Agitate! Anarchist Rants, Raps, Poems, Norman Nawrocki, Illustrated by Mathieu Chartrand, Les Pages Noire, 2015, 80 pages
The Legend of the Rat King, Norman Nawrocki, Illustrated by Ivan Radenkovic, Les Pages Noire, 2016, 72 pages
Feeling overwhelmed by Trumpism? Trudeau trying your patience? The Québec mosque killings and the rise of racist attacks getting you down? Melting Arctic ice making you nervous? Winter blahs have wiped the smile off your face?
Do not despair! There is a powerful antidote to these “poisons.” It’s Norman Nawrocki. The acclaimed (though given his dissenting voice he has not been decorated with conventional literary trophies) cabaret artist, author, actor, musician and educator pricks your conscience with these two volumes. He will get you out of your armchair, searching for the next protest march.
These books were my introduction to this Montréal legend who has written dozens of books, cut many CDs and performed in a number of bands.
In Agitate! Anarchist Rants, Raps, Poems, Nawrocki cuts a wide swath with his words, taking on capitalism and class violence, police brutality, extreme marginalization leading to crime, prison and death row or just plain misery, gentrification of his Mile End neighbourhood, the impact of corporate globalization, migration, militarization, the destruction of nature and more.
While none of these topics is new — in fact they have sadly become mundane — Nawrocki’s searing, often mocking voice, his vivid images, his direct, unadorned style and deft personalization of issues make the injustice, the waste, the hypocrisy, greed and stupidity of the ruling classes, and the oppression of the masses palpable, real and raw.
As for the form of this book, the author says it’s not poetry. OK, so what is it? It’s this, it’s that: rants and tirades, songs and raps, short fiction, dreams and delusions, and yes, some poems. Further along in the book, in “My Job as a Poet,” he states, “My job as a poet/ is to whisper weird dreams/ tall tales and musings/ into the unplugged ears of the unsuspecting… is to help butterflies/ and slugs/ tend the gardens / of rebellion/ the ones you forgot to water.”
Though he is a chronicler of injustice, misery and the need to oppose the status quo, you don’t feel weighed down while reading Nawrocki. His humour energizes. In “Your Baby is a Potential Terrorist,” he lists the tell-tale signs, including: “Does not drink alcohol… Never shaves… Walks on hands and knees (practicing a prayer position)…”
Equally, he valorises the brave, such as Kurdish women fighters, Louis Riel and sailors who go on a strategic strike and win. He does not shy away from machismo and male chauvinism, addressing a couple of poems directly to men. There are also quieter moments — portraits of a helpful old woman, a young tree outside his window, and an invitation to join the author to sip beer and meditate on what course of action to take next.
Dubbed an “anarchist,” in this volume at least, Nawrocki champions more straightforward street-level protest, and only in a few instances does the anger convert to violent imagery.
The second, more recent volume, The Legend of the Rat King, was originally written and performed as an urban Gothic rock opera by Rhythm Activism, a theatrical, cabaret rock ‘n roll band Nawrocki founded with guitarist Sylvan Coté.
It tells the story of Robert S, a death-row prisoner. After he dies, the Angel of Death takes him to the Devil. Refusing Hell, Robert lands back on Earth, or rather Hell on Earth, on the rundown streets of an inner-city neighbourhood where he hears stories of two other inhabitants, who help him. Then we are rather suddenly introduced to The Rat King who looks out for the beaten and broken denizens of this ghetto.
I found this book compelling, but I was aware of missing the performance that had animated the words many years ago. As well, I’d have liked a note from the author giving some context about the character of the Rat King. The illustrations by Ivan Radenkovic help complete the book. They are strange and utterly marvellous, bringing to mind Expressionism. Radenkovic’s bio at the back of the book says that he is a painter, illustrator and tattoo artist based in Belgrade and Montréal.
The earthy, evocative illustrations in Agitate! are the work of Mathieu Chartrand, a Québécois artist who describes his style as a mix of digital technology and ancient techniques of famous engravers.
The book also includes photos and sketches of men the author met in Vancouver’s inner-city downtown east side, the impressive bio of Nawrocki’s band, Rhythm Activism, as well as a note on the publisher, Les Pages Noires, a Montréal-based non-profit, volunteer-run, multi-media publishing, recording, production and distribution project dedicated to dissident, freedom-loving, anarchist-inspired culture that promotes social justice.
Nawrocki recommends that you read or even shout his words out loud! They were written to be spoken and, ideally, addressed to a group. He invites readers to make them their own.
He recently launched a CD entitled “Displaced/Misplaced,” donating the proceeds of the event to Montréal’s Solidarity Across Borders and the Immigrant Workers Centre.
Does the man inspire? In one word: tremendously!
Check out Nawrocki live on Youtube: