Natalie Perman’s impressive debut poetry collection, Cataclysm, hails a new literary voice, one that deftly crosses multiple zones of experience and carefully explores the fragmentation of the Jewish diasporic experience.
To participate fully in Natalie Perman’s work, certain ideas will have to be left behind. First of all, the knowledge that one is reading quite a young poet must be strictly dismissed, for in no way does Perman’s mature art prepare you to confront a writer who is only twenty-one. Secondly, misgivings about the ability of the personal to be resiliently political while remaining, still, tender and vulnerable to the core, will have to be sloughed off. Third and most significantly, any limits as to intellectual acrobatics will have to be resolutely shed, for Perman’s verse will astound you by its swift connections of ideas across multiple zones of experience – historical, national, cultural, emotional and epistemological.
Talking about the book to the Jewish Chronicle, Perman states, “Some of it is confessional in terms of it being emotions and perspectives about the world and being Jewish in England and my Jewish family and that history of dislocation and the diaspora, but at the same time it’s not because I’m not really confessing to anything.” The Jewish experience marked by otherness and fragmentation watermarks the force of Cataclysm in distinct ways, but refuses to exhaust it. Rather, this ethnic consciousness offers itself as a trellis for the poet’s subjectivity to rise and enter into more empowered discourses of human and existential identity.
Reading, for the first time, the twenty-five poems in Cataclysm is, in many ways, to witness the nomenclatural noun of the collection becoming verb. Intense and deeply reflective, these are poems that will deluge the reader with their prescience, candour and energy. Set out both to document and dismiss the self in well-pondered ways, Perman’s poems keep shuffling the idea of identity between reality, necessity and possibility so that the self is both constructed and deconstructed by turns.
“I’m trying to transform that history onto the page into something else,” says Perman on her Jewish heritage, again to the Jewish Chronicle. Manifest throughout these poems is a committed tendency towards historical and cultural archival, a consistent attempt to offer an ethnic identity vis-à-vis the national and a rigorous attempt to question both. In the powerful first poem of the collection ‘form at the simchat bat’, the urgency and incisiveness of the ‘introductory questions’ take on myth, religion, patriarchy and cultural violence in a grand overarching sweep. The irony in the title of the second poem – ‘because my mother’s best friend is Catholic (and we greet our histories every day on the street)’ – will overpower you again:
Today it seems the missionaries are bound
to send their best-disguised recruit –
the tickle of hair on your top lip better found
at the wheel of a Ford F-150, camo drying on the boot,
than filtering the word of G-d to a tinny sound
a frequency between Carrie Underwood and orchestral flute,
country-classical. You pronounce proselytize like a round
of whisky, on the house, a crowned
glory, a correct citing of John 8:44 draws a winning suit
of cards or a dart on bulls-eye.
Here is a bold montage of everyday histories found on the street and an attempt to salvage faith from each, ultimately unyielding. In poems like ‘catalclysm (at the school disco)’ and ‘advanced spelling bee’, Perman’s linguistic brilliance and calculated irony will dazzle you with their plenitude and sharp resonance across countries and cultures. The temporal space of both of these poems astounds with its remarkable compression and its sheer capacity to suggest fixity and frenzied movement at the same time. In both poems, verbs abound and the pace of performance is rapid. Undeterred by punctuation, the semantic length of these lines is short, clipped, their force as sharp as a whiplash. And yet, at the centre of the heat of Perman’s poetry is a silent observer holding this rapid motion in graceful poise, nonchalantly walking away once the conclusion has been arrived at.
Perman’s allusions, one notices, are drawn from a wide intellectual terrain – myth, politics, history, popular culture, as well as deeply personal experiences. This eclecticism lends her language a youthful dexterity and sharp vigour that is refreshing and moving by turns. Note how, in ‘gold rush ahead, Americana’, “Someone tipped a red spoon over the edge of the continent/ as for decades geodes cracked into cavities/ without crystals”; or, how in ‘tsar alexander II 50 versts from the western border’, the promise and disillusionment of the new world is described thus:
she wanted the new world to be
a whispered blessing as samson’s lion
swallowed arrows thrown at windows
one crack shattering a king dead
during roll call
Many of her images have a reverberating dream-like quality that will haunt the reader long after these poems have been read. In ‘after your brother’, an adolescent memory becomes a moth:
I pulled the moth of a memory away from the lampshade/with a toothpick/it flew around us in tattoo shops/next to a skating rink/as we looked at plastic figurines/it was a good memory/because you were sober/but your shirt/already had a thread/running out of it.
In ‘how a city sleeps’, the poet wishes to “scoop/ the wheels out of a/ bike like a pacifier” and “if you poke a chimney/ a sea of toy figurines/ flood out in hard hats./ it’s why we cough all day/ and think of the navy,/ of being a pirate on/ a faraway sea.” Here is a luminosity of metaphor that stands out sharply against the dark that often borders these poems without the fanfare of catastrophe. In ‘CBT Obituary’, the poet writes, “therapy is about tearing off/what is healing/if this isn’t emblematic of a revolution/i will draw pain into a corkscrew/it will mutate into a spiral staircase/and i will climb up”. The entire magic is linguistic here – both pared down and bolstered by its own sinewy strength.
On Perman’s writing canvas, minimalism looms large and yet, this minimalism is that of the reluctant Raphaelite than that of the eager cubist. Sharp and succinct though her language is, it avoids angularity. In description, Perman favours the synchrony of the moment over the diachrony of the emotion, offering portraits that strike as epiphanies rather than revelations. Well-rooted in sarcasm and irony, she easily avoids sentimentalism or rage, allowing her observations to acquire a roundedness that offers them weight and wisdom. In poems like ‘Prayer for Healing in Brother’s Bedroom, Pesach 5775’ or ‘yes my sister’, the delicacy and maturity with which the emotion and lineage of loss are handled, introduce new dimensions of bereavement and mourning.
Though each one of the twenty-five poems in this pamphlet stands out distinctly, speaking in its own inimitable voice and it would be tough to choose between them, I would like to draw your attention to ‘Writing a Poem’ before I end. Reminiscent of metaliterary pieces like Hughes’ ‘The Thought-Fox’ and Oswald’s ‘Fox’, the poem appeals to me for its honest and ardent exploration of the writing-process and, small as it is, it would be great to quote this in its entirety:
A rabbit comes out of a word and onto the table.
It jumps inside the kettle.
You do not want it to drown.
You push your hand inside, your foot, your head first
You burn your eyelashes.
You are in a lake, black like a feather or something forgiven
The water is soft and thin as if it could be torn apart
You can’t remember if you know how to swim.
It strikes me that Perman’s inspiration is in the word rather than the thought. The nature of the magic that invites her to poetry is linguistic and like the word, it is restless, transient and urgent, jumping right away into the kettle of im/possibility. It takes everything to retrieve this magic on the page – strong will, encumbered limbs, burnt eyelashes. And once the inspiration benignly permits her to chase it, the poet travels again to find herself in a black lake, uncertain of being able to swim through.
These lines, in every way, light up for me the forever tentative and tricky act of poetic creation. Here is the nebulousness of poetic desire, its tenacity, charm, challenge, uncertainty and finally, its triumph, considering that the poet has made it through the lake and this poem has, finally, been born. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to come across such an evocative poem on the subject, so ornate in its unmasked simplicity.
In her Preface to Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World, Jane Hirshfield writes:
Good art is a truing of vision, in the way a saw is trued in the saw shop, to cut more cleanly. It is also a changing of vision. Entering a good poem, a person feels, tastes, hears, thinks, and sees in altered ways. Why ask art into a life at all, if not to be transformed and enlarged by its presence and mysterious means?
Natalie Perman’s poems assist, in Hirshfield’s words, in a truing of vision, enabling us to see and know things in a different light. Much as these poems in Cataclysm mark the poet’s journey towards meaning-making in a difficult world, they also constitute a radical attempt at revisioning history, cultural space, memory and identity. In ‘tea party at the flood’, the poet is amazed by “how much our aunties do not know”. These poems perform the much-needed act of communication for the likes of such ‘aunties’, speaking on behalf of Jewish individuals, of soft boys, of old-world grandmothers, of betrayed boy scouts, of sleeping cities, of uncertain young writers and more. In a language that is deeply imbued with quiet lyricism, rising often to the level of the exquisite (mark the concluding line in ‘yes my sister’ – “We never left the door open/ in case an animal would slip in/ and die quietly, finding/ the flat empty”), this grand debut collection will be long remembered for the force with which it pours into the soul and the soft and tender afterglow of haunted love that it leaves behind.
Natalie Perman’s Cataclysm is published by Frosted Fire and is available to purchase online and in all good bookshops now.