Today marks the 102nd birthday of Harold Norse whose gutsy and ground breaking poetry in the American vernacular continues to inspire and inform generations of readers. Among those readers was the talented San Francisco poet Jim Nawrocki who died on May 31st of this year.
He first encountered Harold’s work in 2002 while writing book reviews for San Francisco LGBT newspaper the Bay Area Reporter. Harold’s scintillating Memoirs of a Bastard Angel were republished that year by Thunder’s Mouth Press and it brought Jim into Harold’s life and work as it has for many readers, both gay and straight.
Jim was instrumental in assisting Harold with compiling his life’s work for what became In the Hub of the Fiery Force: Collected Poems 1934-2003. This was no small feet, as Jim recounted during an event at North Beach’s Beat Museum celebrating Norse’s 100th birthday. Harold had often described himself not only as a writer but a re-writer. Jim would often arrive at the aged poet’s Albion Street cottage for a day’s work only to discover Harold was more interested in revising a decades old poem instead of focusing on the gargantuan task of assembling the manuscript.
Jim was himself an immensely talented poet. When he was diagnosed with colon cancer three years ago, Jim continues writing poems that captured much of the hope and despair that surrounds our time. Three of those poems, called The Joy Sequence, were published online at the literary journal The New Engagement. Two final poems, The Hex Shank and Moby, were posthumously published online at IDK magazine.
The Joy Sequence by Jim Nawrocki
Love lives at the corner
of Prince Street and Broadway
amid dishrag air and the shrill of renovation
where the beverage cart man
pushes annoyance across the heat
and a father leans toward his boy
in a shadowed doorway.
I carry a copy, just bought,
of Islamic mystical poetry,
entreaties to a God impatient,
a God unseen, a stolid God who sits
as each new day sends up its tendrils
Down here in the throng
youth blazes towards us
and I tell you it’s okay as it passes
incarnate along these brown boards
that skirt gaping holes of excavation
where sun sears old pipes and the scurry
of displaced rats, and we know we’re as old
as we’ve ever been.
I’ll take this year and its tentativeness.
I’ll read Rumi in the clouds
as we fly out from this city
into the all-too-shallow pool
of blue and pollution
far above the absent towers
and new ones trying for heaven.
Love is our arc across the continent
over states we imagine empty.
Love is all the furrowed rows of seed.
Love is each little pearled light
nudging across the crooked, worried quilt
that is the land’s darkness.
Nothing reached me except
a death sentence and doubt.
I knew that black cables
pulse on the bottom of the ocean
crossing the great darkness
between the continents
with voices other than mine,
a multitude of ambition and hunger.
I crumbled against a wall of transit
amid all that thundering on
And then the tunnel
opened into a muted daylight,
peaked rooftops under
a sky pewtered with ribbons and rain.
My dead mother and father
surfaced in memory, each one
looking down with me
at the tableaux of their last beds
and last days. Their faces said:
It won’t be the same for you.
On my way home, I passed torn-open
garbage bags, sidewalks of flotsam.
We make such bright things
Spills of green glass,
recent plunders, crunched underfoot.
I stood at the bleak intersection,
the bottom of the hill that looks up
to the sky’s emerging canvas of blue.
A sugared white moon hung, traced there
almost like a whisper:
There are other worlds than this.
A coverless book at the edge of the yard.
It must be winter and it must be at the margins
of what I know.
A biting wind turns the gray pages
without looking at them.
And of course, the wind cannot see,
at least not in this poem.
This book holds all of my rooms.
It holds those days that rose up
and pushed their obstinacy
like a cold car working along a path
plowed through deep snow.
I had my secrets; so did you.
Mom, there you are, staring
through me, out the window.
Dad, there’s you, years later,
standing secretly outside
my closed bedroom door, straining
to hear the music I fed myself
when I thought I was alone.
Among the many gifts that friendship with Harold Norse offered me was the continued opportunity to connect with other talented authors such as Jim.
I’m grateful for the friendship he and I shared through a mutual appreciation of gay history along with a colorful postal correspondence. (Jim had a knack for finding the best notecards.) It’s a testament to Harold Norse’s legacy that his poetry continues to illuminate the life path for many of us who encounter his life and work.
This post closes with a clip of Jim reading one of Harold’s most celebrated poems, “I’m Not a Man.” This video was recorded on Dec. 3, 2014 at Bird and Beckett Books during a poetry reading to celebrate the release of I Am Going to Fly Through Glass: Selected Poems of Harold Norse.