“An archive makes visible the texture of thinking,” argues Claire Tranchino, UB MA student in English and this year’s riverrun Summer Research Program recipient. During her two-week residency in the Poetry Collection, where she studied the Norma Cole Collection, Tranchino explored these archival textures as they connect poetry, translation, and visual art. Cole is a San Francisco-based poet, translator, and visual artist, and materials from her collection range from sketchbooks, notebooks, and artist’s books that document Cole’s visual process and poetics, to manuscripts, correspondence, and teaching materials. Taking in the scope of these materials, Tranchino highlights the embodied nature of Cole’s praxis and archival research, writing that “to interact with material is to not only bring forward this [structural] relationship, but to also bring a new relationship into existence.” Through her thoughtful exploration of Cole’s archives, Tranchino brings a new relationship into existence—that between the reader and the archives—and it is a pleasure to introduce her report, “Practicing Language, Practicing History: The Visual Works of Norma Cole.”
Since 2018, riverrun has supported archival research in the Poetry Collection by an undergraduate or graduate student from the Western New York region. We are grateful for their generosity.
The Poetry Collection
Practicing Language, Practicing History: The Visual Works of Norma Cole
An archive makes visible the texture of thinking. Against the grain of complete, published thought, archival materials often exist in ideationally varied, dynamic forms where “activity is seen,” as Norma Cole writes.[i] With the gracious support of riverrun, I spent two weeks in residency at the Poetry Collection of the University Libraries with the Norma Cole Collection, engaging in and witnessing the specific texture of Cole’s thinking. Donated by Cole in 2014, the collection features notebooks, sketchbooks, and ephemera, along with photographic and printed materials that document her prolific life as a poet, translator, and visual artist.
The physicality of Cole’s visual materials—many of them text-image works—has deepened my understanding of her practice and oeuvre. While I originally referred to Cole as a poet, translator, and visual artist, Cole’s practices are perhaps less delineated than expository syntax allows; her practice is mutually inflected by the various modes in which she thinks and works. As such, Cole’s archival materials show her working in the gradations of poetry, visual art, and translation.
I’d like to use the opportunity provided by riverrun to explore Cole’s visual materials in conjunction with her practicing of and writing on translation, especially as she articulates the process in her notebooks. Scholars have yet to explore the intersection of Cole’s translative and visual practices. Yet, it is critical to do so, because Cole’s visual compositions present translation dislocated from the materials to which it is most often bound. Here, the use of visual and textual elements challenge and expand the possibilities for what the constitutive elements of a translation might be.
Cole incorporates text that she encounters in letters, poems, and newspapers, to name a few sources. As such, the bounds of these compositions are ever shifting, ever expanding to include multiple discourses. I would like to propose that even in poems that appear to have been written in only English, Cole’s presencing of other discourses through her incorporation of textual and visual materials challenges the existence of the poem as monolingual (and perhaps monovocal).
While Cole incorporates multiple discourses into her compositions, she also joins together multiple temporalities. Her collages in particular bring materials from various social and political contexts together in order to produce a history that resists received narratives and instead explores other modes of historiography. Her task is similar, I think, to what Walter Benjamin proposes in “Theses on the Philosophy of History:” in this case, the work of both the collagist and of the historical materialist is “…to brush history against the grain.”[ii]
A series of gesturesThose familiar with Cole’s essays and talks will know that she frequently presences other voices through her use of citation. While Cole weaves voices together, braiding a polyvocal text, she also pulls through the context from which each voice speaks. Perhaps there is a double movement: each voice inscribes itself onto the text while Cole inscribes her voice, too. Like a woven thread, the strands are distinct and yet intimately entwined.
This composition reveals the way in which citation and translation are not only gestures embodied by speakers and their particular contexts but are also gestures that the writer embodies. This gestural process is semantic as well as somatic—in order to articulate or gesture meaning, that meaning must first pass through the body. The gesture comes as a response to the text, posing another iteration of the meaning. My understanding of “gesture” here is shaped by Cole, who writes in her notebook that translation is a “[gesture] of awareness.”[i] What, then, is the particular gesture that Cole performs in her English-to-English translation of H.D.’s “Oread?”
First published in 1914 by H.D., “Oread” is often anthologized as a quintessential example of Imagist poetry. Besides its crystalline images, the poem is interesting for the way in which the speaker is unidentified. Cole multiplies the possibilities for the speaker as she incorporates her own voice into H.D.’s poem. While the phrase “homolinguistic” denotes a translation that occurs within the same language, Cole reveals the heterogeneity implicit in this process.
Cole invents a new lexicon for “Oread” with expressions like “get up now / get up prickle-back.” The emphasis of H.D.’s opening lines “whirl up, sea— / whirl…” is resonant in Cole’s lines via the repetition of “get up,” yet Cole’s lines harden H.D.’s softer, rounded vowels with her use of consonants. Further, Cole condenses the sounds and images in H.D.’s poem, transforming her verse into lines of single, monosyllabic words: “point / splash / green / fir.” In both of these examples, Cole gives a new sonic texture to H.D.’s poem.
The last two lines of Cole’s poem “green / fir” speak to the ideational shape of H.D’s last lines, “hurl your green over us / cover us with your pools of fir.” Cole’s penultimate and ultimate lines gesture to the image in H.D.’s poem. As such, Cole recognizes the particularities of H.D.’s lines and transmutes them.
Reading this poem, I am reminded of what Cole writes in “The Poetics of Vertigo:” “the singular can be made plural.”[ii] Here, each gesture of H.D.’s poem is pluralized; each gesture is given a new possibility through Cole’s re-articulation.
To bind together
In another exploration of translation from a 2008 notebook, Cole begins with a proposition: “translation as a kind of joinery.”[iii] What follows is a notation of the movements that constitute this activity:
if we go from the (1)–>2
the (2) is never separated but
joined to the (1). If we
accept the task
(1) and (2)
One of the tasks of the translator is to sense what junctures exist between languages, ideas, and events in order to render these highly specific points where the two touch. Of course, each word is the shape of its particular social, political, and geographic context. As Cole suggests, though, even in the inevitable temporal and spatial gaps between texts, there is a point of contact—a nodule, an “idea.[i]” Here, Cole does not limit translation as an activity that takes place only between two languages. She is equally interested, I think, in translation as a process that makes visible the correspondences between materials and events in the world.
For Cole, perceiving the juncture between “the one” and “the two” requires a visual attentiveness; it is a process of “seeing [materials]” as she writes a few pages later in the 2008 notebook.[ii] Materials, of course, have histories that both precede and proceed from our relationship to them (as Elizabeth Grosz convincingly argues in Time Travels: Feminism, Nature, Power). I understand Cole’s process of seeing materials as one which acknowledges this fact: that materials are the result of structural relationships. To interact with material is to not only bring forward this relationship, but to also bring a new relationship into existence.
In her collages, Cole literally joins materials together and in doing so, visually articulates relations between various spatial-temporal contexts through her layering of newspaper clippings, photographs, and other miscellany. One such example is an artist’s book titled “C: Tableau lyrique, et que” (1988). There is perhaps a connection between Cole’s practice of collage and the “paste-ups” of Jess, who was a close friend of Cole’s, the partner of Robert Duncan, and an artist in the active community of poets and artists working in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Unlike the 1985 sketchbook, Cole does not identify any of the compositions in “C: tableau lyrique, et que” as translations. Yet, there is a translative form of thinking present in these collages. Like collage, translation is a process that is contextually constrained and highly positional. The translator, like the collage-artist, works within a given structure in order to create new visual and rhythmic patterns.
In many of the collages in “C: tableau lyrique, et que,” Cole begins from her own name, associatively forming compositions that incorporate the letter C. Beginning from the narrow point of the phoneme in Fig. 4, for instance, allows Cole to explore the events and circumstances that she sees clustering around it. Because Cole uses print media contemporary to the time of her composition (such as the occupations of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union and of the West Bank and Gaza Strip by Israel), social and political circumstances are the “determining facts” of her collages, as Cole writes.[i] In this way, Cole displaces the political as background or context; it is the political that actively forms her collages.
Cole’s practice of collage is resonant, I think, with a quotation that she copies into a notebook from 2013. The quotation is pulled from The Sacrament of Language: An Archaeology of Oath. Giorgio Agamben (Cole often cites the Italian philosopher in her work) writes: “…to bind together in an ethereal and political connection words, things, and actions, only by this means was it possible for something like a history…to be produced.”[i] In these collages, Cole produces a history that is unbound from the constraints of regimented historical narratives (such as the histories told through newspapers, one of Cole’s sources in these work), and instead practices history associatively, putting various contexts in relation to one another.
Languages and Temporalities
The sketches and excerpts from Cole’s artist’s book are a small selection of materials from her wide-ranging collection. To me, though, they each speak to Cole’s particular sense of translation not only as a mode that moves from one language into another, but a mode that pluralizes the possibilities for both language and time in this movement.
Thank you, once again, to riverrun, for their gracious support of this project.
I would also like to thank everyone at Special Collections for the generosity they showed me this summer: thank you Abigail Boadu and Jordon Krivonos, for your help at the front desk; thank you Kayla Noll and Lily Reynolds, for pulling boxes from the collection; Marie Elia, thank you for processing Cole’s collection and laying the groundwork for this research; finally, thank you to Jim Maynard and Alison Fraser, for giving me the time and space to explore a line of research that has changed my trajectory as a scholar. Thank you again to Alison for your insightful comments on the final versions of this draft.
Thank you Myung Mi Kim, for providing critical feedback and support that made this writing possible.
Lastly, thank you Norma Cole for sharing your collection with Buffalo and for giving permission to photograph your work. It is a pleasure to work with your materials.
[i] Norma Cole, “The Poetics of Vertigo” in To Be At Music (Richmond: Omnidawn Publishing, 2010), 19.
[ii] Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History” in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn, New York: Schocken Books), 1968, 257.
[iii] [Quotation from notebook, 2012], Box 3, PCMS-0087, Norma Cole Collection, 1987-2014, The Poetry Collection of the University Libraries, University at Buffalo, The State University of New York at Buffalo.
[iv] Norma Cole, “Goldie & Ruby: A Piece of Short Sets” in To Be At Music, (Richmond: Omnidawn Publishing), 2010, 58.
[v] [Quotation from notebook, 2008], Box 1, PCMS-0087, Norma Cole Collection, 1987-2014, The Poetry Collection of the University Libraries, University at Buffalo, The State University of New York at Buffalo. Photo taken with permission from Norma Cole.
[vi] [Quotation from notebook, 2008], Box 1, PCMS-0087, Norma Cole Collection, 1987-2014, The Poetry Collection of the University Libraries, University at Buffalo, The State University of New York at Buffalo.
[viii] Norma Cole, introduction to Crosscut Universe: Writing on Writing from France (Providence: Burning Deck, 2000), 10.
[ix] [Quotation from notebook, 2013], Box 1, PCMS-0087, Norma Cole Collection, 1987-2014, The Poetry Collection of the University Libraries, University at Buffalo, The State University of New York at Buffalo.