Run, Reader, Run: Peter Norman's The Gun That Starts the Race

There’s a fresh spirit of exhortation in many of these poems: Norman’s speakers rally the reader, the animal kingdom, the self, to virtually engage in the extermination of undesirable flora (“Hymn for the Slaughter of the Daisies”), to be born and prosper (“Note for the Newly Hatched”) and, in the case of the giallo film-esque “Buried Alive” to suck it up and accept a horrifying lot:

[…] Zip to do but wait
and take small breaths. Try not to think of worms,
of neighbours made of bone.
Try to relax. The rest will be eternal.

In “I Pipes Up”, a nameless speaker, brimming with a belligerence that is both sour and feisty, delivers his manifesto and, in doing so, sets himself up as a brutish but compelling opponent to the Establishment. “Call me runt or fuck-up if you like. It makes no difference”, declares our speaker, swathed in an aroma reminiscent of the Shakespearean monologue (consider King Lear and Edmund’s proclamation, “Now, gods, stand up for bastards!”) As contrary as this figure seems, we are well-prepared to cheer them on, rejoice in the dominance of the “knuckle sandwich” raised against the squares. And we are perhaps even more apt to cheer out loud after the call to arms in Norman’s unabashedly exuberant (and utterly enjoyable) sonnet “Bolshevik Tennis!”

Let service serve; let ranking be repealed.
Shuck off those bourgeois whites; dress up in red.
Put down the racket you were taught to wield
and raise the racket of revolt instead.

A previous version of the poem (which appeared in the Biblioasis anthology Jailbreaks) had capitals at the start of the lines and replaced the insouciant “Shuck” with the more ceremonious “Cast.” Furthermore, there have been significant—and crucial—edits made to the final couplet. The newer version ends with:

And someday even score will be cast off,
and love will be forever serving love.

whilst the earlier anthologized sonnet rounds off with:

And someday yet, we shall be free of score:
Love will serve love—game, set and evermore

With its elevated and slightly stilted tone, plus the yawning, yearning wistfulness of the vowel in the final word, the earlier version of the poem strikes one as perhaps more oddly conflicted and pleasing—it’s as if we were privy to the fruitless yearnings of a pre-war Oxbridge communist. But the sonnet we have here is still a fine one, part of a collection that crackles and pops with moxie and unexpected tenderness.


Alexandra Oliver is the author of Meeting the Tormentors in Safeway, which received the 2014 Pat Lowther Memorial Award. Born in Vancouver, she lives in Burlington, Ontario.



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