Notarikon by Catherine Bowman. Four Way Books, $14.95.
Reviewed by Meg Hurtado
Catherine Bowman’s Notarikon fills its reader with a profound sense of the obscure, of the million tiny, sticky acts of irreverence that constitute an individual’s window to the world. She quilts together all the minutiae that make a neighbor, a marriage, or a vacation, to name a few. Her own ability to systematize images and information fascinates her, and the book’s title reflects this fascination appropriately: “Notarikon” is a Kabbalist term for making new words out of the first and last letters of other words in holy texts.
Bowman’s gift for synthesis does not always work to her advantage. Several of the poems in Part I veer toward moments in which her abundance of eclectic imagery becomes pure sensory overload. In the poem “Persephone and the Man of Letters,” each stanza focuses on a letter of the alphabet, followed by layers upon layers of imagery. For example, the “E” stanza concerned with the letter contains the line: “Of humidity. Of day-old coffee. And fries extra-crispy.” If this association bears poetic fruit of a Kabbalist persuasion, it excludes the vast majority of readers and appears excessive to the point of self-consciousness. That the poem takes the highly artificial form of a list only reinforces this gap between Bowman’s arrangement of words and what depths it might reveal.
But in the poem “Fish with Coco: Five Havana Milagros,” she manages to array such images as “an animal eye / marinated for days,” “a raft / named Jesus,” “a colossal frosted cake,” and “a pinch / of black camino” into a cohesive lyrical unit. “Fish with Coco” also takes the form of a numbered list, but in its case structure frees lyricism, rather than constricting it. At her very best, Bowman turns those techniques which evoke self-consciousness into absolute vision. Part I of Notarikon contains fourteen poems, and all of them reflect her love of lists, letters, and numbers. Bowman divides “Fish with Coco” into five numbered sections, titled “Eyes,” “Tongues,” “Ass,” “Ears,” and “Heart.” She speckles her poem “The O Store” with words containing the letter “O,” and the twenty-six lines function as an abecedarian.
Bowman also makes use of cross-references between poems, causing the reader to wonder just what kind of intricate world of imagery and meaning they have entered via her work. For example, the first poem is titled “Heart,” as is the last section of “Fish with Coco.” Her poem “1000 Kisses” contains multiple words containing the letter “O” in every line, like “The O Store.” “1000 Kisses” also features the phrase “convulsed, crucified,” which the reader may link to Bowman’s “Jesus’ Feet,” an earlier poem concerned with the moment when Christ has risen from his death by crucifixion and displays his wounds to the apostles.
Religious and spiritual concerns in Notarikon cannot be attributed to detached intellectual exploration. All of her poetry features some degree of “religious” diction, though the poem titled “Jesus’ Feet” displays its religious intention most blatantly--not only because of the subject matter and tone, but because only in this poem does Bowman muffle her impulse to load the poem with radiant eclecticism. What imagery she does employ can be found in the actual story of Christ: “shepherd crossing the valleys,” “vinegar,” “yeasty loaves of bread,” “broiled fish, and a honeycomb.”
In spite of her ability to successfully curb her verse with traditional imagery, Bowman possesses her own conception and spirituality, as well as her own mode of description. For instance, the Eden symbolism in “Heart,” the first poem of the book, is difficult to miss. But Bowman portrays the serpent as an object of wonder rather than revulsion, betraying a penchant for the inversion of values which pervades not only her use of language but the book’s paradigm as a whole. “Heart” ends with the thought that a snake “Tastes like / hope, memory, forgiveness.”
Part II of Notarikon contains a single poem called “1000 Lines.” A strictly composed account of a ten-year marriage, “1000 Lines” boasts one hundred stanzas, divided into ten cantos. Each stanza has ten lines, with ten syllables in each line. If her free-wheeling voice in Part I caused the reader to question Bowman’s ability to function within a strict form, “1000 Lines” leaves behind all such doubts.
Almost every stanza begins, technically, with the word “ten” (Bowman cleverly begins some lines with words like “tenderness” and “tensions,” etc). Her more obscure choices, like “tenement” and “tenebrionid,” would sound out of place if employed by any less skillful author, but Bowman wields them beautifully. She gives each canto a “title” in italics--a list, punctuated by dashes, of the most searing pieces of the stanzas, or the most pivotal moments in the “marriage.” They appear random, but prove rich.
The strict form of “1000 Lines” serves not only an aesthetic, but a reflexive purpose. It binds the reader to the speaker’s paradigm, insofar as the reader must view the poem in very much the same way as the speaker views her marriage: the poem’s beginning contains its end. The uneven manner in which Bowman divides her stanzas into cantos may produce a certain amount of disorientation regarding the reader’s pace, but the fact remains that the speaker’s world of “ten kinds of limbo,” “sulfur springs,” “summer and winter and what’s / found between” will vanish with the thousandth line. Yet, like the speaker, the reader must focus on the beauty and breadth of Bowman’s language because of the honesty and simplicity of the poem’s structure. Even beginning every stanza with the word “ten” never grows tiresome. Rather, the reader becomes devoted to the inevitable pleasure and comfort that the reader will receive from her linguistic cleverness. The speaker of the poem immerses herself in the pleasure of memory free from obvious analysis--“Ten reasons why we ended. I’m drawing / a blank” and “Ten years, and I remember more about / the trees we’ve seen.” The reader, free from the anxiety of over-analysis, engages fully in the act of rapturous hindsight.
“1000 Lines” brings Bowman’s insatiable penchant for eclecticism to intellectual and emotional fruition. Her bizarre, ecstatic imagery finally yields boundless originality and beauty. One parenthetical stanza in Canto 2 epitomizes her gift for synthesis as images of “the red dragon man,” “jailer boy,” “phone sex,” etc, build to a nightmarish pitch. Bowman then ends the stanza with a mystical sense of purpose, by bombarding the reader with the crystalline nature of love: “I screamed, What are / you? He bent down and whispered, I am you!”
With “1000 Lines,” Bowman has unveiled the soul of Notarikon. She finishes the book with only one poem, “Nostrum,” which composes the whole of Part III and functions as a successful sugar-pill to soothe the violence and memory of “1000 Lines.” With such an ending, Bowman exhibits the awareness of her personal strengths and honesty about universal human weakness that make Notarikon both extravagant and essentialist.