of loneliness:
You chose this, you chose this

In section 3 of the book Norton further screws into the self she has created. However, the self vanishes in “Monday Music,” an unusual piece from the perspective that the speaker’s self is derived from a vanished Monday Music Club 1912 that, again prefaces the past within the present. In this case, like the music club, Norton’s speaker seems to be flattening and disappearing, a fallen subject that has attained its vanishing point.

Monday Music

Nobody, no one, not one, not a single one
hears me at the piano playing the white keys.

I make a truant sound.
I am as eloquent as anything

I heard in the world on Sunday.

Do you remember those conversations?
Accidental, repetitious as language in dreams?

I wonder why it is I know so little
about the black keys,

how they marry and come apart
in the history of a scherzo

or in the history of a scene
in which I play myself

playing only the white keys.

Sometimes I write myself
into a sheet of music

using the usual notations,
my little signs and jokes

of self disappearing.

White, white paperwhites
bloom in winter.

There are birches outside the house.
White crocuses in the snow.

The house is white too.

Above the door, on the lintel,
someone’s carved the words

Monday Music Club 1912.

Before the first war happened and the other wars,
the door swings open on its iron hinge

and there’s no one at the piano,

nobody I tell you,

as the door swings open.

Like the diminishing sustain of a piano key, this speaker floats into white noise, which is aptly signaled with the paperwhites, white crocuses, birches in winter. The emanation for this speaker seems eerily to be a historical point which, though it has made its imprint in the past, no longer has much effect on the present in its insubstantial form.

This piece is the gateway to section three because it leaves the historical self behind and ventures forward as a self inscribing itself in the world, sometimes to the point of its own negation. The self navigates its cultural present and even turns to forms in nature in “Songs Against Ending,” the hedonistic fruit fly, the multi-gendered earthworm, the wayfaring and embattled water beetle, the moth holding to its own shape and aesthetic. These are Norton’s totem animals in section 3. They are her guides and stencils to the shaping of self. Later, in “Wild Animals I Have Known” Norton invokes animals as stand-ins, but these animals are not taken from nature but rather from animals in stories, fables, and mythology: the Frog Prince, The Ugly duckling, the “clone,”the hydromedusa, and Babe the Blue Ox. In this way the self is not shaped in a cultural abyss, without information being thrown into the mix. References to Stein and Levertov also appear as well as language from “Hush” that sounds vaguely Deleuze & Guattari-like.

. . . like minimalist
compositions scored to re-
repeat, repeat, repeat

the pulse of machines
the pulse of our desiring
to live in machines

However, it is in “Ugly Duckling” where Norton/Norton’s speaker makes its clearest identity statement:

I speak from here, where pressure blooms

out of me like a baby or like a sac
of meaning and what I want to say

is that I am not what I was. I am
a changeling, half-creaturely,

half other-than-creature,
like a mind inside a body

or like a coil inside a girl,
her sleeping snake, her phallic shape

waking into utterance.

The line that is most interesting is the “half other–than-creature.” Would this mind inside a body be like the software that runs the CPU? Is this the cultural programming that the speaker seems to allude to again and again in section 3?

Norton reminds us that the self is not a SCUBA diver, contained all by itself within its separate domain. The exchanges are with the historical and natural primarily, but also with the literary and the musical, and all of these play a part in fixing the self within its grid of operations. The instructions are played out for the self again and again until the “file” is corrupted, unable to be retrieved, vanished into the unparseable.

I suspect some might find Norton’s work, like Campbell McGrath’s, a bit too scholarly. The historical artifacts embedded within the verse might strike some as treatise-like, and for this reason, they might seem unfriendly to the common truck driver or cafe waitress who needs to know nothing about the machinations of the Medicis in pre-Renaissance Florence. To this, I respond with curiosity. I wonder what makes this presumption so. Is it all working-class people who have no appreciation for the cultural and historical presence in their daily lives? Or is it only American working class people who, as they are too frequently depicted in movies and TV, damned righteous about their ignorance. The reality always strikes me as far from this kind of depiction. In this regard, the backdrop for many of the historical poems in section 1 are not solely accessible to someone with an advanced degree. They are for everyone who has ever wrestled with how the heart finds a mind to attach to, and how the mind gives way to the heart even as both are undercut by the body’s demands. This is the story of mutual corruption of heart and mind and the natural impulse that makes it possible.

Note: For those within hollerin’ distance of this blog’s point of emanation, please bear witness to the fact that Camille Norton will appear Mon. Sept. 25 at 7:30 PM at the Sacramento Poetry Center for a reading.


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