Patrick F. Durgin

Spinoza in Her Youth

Norma Cole
Omnidawn, 2002
$12.95, ISBN 1-890650-09-9

Spinoza in Her Youth is a collection of (mostly) previously published poems, divided into something like "chapters." In fact, if you've kept your eyes on small chapbook and periodical presses over the last several years, much of what you'll find here will be in its definitive form only by virtue of its durable paperback binding. Cole's first such collection since 1996's Contrafact (Potes & Poets Press), Spinoza in Her Youth gleams with a versatile, if not virtuoso, musicianship that reminds us of the pact joining Duncan to Oppen—both books stand as a fine claim to a "new" postmodern lyricism. This collection also demonstrates an intellectual versatility one would expect from such a fine translator of contemporary French poetry. Cole is a careful thinker—the disruptions and drifts of her new collection are placed with care and lead one to their own best thinking, given the chance.

In fact, I'd venture to say that that "chance" is the organizing principle behind this collection. After the perhaps unsuccessfully broad musings and seemingly random reportage of the book's first chapter, "The Vulgar Tongue," the chapter from which the book takes its title is a blessing. "Spinoza in Her Youth" is a fragmented, dramatic (in the mythic, Duncanesque sense) polylogue ostensibly "about" the photographer Evgen Bavcar. From youth, Bavcar slowly went blind, so that in his work he speaks of a synaesthesia that affords him the chance of creating his art, building it from the imagination outwards. The third chapter of the book, "Desire & Its Double," connects again to the Spinozan theme (Spinoza, as with Descartes, was by trade a master of optics). The epigraph to this chapter is from Osamu Ueno and reads: "The genius of Spinoza lies in having discovered a secret liaison that connects … desire to its double. I will try to shed some light on this" (69). Cole is fascinated by the ocular tropes of continental thought, whether poetic or philosophical. And the Spinozan quandary—reconciling the determination of the "will," the function of the senses, the collusion between the imaginary and the real, all in the interest of a cohesive subjectivity—resounds throughout these two chapters. And that sounding is palpable precisely for its lyricism

a book of
the uncommon
day(s) or night(s)
(and) said can
faith or fate
weave personal acts
of perception? (59)

The subject is named for the street.
It is not that kind of sight. From
an adjacent booth, "I'm a hopeful
romanticist." Rediscovering intimacy
or the idled community, undone, her sweater
on backwards "still hanging around"
in the niches of narrative. The word
plot alone can kill you. (64)

The pun on "plot"—narrative, but here also political, given Bavcar's Eastern European heritage—is particularly loaded. What is a chance offered to the senses when it escapes notice as such? We might imagine it as faith, but myth seems closer to the truth—after all, as these poems demonstrate, faith alone will not elucidate the "plot" on which they stand.

Ultimately, Cole invites the reader to go ahead and take a stand with respect to the book, to get involved in that yin and yang scenario in order to bring it to be. One can speak of the all-too-familiar trope of postmodern poetics, "participatory readership," all one likes; as for the author's initial grace in the offering, the jury's still out. If you are attracted to this kind of semantic indeterminacy, a sophisticated one to be sure, this book will make you grateful. Consider this, from the first poem of "Desire and Its Double;"

to say explore the experience the very thought of thought or a
unified theory of the senses. Imagine, you are, going on a trip.
At first there was physical divorce, that is, appearance, that is,
acceptance, a distance. to verify
undone, unmade. Taken apart. the image of an intact yet
the materials at hand
like the idea of reason, that the vision was their faces unmasking
                    shaking sheets ("Putting One's Self in a Situation," 71)

Indeed, "like the idea of reason," those commas ("Imagine, you are, going on a trip.") alight with suggestions and readerly opportunities, as if the imagination of being is a language of journeying, destination: desire. Cole takes broad sweeps but keeps them flush with that most everyday sight we call (in) our language.

Finally, the book is more reminiscent of Oppen's austerity, i.e., Seascape: Needle's Eye, than Duncan's effusiveness. But as much as this collection offers, it's unlikely to offer the kind of stylistic innovations its godparents permitted, in authors such as Lyn Hejinian or Leslie Scalapino, in comparison our generation's master stylists. Yet this readerly journey has a kind of "genius" of its own.



© 2002 Electronic Poetry Review