The West’s strategy concerning death is to pretend it doesn’t exist. When this fails – at a funeral; over a compost bin; after house demolitions – the next move is to cover it up or spruce it up, and, when those additional strategies sputter, to “turn in, those hordes of us who need not know the night”. The preceding quotation is plucked from “Super’s Report”, the opening poem of Peter Norman’s The Gun That Starts the Race. It’s tempting to see Norman as the reluctant but faithful super, issuing reports – on paper, with a gun’s reverberations – and handing his “torch to the night shift guy”, “torch”, like “reports”, taking on the double meaning of violence and necessary communication of unpleasant fate. Here, as in many other poems of decay and disorder, Norman’s tone – at once pungent and even – recalls general communal views of the expired, pre-WWI, where, as related in Philippe Ariès’ Western Attitudes Toward Death, the final event was observed as “a public ceremony ... including children ... with no theatrics, with no great show of emotion”.
A ridiculous ‘don’t go gentle into that good night’ railing is absent, but so too is passive resignation. Norman keeps a fearless gaze at nothingness (and moreso, the longer look at dissolution) when engraving disturbing yet commonplace images into the reader’s altered mindscape. And it’s not all folded tents and burial rites. In “Note For the Newly Hatched”, the author, in lines trading rhythms with the strength and incision of a pit saw, champions the ugly birth, the “clot of eggs,/as one, burst open ... Creep/with lustful courage/on the corpses of your siblings.”, only possible because of that other inconvenient truth.
This sounds grim, overwhelmingly so (not that there’s anything wrong with that!), but whereas lesser writers have us reaching for the razor blade or concoction of pills after forty (or two) poems, Norman’s creations are sparked with mordant humour and a coupled sound/sense mastery.
There are too many lines, (“plump tumour, savaged gum, unseeing eye./And yet the smoke she breathes is grey and painless”; “God’s at his dice again. He cannot hear/my ash’s prayers over his mathematics.”), too many poems, to quote from here to do the book justice, but Norman has achieved that rare thing in poetry at any time: a startling vision which is passionately ordered and realized.