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Thursday, May 29, 2008

Jon Norman: tortured enfant anti-hero

by Gilbert Wesley Purdy.

This memoir was originally slated to appear in Days of Creativity: A Collection of Poems by Jon Norman ed. by James Stidfole. Little Red Tree Publishing. 2007.

1. Shortly after I was assigned to the Navy construction crew of the USS Groton, at the Electric Boat Naval Shipyard, in Groton, Connecticut, in 1976, a shipmate (a first-class electronics technician with a Dagwood Bumstead haircut and an even goofier laugh) informed me that he had seen a posting, on the local public access station, by a group that was starting a literary magazine. Surely, in his mind, it was goofier still for a sailor to read poetry and I will never quite understand what possessed him to write down the contact information in order to hand it along.

2. The journal, I would learn, was to be called A Letter Among Friends. I attended a reading, at the Groton Public Library, sponsored by the group. It was held in a meeting room strewn with carpeted modular staging of various shapes and sizes. (Everything was modular at that time: it was the in thing.) We spent the afternoon reading poems and aimlessly reconfiguring the staging. It wasn’t exactly an impressive experience but the idea seemed to have promise. My first published poem appeared in the first issue.

3. The founding editor had been Matthew Goldman. Matthew was a dedicated back-to-nature-type with long hair and a spreading salt-and-pepper beard. His wife, Jocelyn, was half his age, with a beaming smile and a penchant for canning and taking care of their two young sons. They lived on a small farm outside of nearby New London where they kept a huge garden and Matthew a hand-craft workshop.

4. Matthew soon withdrew as editor. The job fell to Jae Brown and Mary Jane Moore (née Anderson) who asked if I would help with production. This meant collating, folding and stapling the pages. Gerry Johnson, the Treasurer, spent days literally cranking them out on a hand-operated Gestetner machine and delivered them to us for the tedious task.

5. It was at about this time that the group formalized the occasional open mic readings. They would occur monthly, at various New London establishments, for nearly ten years. During the first several years, they were held in the bar of a Bank Street bistro called the Ice House.

6. It was in the doorway there that a dark figure, with shoulder length, dangling, unwashed hair, and wearing a black leather jacket, appeared toward the end of a monthly reading. His look was gaunt and slightly menacing. His smile was little more than a grimace. As I recall, he did not speak to anyone but the waitress that first evening. He left before the end of the reading.

7. He returned each month, when he was not “in painful chains ascending in madhouse degree the sacred mountain,” [1] until the readings came to an end. He read while straddling a stool whenever one was available, looked intently down at his text, periodically pushing his hair back from his eyes. At first, the poems were generally song lyrics he’d written.

8. It was during the second or third month that we found ourselves shaking hands. His name was Jon Norman, he said. He was impressed with the quality of the open mic. We didn’t know how fortunate we were to have a reading of this quality available in such a small town. He was self-conscious about not having a drink in his hand. He didn’t do drugs or alcohol anymore, he volunteered. Whenever he did drink even a sip, he went on, it took his body days to recover.

9. Jon’s family had been in New London since before World War II. His father, Victor Norman, he informed me in passing, was the founder and conductor of the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra. I had not been aware that there was a symphony orchestra in the area. I would only much later learn that his brother was Bob Norman, a well-known folk singer and one time editor of Sing Out magazine. As for Jon himself, he had been away from the area for years and only recently returned. The details were vague. He was working for a local plate-glass distributor.

10. I was not able to attend the readings quite as religiously as he. Submarines under construction tend to place extreme demands on the time of all involved. Eventually, I was onboard for systems tests as often as not. Soon after that came sea-trials, and, finally, deployment. My enlistment ended in 1980, and my wife and I decided to remain in the New London area. We bought a house on a street called (of all things) Cinderella Lane.

11. Each time I returned to the readings, I found Jon Norman considerably more at ease. He was creating a role for himself as laconic resident Beat guru. It was a role everyone seemed to appreciate, himself included. The grimace looked a bit more like a smile. At the same time, he was so careful to avoid confrontation that it was clear that he was somehow fragile.

12. This habit of avoiding confrontation should not be confused, however, with the painstaking courtesy Jon showed to others (with one rare exception) throughout the entire time I knew him. I had been at Cinderella Lane for about a year when I invited Jon to the house. When we came in the door the look on my wife’s face made it clear that Jon’s remaining in the house was not an available option. She and I had just added a screen house so that we could sit outside during the summer nights without being eaten alive by mosquitoes. I ushered Jon into the screen house where we spent a pleasant evening talking about poetry and social justice and I began to introduce the subject of Jon’s years on the road. My wife stepped out of the door, periodically, to direct a furious stare towards me meant to call an end to the visit. I apologized for her behavior but Jon wouldn’t hear of it. He was not sure he would want himself for a guest, he said, anymore than she did.

13. My marriage had been a difficult one from the first. The birth of my magical daughter, Rachel, and buying a house at the borderline between suburbia and the country, made it bearable for a time, after I left the Navy, but the final denouement was never really in doubt. I filed for divorce in 1983. Among the things I felt at liberty to do, as a result, was to spend my evenings as I saw fit. I had yet to accept an invitation to Jon’s home. The next time one was extended I did so.

14. From the outside, the Norman house looked very similar to the Monte Cristo Cottage (boyhood home of Eugene O’Neill) next door. Like all of the “cottages” on that stretch of Pequot Avenue, in New London, it was an over-sized, modified Victorian home with a wrap around porch the size of a boardwalk. The front door opened into a spacious foyered living room: large enough for a full-sized grand piano to the immediate right, surrounded by dark, built-in floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, and followed, at a comfortable distance, by unpretentious but nicely appointed sofa and chairs around a broad tea table. To the left, across from the sofa, was a spacious fireplace over which hung a copy of an Assyrian mosaic showing a lion rearing to strike.

15. Visit by visit, I was introduced to more intimate areas of the house. Jon’s mother was herself quite fragile at the time. She had a specially furnished sitting room upstairs into which I was ushered, on each occasion, in order to be greeted by her. She was a small woman, made tiny by a stoop, who made one feel like a dear friend from the first moment. At the beginning of each visit (until she passed away) Jon escorted me up to pay my respects. On each occasion, she also asked if he was well and gently reminded him of one or another thing he should remember to do. There was never the slightest trace of rebuke on her part or offense on his.

16. During the first several visits we sat in the living room discussing poetry and social justice as we had done so often in various locales. The coffee was navy-strong and we smoked cigarettes until a cloud enveloped the room. Having known Jon for some time I felt I could encourage him to talk at greater length about his years away. He was always careful not to let the topic monopolize too much of the conversation. He was conflicted, neither wanting to reject all that his youth had been about nor to glorify it.

17. One day he brought out a copy of Art Kleps’s cult classic: Millbrook: The True Story of the Early Years Psychedelic Revolution. (I still have the copy he lent to me.) He leafed to page 161, where he pointed out the following passage:
John [sic] and Vinnie [sic]. Ashramite couple. A pair of clean-cut American kids who never seemed to think of anything except how best to enjoy themselves. Vinnie was one of the sexiest little creatures I have ever met in my life, an opinion universally shared. She moved in a sort of continuous wriggle and her mouth was always open. When she discovered I was a writer, she suggested I collaborate with her on the story of her life. It would be a masterpiece of pornography, she assured me. John didn’t approve. He thought we should sell her as a Playboy centerfold instead. John and the Drucks had visited Israel together, before their Ashram lives began. [2]
‘That’s me and Vennie,’ he said. He’d spent about a year, during his travels, at Timothy Leary’s experimental, LSD-based community at Millbrook.

18. The Hitchcock Estate (Millbrook, NY), as Kleps describes it, in 1968, was a place of lies and filth. Drugs and alcohol had long since come to be hoarded by various groups and individuals in order to avoid rampant theft of the same.
Just being in the Big House depressed me. Since the electricity and heat were off, the remaining Leaguers were living out in the woods in teepees and the fifty room mansion was full of dog shit, cat shit, goat shit… [3]
If there had been glory days the young couple soon found themselves living in the offal of them. Little was left, in the end, but the heavy drinking, drugging and paranoia.

19. Jon had mentioned Vennie from time to time. It was difficult to nudge details out of him. He was preparing a book of poems for the press, though, and I learned more about her from the proofs he presented to me as work progressed. After Millbrook the two of them eventually moved to California. Vennie was pregnant with their child. Jon needed to become a provider, to settle down, to grow up. He called from work during the nights to make sure she was all right. Then suddenly it happened:
An empty bed beside me, curtains waving in the pane,
I called the house from work all night. [4]
What the poems didn’t make clear was Jon’s sometimes frightening struggle with his addiction to heroin. Vennie left him. Their daughter would be born somewhere in the redwood forests of California:
And I was left inside the whirlpool of the city,
you out in the forest with child. [5]
He’d come to depend on Vennie being there, had expected to hold their newborn daughter in his arms. These were the treasures he’d managed to come away with from the prodigal journey of his youth. Now even that had proven illusory.

20. Every time I suggested that the breakup was a terrible event in his life, from which he was still fighting to recover, Jon wouldn’t hear of it. Vennie was a good person. She and their daughter, Forest, lived a good life among the redwoods. His problems were his own to account for.

21. In retrospect, the pair of clean-cut American kids Kleps recalled can not help but bring to mind such observations as the following from a 1967 New Republic article, by Lisa Biebermen, then editor of the Psychedelic Information Center newsletter:
A community is a place for people to live and work together, put down roots, raise their children and grow old. There is no psychedelic community, least of all at Millbrook, a madhouse place that nobody can stand for long. Of the group that started there, none remain except Leary and his daughter and son. In the mad scramble to be In, nobody asks what became of the people who were In last year, and the latter are silent. How long can this farce be played out? Apparently indefinitely; the turnover of Leary's followers goes on, each new group of converts as true-believing as the last, until their turn comes to fall out through divorce, rejection, psychosis or disillusionment. [6]
Both Jon and Vennie could have fallen victim to any or all of these in their turn. They seem to have arrived at Millbrook as innocents, more or less. Who knows how they left?

22. The volume Jon had been preparing was entitled Forest Songs. In the prose poem "Les Mains Sales" he gives his own perspective on how he came to the impasse he did:
I’d played with marked cards in the recurrent cyclic spiral downward through the magus’s funhouse stageset to ego’s inevitable cul-de-sac; cornered and exposed, all conscience’s thousand whispering monoliths descended (mala fide) in hard crystal hailstones from my neighbors’ hundred-windowed structures, tall accusatory sentinels above my bare-headed Outcast’s fear. [7]
He’d certainly mentioned other addresses over the years — Haight Ashbury, Echo Park, Stinson Beach — that suggest a way of life that might not have begun and ended at Millbrook.

23. I wrote a brief review of the book that appeared in the pages of A Letter Among Friends. My words were those of a reviewer rather than a friend:
Whether writing a song lyric, a prose poem, or a lyric after the style of Rimbaud, the poet of Forest Songs is too scrupulous to opt for the easy way out. He refuses to round off his life or our history to justify either. His celebrations are often ambivalent while his accusations are not. In short, his book was all the rough edges of honesty. [8]
I, too, was intent upon honesty. There is a lot of exceptional poetry in the book.

24. What Jon did take away from those years was a hard-earned wisdom and a humanity of the sort few achieve. As painful as the fact may be, the profoundest poets — or, for that matter, people — are the product of coming to terms with their own suffering. More deeply wounded, they often remain unusually vulnerable, as well, in spite of their remarkable accomplishments.

25. Jon had a large bedroom upstairs which he had also fitted out with a few sparse pieces of furniture. Eventually we took our conversations up there. He kept a small library in his closet and was fond of pulling volumes down to quote from them. He was fonder still of impressing upon me how important it was for me to read them: Henry Miller’s Time of the Assassins; Rimbaud’s Illuminations; Baudelaire’s Paris Spleen; Ezra Pound’s Cantos. With the exception of Pound, I was only vaguely familiar with the authors. I bought my own copies of everything I could find by them. The conversations would soon begin in better earnest.

26. He didn’t need a prop in order to go on about Bob Dylan. There was more to Dylan, he repeated, than I knew, both as a song-writer and a poet. He spoke of this album and that, this song and that, with close attention. I should take the time to really get to know the music.

27. These evenings grew more frequent after I was asked to become the editor-in-chief of A Letter Among Friends. Others had been asked first. None wanted the position. I was informed that either I would take it or the journal would cease publication. I had been encouraging the New London poets to take their work more seriously for years. To the point, it turned out, that they were sick of hearing it. Now was the time to put my time where my mouth was, it seemed. I agreed (very much against my better judgment) with the proviso that Jon and one other poet would serve together with me.

28. Our first declaration was that we intended to publish on time — a feat that had thitherto proven impossible. We next announced that we intended to publish engagé political poetry should it prove to be of sufficient quality — a feat that had thitherto proven unpalatable. Finally, we brought an entire new staff onboard (the old staff being a combination of exhausted and aghast).

29. I believe it was during the last reading before the official turnover that it happened. A saccharin fifty-ish poet, who was then a regular at the readings, announced that his family had printed a limited and numbered edition of his poetry. They materialized there around him, beaming. The book was brandished. His work was lauded in the highest possible terms. It was everything that poetry should be: filled with Hallmark love and puppy-dog tails.

30. Then Jon took poetry seriously. He rushed the ad hoc table of honor. The gentleman’s wife and daughters gaped at the assailant. Pointing an accusative finger, neck veins bulging, Jon challenged the man’s right to even so much as call himself a poet. His stuff was the worst sort of rubbish. It was an insult to those who put their lives into trying to write actual poetry. Everyone in the room stood riveted to the spot. After several minutes of the same, I crossed the room, took Jon by the shoulder and walked him away. He seemed to have been waiting for me to do so. Everyone else in the room surged in the opposite direction, toward the doggerel laureate, like a gentle soughing wave. Was he all right? How terrible it had been! In retrospect, our effort was doomed before it started.

31. Not that we failed, exactly. Four issues came out very nearly on time during the following year. It was the first time in the history of the journal that this had been accomplished. They were easily the four finest issues the journal ever published. I was out of the area for several months but we’d managed to select the poetry and covers before I left. The subscription list grew at a gratifying rate. But while we gathered at a Mountain Avenue flat with our coffee, pipes and cigarettes, to shepherd the new literature of our time, there was the creeping sense of a hostile world outside of the room.

32. A previous staff-member was outraged by the changes and lobbied anyone who would listen that the journal should be turned over to ‘someone responsible’. We had published two of Jon’s prose poems excoriating American imperialism. During the monthly open mics he was regularly reading “Munitions Factory”, a protest poem against Electric Boat. I, for my part, had begun writing ‘disturbing’ poems in the vein of Rimbaud. Worse still, as a respected engineer and ex-nuclear submariner, my pronouncements on the military-industrial complex were garnering attention. This was not what A Letter Among Friends had been created for.

33. Half of New London, it seemed, was buzzing around like so many angry hornets. Anyone with the slightest destructive bent was suddenly and gloriously released to pursue their particular art, as well. Within the year, I was unceremoniously voted out as editor. I was only too pleased to give up the onerous position but was otherwise defiant. I began to present poems at the monthly readings that left no excuses available to anyone with a bit of conscience left. The monthly readings were suspended indefinitely. They never were revived.

34. I found myself without a job into the bargain. I took up cab-driving, the only job I could get any longer, locally, that paid more than minimum wage, and enrolled in a local college. In actuality, I found myself pursuing a post-graduate degree at the University of Hard Knocks. My specialization was “Mob Psychology”. My thesis is still in progress being published piece-meal.

35. Jon retired to the family house from which he sallied out occasionally to introduce me to open mic readings at St. Mark’s, in New York City, or a concert by Dave Van Ronk (‘a real folksinger’) in a tiny Hartford club. I was woefully uninformed about the world his poetry came from and it seemed as good a time as any to give me a short course.

36. Jon cut his hair. After years of abstinence, he began to allow himself a single glass of wine some nights. His wife, Gloria (they largely pursued separate lives), and their son, Daniel, began stopping by. I would sometimes arrive to find Jon teaching Daniel how to play chess on the sunbathed porch. Our evenings, for some reason, shifted to daytimes in the kitchen. The grimace was replaced by a boyish grin. He began to speak of writing a Handbook of Social Justice. I’d never seen him so happy. Victor Norman invariably stopped to chat for a while and to let me know how pleased he was that his son and I had grown to be such good friends.

37. Eventually, however, a remnant of the hornet’s nest, associated with the local drug culture, that had somehow become headquartered in an old farmhouse, a short distance from the Old Colchester Road, in Oakdale, just north of New London, managed to deal me a sundering blow. As a result, my thinking became slow, labored, barely thinking at all. There was ‘such a thing as “situational ethics,”’ I was informed, at one point, as I sat trying to focus my attention. I was taunted with descriptions of the bleak life ahead for me as a drooling, gape-mouthed moron. Detailed lectures were included on the most humane methods of ending one’s own life.

38. Afterwards I was an exposed nerve one moment, exquisitely sensitive to any stimulation, and in an anesthetic cloud the next. The simplest task required enormous effort. The police dismissed my claims with derision. I decided to move to upstate New York where my daughter had been relocated after the divorce and my own family resided. I remained in New London, in a rental cabin, for several months trying to recover sufficiently that I would be able to manage the rigors of a move, ventured out as little as possible. I saw Jon, once, briefly, before I left for New York. ‘It’s called “drug-bombing,”’ he said.

39. Some 10 months after I left, I received a call from Jon. He was nearly incoherent, clearly panicked. In all the time I’d known him I‘d never heard him in such a state. They’d gotten him, too, he said. He’d moved out of the house and they’d gotten him. He was living in the car. He wasn’t sure he was safe. He would be in my area in a week to attend a folk concert. Could I meet him there? He needed to talk to me. It was important.

40. I said I would try. I had no car. The fair ground at which the concert was to be held was thirty miles away and not near any bus line. The price of a cab was well beyond my means. I was barely able to get through my days as it was. I did not go to meet him at the concert. Three weeks later, I received a call from my mother. Victor Norman had called to say that Jon was dead.

41. I would later learn that Jon had drowned in a meditation pool at an Ashram, in Hunter, New York. It was a place he had often mentioned during our conversations, a place of peace and healing to which he felt he needed to return.

42. As for what Jon had told me during that final telephone call, I have reflected upon it many times over the years. I’d never known Jon without the resources of his loving family and home immediately available to him. Perhaps it was my own condition, at the time, that made me want to believe that he had been unwise to try to return to a crazy and often emotionally brutal world which would seek out and test, if not attack, his weakest points; to believe that his claims were the result of a degree of confusion that I’d never detected before in him which arose from those more normal (however difficult the fact is to accept) circumstances. Even now, the alternative possibility seems overwhelming.

[1] Norman, Jon, Forest Songs (Mystic, CT: Private, 1985). No pagination.

[2] Kleps, Art, Millbrook: The True Story of the Early Years of the Psychedelic Revolution (Oakland, CA: Bench Press, 1977) 161. The following e-book version, “© 1995 His Highness Arthur J. Kleps”, is posted at “John [sic] and Vinnie [sic]. Ashramite couple. A pair of clean-cut American kids who never seemed to think of anything except how best to enjoy themselves. Vinnie was one of the sexiest little nitwits I have ever encountered, an opinion universally shared. When she discovered I had literary inclinations, she suggested I collaborate with her on the story of her life. It would be "very pornographic," she assured me. Wouldn't John mind? Why should he? Despite my libidinal lassitude, there was something about this concept that appealed to me, but John, it turned out, did mind. He thought we should sell her as a Playboy centerfold instead, he said. John and the Druck brothers had visited Israel together, before their Ashram lives began.” It is this version that I quoted from in the text I sent to Michael Linnard for inclusion in Days of Creativity: a Collection of Poems by Jon Norman. Little Red Tree Publishing (2007).

[3] Kleps. 7.

[4] Norman.

[5] Norman.

[6] Bieberman, Lisa, "The Psychedelic Experience", The New Republic, August 5, 1967. Council on Spiritual Practices, documents,

[7] Norman.

[8] Purdy, Gilbert W., "A Review of Forest Songs by Jon Norman", A Letter Among Friends Vol. 6, No. 4 (1985) 18.