ON HOWARD NORMAN ON REETIKA VAZIRANI
I don't know Howard Norman. I never knew Reetika Vazirani. She was the poet who killed her son and then herself. The 2003 incident occurred in Norman's beloved family home for which Vazirani housesitted that summer.
Norman writes about this unfortunate incident in his memoir I HATE TO LEAVE THIS BEAUTIFUL PLACE (Houghton Mifflin, 2013). Google these names if you want more info -- this blog post is already longer than I wish it to be.
I just want to say that reading his essay left a sour taste in my mouth. Norman has the perfect right to respond as he wishes to Vazirani's murder-suicide ... but it probably would have taken someone with more empathy to do justice to the complications of Vazirani.
(Of course, to say someone is lacking empathy is inherently to show the accuser as ... lacking empathy and, fine, I implicate myself. Having said that, to continue...)
Michael Ondaatje provides a blurb calling the book a "wise, riskily written, beautiful book." Riskily written, yes. There are beautiful aspects to it, but nothing "beautiful" about the self-centeredness permeating this essay -- though I guess that's why it's in a memoir. After reading through Norman's point-of-view, I think Norman probably should have taken Yasunari Kawabata's advice which he cites in the essay:
"When speaking of those who take their own lives, it is always most dignified to use silence or at least restrained language, for the ones left most vulnerable and most deeply hurt by such an occurrence can feel oppressed by the louder assertions of understanding, wisdom and depth of remorse foised upon them by others. One must ask: Who is best served by speculation? Who is really able to comprehend? Perhaps we must, as human beings, continue to comprehend? Permust we must, as human beings, continue to try and comprehend, but we will fall short. And the falling short will deepen our sense of emptiness."
I'll leave it to actual readers of Norman's essay to assess whether his essay should leave a "sour taste." I could be wrong.
But there are a couple of incidents Norman mentions that made me rise a Vulcan eyebrow. Vazirani apparently left a number of notebooks scattered throughout his house. Norman read the first six or seven before deciding he did not want to know about the contents of the rest. So he burned them.
Really? He burned Vazirani's notebooks -- did he ask anyone about that before doing so? He burned them, I think, partly because he considered them an undesired invasion of the sanctuary of his house -- he noted the "specific hostility" of the placement of one notebook under the mattress of the bedroom where Vazirani's young son slept and Norman's 15-year-old daughter would sleep. For this, I don't blame him -- I likely would have been angered, too.
But he burned them. He didn't judge them worthy of existence, even though he admitted that not only did he not know Vazirani but felt no compulsion to get to know her more given how her life had already intercepted his in such an unwanted way. Here's a passage from one notebook:
I have a devotional nature but my eye pencil draws tarantulas; Im a chameleon selling my face; God is at the height of pretentiousness and balloon-faces shouldn't suffer that; take Pratma's Himalayan valium in order to talk in rectangles; flee from the post-traumatic muse-snatcher; Yoga didn't dispel biting trees; Lord I'm an unlucky detective; sleep in the kitchen but running low of jars to fill with unhappy days; nobody but me realized Buddha came back as a drawer; all gratitudes are now Gremlins buying organic for the church. And: inevitably I will derange my sanctuary.And he burned them because he judged the contents to be "obscene." Now, I'm not one of those who feels a writer needs to save every scrap of writing or draft. But I personally found something worth reading in the above passage. But then it wasn't my home that Vazirani violated with her act. But that's the point -- perhaps Norman should have given those notebooks to a more objective person before deciding to silence those words.
And then there's just finally something a bit snarky about the essay's ending. But I -- unlike Norman -- concede the significance of the subjectivity of "snarky," just like with adjectives he uses to discuss what is or is not effective poetry: "overdramatizing," "calm," and "sane" (among others). Because of this subjectivity -- which I, for one, would be loathe to deny others -- I edit this post to delete my criticism of his essay's ending. Read it for yourself and judge. Let me just say that I've found that, in general, the worst part of criticism or reviews is when one judges Art not on the basis of what that particular Art is but based on a paradigm (which may not be commonly held by all Art partakers) -- in this case that poetry that is effective, by Norman's standards, is where the associations are "sane."
The good thing about Norman's approach is that, unlike critics who take similar approaches, his standards for judging poetry are offered transparently.
Nonetheless, I hope Norman does not provide the last word on Vazirani's life (about which he knows, he said, not much) and poetry. I assume there was much written in the aftermath of Vazirani's death. It's time for someone else to take the long view, where Norman's particular position is just one facet. For such an "analyst," I recommend more of what Zadie Smith (whom Norman cites) says will "guarantee a writer her subject." Such would be more--much more--of "interest, knowledge, and love."