Norm Sibum, Gardens of the Interregnum, Biblioasis Press, Windsor, Ontario, 2020, 81 pp paperback, $19.95
Norm Sibum is an expat American who’s lived most of his adult life in Canada, and has published more than twenty volumes of verse. The elegantly-written jacket copy for Gardens of the Interregnum announces the poems as “Field notes from the end of empire…verse letters from a poet to his enemies and friends alike” and goes on to note that “Sibum’s shrewd insights reveal a world without comfort…” that is somehow alleviated by his skill as a poet. I’m not sure how comforting heavily rhetorical cynicism can be, even from a skilled poet like Norm Sibum, but there you are, as my mother used to say.
The trouble with Sibum as a poet is that his compositional posture is that of a Flaneur, while Norm, as a person has always been too self-conscious to flan, too undernourished to twerk, and too wary of others to truly enjoy his own surprisingly broad curiosity about the world. Rather than an expansive, cosmopolitan urbanite, he’s an extremely interior, a man who burrows into wherever he is, then pisses out his perimeters, and gets to work writing–all without ever really looking up to see whatever small, joyous things might be revealing themselves nearby. In the decades he spent in Vancouver this is how he worked as a poet, and mostly admirably. He’s been in Montreal for 25 years now, and his work ethic seems little altered, although he publishes and blogs quite a bit more than he once did, and his researches have become, on the evidence, less thorough.
His not-kept-up website lists a dozen books since he moved to Montreal, including a 694 page novel titled The Traymore Rooms, a book I found a pretty hard slog, at least partly because I knew the Vancouver scene he was writing about and couldn’t quite untangle his projections from my own recollections of the people and places depicted. Still less readable, or rather, more excruciating to read, was the blog he was writing around that time, in which he seemed to have decided he had James Joyce’s talent and that, a la Finnegans Wake, everything passing through his mind ought to come out his mouth, without second thoughts and without redaction. I tried to read the blog for several months, but kept getting lost in the thickets of pompous, obscure references and the circularity of the syntax.
But that’s the trouble with Flaneurs, isn’t it? They’re as often boulevard bullshit artists as the self-consciously hedonistic artistes/scholars they believe themselves to be. Almost as often, they’re both, and this is, I think, true of Norm Sibum. His work has always been dogged by a pendulum between extreme authenticity and fatuous pretense. Sometimes the inquiry he’s making is genuine and learned, but just as often (particularly in the blog) he’s just wafting along on the fumes of erudition, sound substituting for substance, atmospheric moss and fake marble vases pretending to history and significance. Sorry to appear cynical, but as my mother used to say, there you are.
Here we are on page 67 of Gardens of the Interregnum. Within a poem titled “Another Chanteuse” there’s this passage: “You’ve seen her somewhere perhaps/Rendered by Piero della Francesca, a painter whose peers/Thought him provincial and behind his time.”
I’ve been reading Sibum so long my anti-bullshit radar goes off when I read these lines, and I check to see if Sibum had done his work on della Francesca. No, it turns out. He has it wrong: Piero’s peers didn’t think him at all provincial or behind his time. He was a mathematician as well as a painter, technically ahead of his time. He worked during the very early Renaissance, preceding Leonardo da Vinci, and he died in the 1490s before the fun was fully underway. He was therefore a pioneer in issues both of humanism and the humanist technologies of painting. In no way was he “provincial” or “behind his time”. I guess what I’m saying is that you really have to watch the subordinate clauses when you read Sibum, and you need to pay attention to the apparent throwaway lines, the ones that establish his tonal and rhetorical firmament, because the rhetoric can mislead and the tone can collapse.
Don’t mistake what I’m saying. Norm Sibum can clear higher bars than most poets, and he has an eye for pop cultural detail that’s very sharp. You might miss this intelligence because it’s nearly always delivered drenched in disdain. You might also find his monologues—and he’s mostly a monologuer in his poetry—sometimes hard to follow: who’s talking to whom is often unclear, and why they all seem to be trying to inflict sinus headaches on one another with their high serious world-weariness isn’t very clear. It’s as if Catullus had escaped into the poem with his tomb dust and the ennui of being shut up for two millennia.
Not sure what I mean? Have another look at the book’s title: Gardens of the Interregnum. What, exactly, does that mean? What gardens, and where are they? Which interregnum? And leading toward what, exactly? Isn’t the 21st century one continuous interregnum? Sibum, for all his gifts, doesn’t provide much beyond atmospheres and self-projection.
While he was living in Vancouver, Sibum also played centre field on our writer’s softball team. He was a pretty good ballplayer, actually, his long, inside-out swing perfectly suited to our no-windmill pitching rules. And in the field, he was swift and nonchalant at the same time, tracking down fly balls and then lobbing them back to the infield as if he hadn’t given a shit about any of it and was really more interested in whatever obscure Roman poet—Catullus? Propertius? Horace?—he was mentally cataloguing. On a baseball field, in other words, he was the perfect image of a contemporary flaneur.
Again, don’t mistake what I’m saying: I liked Norm. I liked his diffidence, his modesty, his indiscriminate reading, and I admired his work ethic as a poet: he was on the job all day, every day.
Yet even in those days, he was too easily captured by the sound of things, ideas, and he was forever experimenting with poses, angles, textures. It didn’t matter to him if no one was paying attention—which, it being Vancouver and lousy with struggling poets—constituted the normal conditions for work. You kind of understood that when you talked to Norm he wasn’t so much having a conversation with you as trying on words, ideas, characters and their inflections to see how they sounded.
The same basic set of furniture, human, cognitive and otherwise, appears in Gardens of the Interregnum that surrounded his imagination while he lived in Vancouver: romanticized Eastern European waitresses who are suspiciously attracted to Corvettes and other markers of North American lower middle-class wealth; painter girlfriend, along with a whole set of characters he both elevates and keeps at a distance with his dry irony. And Sibum is the same poet, one moment soaring with the Elysian concerns of his adopted classical mentors and the next moment, sneeringly kicking the legs out from under everything but himself-as-poet while he grovels for nickels in the gutter with the poor he both identifies with and finds unthinking and ignorant.
“It seems”, he writes, “I’m only a poet, after all, no cape-wearing oracle,/Drifting from island to island, polis to polis,//Debacle to debacle, heartbreak to heartbreak,/The lyrics in my bones sparkling in a diamond-edged sun.” Except that he’s both a poet and a cape-wearing oracle—in his mind—and that’s his working posture: a kind of cross between Jacob Burckhardt and Eric Hoffer. Sibum’s a proud autodidact, but he’s also wary that some better-read university professor is going to expose him as a fraud at any moment: hence (I think) the run-on tsunami of obscure references. There’s some low comedy here: You get the feeling that he’s perpetually about to swish his Robert Browning cloak and blurt out “That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall, looking as if she were alive”.
When I hung around with Norm, it was possible to coax him out of this intellectual pompery by engaging him in detailed conversation about the things he was reading. To his credit, he was always willing to get with that. But since he moved to Montreal the monologues have grown longer and more circular, and the scholarship isn’t always fully realized, maybe because he’s trying so hard to make that part seem effortless. Occasionally there are borderline absurdities: I mean, who the hell tips their cap to Suetonius in the 21st century, as he titles one of the poems? People who wear caps don’t read obscure Roman historians. And yet, there’s Norm Sibum, a cap-wearing guy who actually has read Suetonius! And in another poem grounded in his working-class background, he doesn’t seem to recall than Kenworth trucks aren’t Kenwoods. Were he to spot that egregious error, Tom Wayman would be rolling over in his, ah, wait, condo overlooking Stanley Park.
I get the tone, the dusty museum atmospherics of Sibum’s recent poetry, sort of, and I definitely get his instinct to stand outside normality and time, and I’m in agreement with most of his sneering denouncements of the Zeitgeist. But damn it to hell, I get the aura of meaning far too often when I should be getting the substance of meaning, and I’m (maybe excessively) bothered by his mistakes and pretentions. Sibum’s mental syntax, methinks, is too interior for competent disclosure: one must accept the personae he works from, and be content with mood, and brocade. But for me and the way I read, that makes his a poetry begging for exegesis it won’t quite stand up to the scrutiny of. Or maybe I just disagree with Sibum’s baseline epistemology, and thus can’t read without objecting, “hey, I know this guy.” Or, maybe, it’s “hey, I knew this guy.
And so, as my mother used to say, there you are.
July 21st, 2020 (revised January 2022), 1600 words.