We worry about the gifts. Unable to sleep, we think to ourselves how best to please her, what gift will be most memorable, anxiously turning over the pages of catalogues or searching the Internet—each of us in our own room, dark except for a ghostly light shed by the computer screen. Next morning we hurry to her house with some token or other purchased earlier, hoping to be among the first to knock at the door and, having been let inside the house by her son, to press into the old woman’s hands a porcelain thimble, a tortoise-shell comb, a bottle of the chocolate liqueur she favors—asking only that we be remembered by her. Not everyone visits her in the morning; some believe that to be among the last of the day’s visitors will leave a more durable impression. Few have nerve enough to forgo a visit even for a single day, especially now that she is failing, the consequences of which have been widely and fervently discussed. I side with those convinced of the worst-case scenario, but I am a habitual pessimist: one of the “doom and gloom camp,” says David, who has known me since childhood. His outlook may be sunnier than mine, but he never misses a visit to the old woman, and his gifts are generous.
The Common is pleased to present the opening pages of Norman Lock’s book-length poem, In the Time of Rat, which will be published by Ravenna Press this winter (2013). In a “narrow measure” muscular as Skelton’s but with the wit, precision, and grace of bonsai, Lock delivers the story of Nicolaas Jansen, “soldier/deserter,” insurgent subject and celebrant of Rat. Not since Ted Hughes’ Crow have we encountered a figure with this much disturbing gravity and charisma, and Rat is the more cunning and mercurial of the two. By the book’s end he has become God’s mimic and shadow, double to soldier and state, patron and incarnation of the impulse to war, that force relentlessly “turning/ what is human into/ meat.”
1. You are a self-described fabulist. In your opinion, what can a fable do that other literary forms cannot?
The fable can be said to be a metaphor or figure so ambitious that it has annexed unto itself the entire fictional space. Like all symbolic language, it possesses extraordinary power to render a particular notion of reality – an idea – with absolute simplicity and efficiency. By simplicity and efficiency, I mean the reduction of complex thought into a unifying field of imagery in order to understand and convey unseen connections between objects or phenomena. The abstraction needn’t be stark. On the contrary, it can be as highly colored and intricately wrought as a Persian miniature or a poem by Wallace Stevens. But however rich in complications and implications, the metaphoric reality (can I call it a “truth”?) is vastly less vexed than what surrounds and oppresses us – by day and by night: our conscious and unconscious, public and private lives.
By fabling, I can explore ideas – treat them playfully – while satisfying my need to make things and to produce beautiful surfaces created entirely of sentences and their syntactical relationship. And I will confess this much: that for a writer like me, no other literature is possible than that whose source is his own imagination and his art. As Stevens wrote, “Poetry is the subject of the poem.”
Fluent in the languages of unnatural death, Luis Boscán set down on thick paper the confessions of the Spanish damned while, outside the cruel chamber furnished ingeniously with instruments of torment, the fountains of Seville produced liquid acanthus leaves to the sound of castanets.
from Alphabets of Desire & Sorrow: A Book of Imaginary Colophons
At St. Mary Bethlehem (which the world calls Bedlam), Jeremy Watt, shut up for insanity, discovered in a maze of scratches scribed by others’ lunatic hands an alphabet with which he might invoke things not apparent to the eye.