Invest in Stock: Norman Stock's Pickled Dreams Naked

John Gibbs

I'm not really sure what the phrase Pickled Dreams Naked means, but after completing this collection it seems an appropriate title for Norman Stock's second collection of poems. His poems are  Pauper Dreams of True Love by Wen-hsien Wu, MDabsurd, delicate, angry, exposed and altogether executed with a mastery of the English language, allowing readers to delight in rereadings. Stock recounts what it's like to be an adolescent boy alongside the salacious thoughts of an older man wandering the streets of New York. Range like this is hard to come by in a single poet, let alone a single book of poems.

A finalist for Poet Laureate of Queens, Stock writes poems that are embedded within a cultural history known for its revolutionary art movements (i.e. the Harlem Renaissance, the New York School). Stock was enrolled in William Packard's poetry workshop in the late '60s and early '70s (Packard founded the esteemed New York Quarterly, now a major periodical in contemporary American poetics). Stock is also writing in the aftermath of one of the most traumatizing events in American history. In "At Ground Zero" Stock begins by hypnotically reexamining the feelings of utter loss and confusion surrounding the September 11 attacks, but ends with a universal affirmation of identity.

what remains


what is


what vanishes


and you

you are still who you are (20)

The breadth of Stock's career enables him to transcend multiple generations of poets and writers. He captures the experimental voice of a New York Schooler, while simultaneously speaking directly to a generation of young poets writing today. Stock teaches his readers a lot about both where we came from and where we are going.

Essentially, Stock includes two kinds of poems within this collection. He alternates between the lyric poem and the prose poem. Within the lyric poem (e.g. "At Ground Zero"), Stock pays particular attention to the subtleties of the line break and chooses to abstain from punctuation, successfully blurring the boundaries of space and time. However, when Stock employs the prose poem format he uses it to imagine fantastical illusions and mesmeric dreamscapes, a technique perfected by Stock's former teacher and Pulitzer Prize winner, James Tate. The collection's opening, "Kafka's Lawsuit," imagines the hero of Czech literature returning from the grave to sue "all writers who sound like him for plagiarism" (15). By opening with this prose poem, Stock introduces the reader to his wild imagination and exhibits the kind of humor displayed in the pages to follow.

A sizeable portion of the first third of the book directly confronts the innocence of childhood. Stock recollects a Halloween where he dressed up "as somebody else's son" (24), has arguments with his friend Cookie about "which part of a girl / was the best part" (27) and bemoans that lost simplicity and curiosity unique to children: "o I was a boy once / that fleeting smile / looked at myself naked in a mirror" (26). These are poems of innocence, bittersweet in their own existence, juxtaposed against weightier poems that address the options of a kidney transplant and question the very state of human existence. Each poem adds to the sweep of Stock's voice and plunges the reader deeper into the psyche of the poet.

Stock's poems are also increasingly aware that they are, in fact, poems. The poem as a subject matter itself undergoes extensive treatment within this collection. "The Madness of Art" opens unforgettably, "I decided to write terrible poems" (39), but ends sardonically, with the poet ostracized from society for his unpopular exploration of anti-poetry. The subsequent poem "No Ideas but in Things" might be read as one of these "terrible poems" Stock proclaims to have written.

don't be abstract

stick to fact

say what's known

be concrete

like a stone

in the street

like a brick

that you kick

like a leaf

that you tear

like the life

that you wear

like the thing

that you are (40)

The title evokes William Carlos Williams but the poem itself riffs off the kind of playful language pioneered by Langston Hughes. The poem's elementary rhyme scheme masks the dark undertones hiding beneath the surface. These are intricately layered poems, hiding in plain sight. Stock qualifies the nature of these straightforward poems in "Plaint" by saying, "I want everything to be simple to be understood" (47). Stock has no tolerance for poetry with a capital P. Clarity, above all, should be regarded as the poet's primary concern.

The theme of simplicity is expanded upon in Stock's poems that address the larger community of poets. In "The Lesson of the Poetry Workshop" Stock rebukes students who enter workshops with the misguided notion they will achieve fame: "don't you know that only the teacher is famous and that that's what poetry workshops are all about" (38). Anyone who has ever taken a creative writing class knows Stock's insight holds true. Stock relays the pretentious ambiance of self-prescribed intellects in "At a Boring Poetry Reading" when he says, "It is as if they tied their shoes in front of us just to show us they could tie their shoes in front of us!" (41). Stock is not afraid to showcase his frustration with the overconfident, cocky writers he may have encountered during his years of writing poetry.

While being overtly ridiculous at times, Stock knows when to dial back a bit and refocus his energy upon a raw, emotional feeling. In "Rant" he confesses, "please, give me a chance / give me a chance to say something / give me a chance to stop writing poetry" (102). The metaphysical nature of these poems places them both within the literary world and the real world. It's the poet's job to capture the real world, but to do so convincingly and, most importantly, honestly. For Stock, this honesty is most potent when unmasked and poignant.

The final poem in the collection, "Draconian Measures," is a prose poem, which fantastically explores a reality where people are rounded up and sealed in cabins "to prevent the spread of gossip" (104). Ultimately, the poem explains, the gossip is impossible to suppress and the people are eventually set free. The collection ends with a celebration of language, far from the realm of its Kafkaesque opening where language and people were suppressed. Overall, it's Stock's simplistic language and courage to tell the ugly truth which makes this collection an entertaining and powerful read.

Pickled Dreams Naked
By Norman Stock
New York Quarterly
Foundation, Inc., 2010
ISBN: 978-1-935520-30-6



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