By Jon Norman
Edited by James Stidfole
($19.95, (7” X 10”) Paperback, 185 pages, with 10 b&w photographs)
This is a remarkable book of poems by Jon Norman (1944 – 1988) arguably one of the finest post-war poets born in New London, CT., edited by James Stidfole (1944 – 2019).
Described by Associate Professor Mark Goldsmith of Mitchell College as “Brilliantly organized into a coherent whole…” it is filled with six sections of poetry, each coherent in of itself, which guide you through the main phases of Jon’s life. The final section “Out of the dark” concludes with a wonderful poem pleading on behalf of us all to clothe our days in creativity.
As you read Jon’s poems you enter a world of concepts and images that are multi-layered, multifaceted, intense, passionate, lyrical and complex. They will leave you at times motionless and open-mouthed as if caught in the headlights of the burning vision and language of a member of the generation who Mark Goldsmith rightly asserts is desperately searching for the “moral high ground―and ultimately personal and cultural redemption… in a modern world of enormous capabilities to do what is right and good.”
It is simply a wonderful book and its essence is captured in the ineffably beautiful final poem “A Raiment of Days” from which the title was taken. It is a fitting tribute to Jon Norman and his life: family, friends, and Little Red Tree Publishing are immensely proud of the result.
It must be understood that Jon Norman was, at the core, a musician. In the most classical sense, he was a troubadour. His poetry, then, lives most acoustically. One or two of his poems are actually very difficult to understand unless they are heard. Even his own family did not “hear” what he was doing until they heard these works performed. We had the pleasure, although “pleasure” is not really the right word, of hearing Jon perform his works in readings throughout the Southeastern Connecticut region. The most obvious example of this is “Sonnet: Two Characters in a Political Poem” (page 46). To have heard Jon perform this poem was not unlike being caught in the gyre of a maelstrom. The hammer sound of each word, isolated, and then followed by a building acoustical (and ultimately intellectual) pattern that resolved into the peace of the “sunbeam,” left audience after audience so stunned as to be unable to even applaud. You are encouraged to read Jon’s work out loud.
Jon was born and raised in New London, Connecticut. His father, Victor, was a master of classical music. His outlet for that was his creation of the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra. For decades, Victor Norman and the ECSO were inseparable. His public persona was “maestro.” To support his family, on the other hand, Victor Norman worked in the education department of the company that created the most destructive weapons system ever created by man, the fleet of Trident nuclear missile submarines for the United States Navy. Thus, for Victor’s son, the conflict within one life of creating a musical structure intended to bring incredible beauty to life set against helping to create a series of machines that were capable of quite literally wiping all life off the face of the earth was a daily presence and was destined to be expressed poetically. But Jon knew that his work should be heard rather than seen on the page. As a result, before he ever took a poem public, Jon would invariably read aloud his newest work to his mother, Frances Sharaf Norman, a high school French teacher. If he had a muse, she was certainly it. An inveterate, multi-lingual reader, she was a lover of poetry and certainly encouraged his writing throughout his life.
Born into a post World War II world, surrounded by the conflicting Cold War elements of the most technologically advanced society in human history, Jon lived inside those conflicted elements as he perceived them in the microcosm of his own family to the macrocosm of the world stage. As his remarkable poetry reveals, he ultimately could not reconcile those conflicts and came to believe that he had to leave this world in order to find peace. Not unlike Don Quixote, who was finally defeated by the Knight of the Mirrors showing him the “reality” of his own world, Jon chose to go to another plane. He did so in the midst of wrestling with the conflicts that had plagued him all his adult life — on the one hand, mankind’s inability to see the evil, or perhaps the stupidity, of its ways and on the other, the belief that there just had to be a better place, another plane of existence in which some form of “life” could reside without the harm that earth-based creatures inflicted upon one another.
Not content to stay in New London, Jon traveled, and traveled, and traveled. Shortly after high school, he went to Israel. While he supported the establishment and continued existence of the Israeli nation, Jon was fully aware of the resulting dislocation of those who had previously lived for generations in the Palestinian area. It is common today for politicians and militarists to dismiss such results as “unintended consequences.” Jon, however, saw this as an irreconcilable pain.
A voluminous reader and an omnivorous observer, he was able to link what he saw at the moment with the great span of human history. If there was a flaw in Jon’s mind, it was that he could not let go of the continuing pain in the world. Those we call great industrialists and great politicians are those able to compartmentalize their lives, to separate the momentary needs of decision-making from the world view of later impact. Such people see the impact of throwing a stone into a pond as the momentary splash. Jon, on the other hand, could see that the ripples from that stone’s throw might have an impact on a village rice crop in Kenya two years later. He could see the stone’s ripples landing on the pond shore, disturbing a deer drinking there, the deer then tripping over an anthill as it flees, an aardvark then going hungry for the day and on and on. Jon’s difficulty in life was that he simply could not compartmentalize; he could not step away from the overwhelming macro impact of the micro event.
And so, we understand that his death was a choice, a conscious and for him the logical choice. It was a planned moment. Certainly, Jon had a history of what the rest of the world called psychological problems. It is entirely, possible, however, that his worldview was different and more painful than the worldview of the rest of us. Those views created conflict in his mind and he simply chose an end.
Thus we have the poetry of Jon Norman.
There are literally hundreds of pages in chapbooks, spiral-bound notebooks and clipped-together sheaves of paper. These writings range from scraps of starts to cries of pain, which can only be understood acoustically, to what I believe is one of the most perfect artist’s prayers ever written in the English language (“A Raiment of Days”, page 138).
In assembling this collected works, many editorial decisions have been made without consultation with Jon. He has, after all, been dead for over 18 years. Another problem is that the vast majority of Jon’s work is undated. It is also clear that Jon simply wrote. A short, almost comic piece would be followed in a chapbook by a two-page power piece with an impact not unlike being hit in the forehead with a hammer. To compile this collection, then, we had to find some sort of structure that would make Jon’s work accessible to the reader. We understood that it would be the extraordinary reader who would read this volume from cover to cover in one sitting. Even for those familiar with Jon’s work, that would be a daunting task.
So we have taken the liberty of creating thematic sections. But that was actually the easiest part. Coming to an understanding of the sequence of the sections and then, most difficult, sequencing the poems within each section has been the bulk of this project. The finished product, we believe, does have a volume-length arc and each section has an internal arc that supports the whole. If there is any fault in this structure, it is entirely the fault of the editor.
It seemed obvious to open this volume with Jon’s poems about his parents, his younger brother, Bob, and his sense of his parents’ house and its placement overlooking the Thames River. This home and family cannot be seen as anything but his “Closest Circle.”
Upon his return to the States, Jon traveled to California at the height of the Haight-Ashbury lifestyle. The influence of the post-Beat Poetry drug culture is repeatedly evident in his work. His subsequent travels across the country to Florida and then back to New London were fertile ground for his poetry. But his travels were not limited to physical travel. His omnivorous mind allowed him to continue to travel the world of ideas and religions. Thus, the next section, “On the Road,” is not limited to his physical travel.
As Jon grew, he increasingly saw his interior issues were mirrored in the wider world. The next sections, then, had to reflect that understanding and Jon’s poetic response. Jon’s ruminations on the aftermath of his travels were focused on the relationship between what he had seen and where he had been in relation to his sense of how the world should be and how it did not measure up. At this point in his life, he was clearly able to hold his perceptions as “Matters Outside.” In his travels, Jon passed through many relationships and the details of those relationships never left him. Rather, they simply built up, layer upon layer. Their impact has been clustered into the section “Loves.” These poems include writings about the women he cared for as well as the children who were the product of those relationships.
Serious problems for Jon began to arise as he saw more and more clearly the historical span of conflict in the world. He internalized the conflicts in an utterly unique way. Again and again, Jon went back to the concepts of the mirror and the fractured mirror as metaphors for both the world in general and his own mind in the specific. His, at times, almost total internalization of the metaphors reveals some of the most painful aspects of his writings. Jon’s talent, however, was the ability to write down an internal pain in a way that was universal rather than singularly masturbatory. The pain of “Matters Inside” is so overt, however, that it becomes clear to the reader that Jon is walking toward his own choice to leave the pain of this world.
Jon Norman’s life and writings are not, let us repeat, not the writings of one immersed in despair. Jon’s faith in something better was clear throughout his life. His understanding of his heritage of Judaism, his study of Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and Buddhism kept resolving into prayers and near prayers that reveal a bedrock hope that mankind could actually begin to act in a truly humane manner, that each of us could, in fact, go forth “clothed in days of creativity.” In that sense, Jon understood the common through-line that went through all the belief systems of man. That belief is best expressed in the final section of this volume, “Out of the Dark.”
As the editor of Jon Norman’s work, with the invaluable cooperation of Bob Norman, we honestly believe that at whatever point he entered that next unknowable plane, his days and his writings dressed him in a raiment that no one could deny.
New London, CT 2007
Note: Little Red Tree Publishing owes a great debt of gratitude to James Stidfole because it was his decision to host our very first book launch at the Hygienic Art Gallery in New London, Connecticut, USA, in 2006. That event started Little Red Tree Publishing. And from that meeting, we also started to work on this book for Jon Norman. In fact, this was the second book that Little Red Tree Published. James was a great friend and supporter of Little Red Tree Publishing. I will always remember driving non-stop from New London, CT to Princeton, New Jersey, with a book, to give Bob Norman [Jon’s brother]. James talked all the way about everything. We were going to deliver a copy of the book to Bob to show that James had fulfilled his promise to Jon’s father Victor, who had left money in his will specifically to have his son’s poems published in a suitable manner. We arrived and Bob was delighted with the book in his hands at long last. Regrettably, Bob died shortly after that. I can say without reservation that James filled his days with creativity.