Norman Buller was born and grew up in Birmingham, England. He was educated at Fircroft College, Birmingham and St. Catherine’s College, Cambridge, where he read English. He became one of the Cambridge poets of the early 1950s and his verse appeared in magazines and anthologies alongside that of Thom Gunn and Ted Hughes.
From the mid-1950s for about twenty-five years Buller wrote very little. His occupation was in careers advisory work at the universities of Sheffield, Queen’s Belfast and Birmingam. While at Belfast he took part in Philip Hobsbaum’s creative soirée alongside Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley and others and throughout that time published only one pamphlet of thirteen poems in 1965. Buller flared into print 30 years later with a pamphlet Travelling Light (Waterloo, 2005) swiftly followed by his first full collection Sleeping with Icons (Waterloo, 2007), which has been praised in journals including Envoi and Poetry Salzburg Review.
Buller has been published in anthologies and journals including, in the UK, Acumen, Outposts, The Interpreter’s House, The London Magazine, The Rialto, Cambridge Left and in the USA, The California Quarterly and The Comstock Review. He has had two previous chapbooks published, Thirteen Poems (Festival Publications, Queen’s University Belfast, 1965) and Travelling Light (Waterloo, 2005). His verse has been awarded prizes including first place in the Ware Poetry Competition.
Fools and Mirrors
Waterloo Press, 2009
Norman Buller’s second full collection confronts the universal prism that Fools and Mirrors us. Behind the prosodic elegance beats an earthy vitalism that tussles with a disembodied, spiritual distrust of the physical – a fascinating dynamic. ‘Portraits by Francis Bacon’ captures the tortured carnality of that artist’s work, its misanthropic grotesquery provoking the poet’s Gulliverish revulsion at the animal in us. But Buller’s pessimism is more sceptical than devout, and when saying ‘we dream a sense of purpose/ …the rest is meat’, a sense of salvation triumphs in the beauty of such phrasing.
In stark contrast is an appetite for Lawrentian symbolism: ‘roadsides yellowed/ by phalluses of broom’. A poet deeply sceptical of the turn society has taken over the last three decades, Buller’s work is alert to an encroaching decadence that most pretend isn’t there. His is a humanistic politics that laments the post-War consensus, while quietly accusing capitalism of its gradual dismantling; from Aldermaston to the eerie blue skies of Manhattan 9/11.
In a more theological vein, Buller probes the spiritual life of Martin Luther, and, antithetically, Cardinal Newman, and Pope Innocent the Tenth via Velasquez. This detour through Catholicism echoes the Thomism of David Jones’s oeuvre: art as sacrament. There are portraits of Kandinsky, Klee, Chagall, and Walter Sickert via a model’s cockneyish idiom. Aphorisms flourish: ‘A church bell summons the faithful./ Something will endure’, or the sublime ‘…I wring your shadow in my hands’.
Alun Lewis and Dylan Thomas haunt ‘and night again prepares to bear/ the village away in sleep’, while ‘Dear Gerard’ ghosts Manley Hopkins uncannily. Such echoing of past voices, no mere pastiche, is almost mediumistic. The book’s core theme is mortality and the artist’s impulse to transcend it: ‘The poet aspires to the condition of art,/ a thing made which outlasts its maker’. Buller’s is a voice of endurance through self-transcendence whose historical verisimilitude makes for a more vital addressing of the present.
At The Three Crowns Inn
tell their dusty history
from walls that frame
this present clutter of strangers.
A rose-vine agitates
the latticed window,
rasping in the wind.
Across the yard
a rotting cider-press
the same relinquished past.
not content with song,
sketch a sporadic music on the wires.
Twilight begins to alter
and shrink the landscape
while candles martyr
into melted wax.
Soon the gaggle of voices
thins to silence,
the strangers gone.
Fools and Mirrors
We fail each other when we meet,
compelled to see
into a glass reflecting what
we cannot be.
A second glass appears by phone
or written word;
there absence fools and mirrors us
in the absurd,
each loving what we’ve fashioned there.
So, to defeat
the truthful glass, should we stay fools
and never meet?
(after Georg Trakl)
Recall again those tranquil days,
a gift of happiness from unknown hands.
Look! That town where a fountain plays
remembered music running into sands
of silence. The sick girl waits for him
in a scent of roses. He foresees her death
and wanders where the woods are dim
with sadness. See, the stars hold their breath
and dampen their fires! The mating shriek
of a bird fractures the silence. His shadow closes
on hers as if in embrace. Her weak
smile accepts a sheaf of crimson roses
laid in her hands. His soul is drawn
to her suffering. But at last her face betrays
death’s rigor. Now she moves through corn
and roses and will move through him always.
Love is a growing, or full constant light;
Love is not he-and-she
in nature’s tombola of lust.
Love is the Good Samaritan’s charity,
a father’s joy
at the Prodigal Son’s return.
Love is the only raft
afloat in the hurricane;
love is a drowning man reaching the shore.
Love is the bliss of knowing,
without even touching,
that the other is simply there.
Published in Fools and Mirrors (Waterloo Press, 2009).
Order Fools and Mirrors.
Visit Norman’s website.