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(This is a review by Bruce Whiteman of Floating Up To Zero by Ken Norris).
Ken Norris is a New York-born Canadian poet who lives, when he has to, in Orono, Maine and teaches at the university there. For many years now he has passed his days and written his poetry as much as possible on the road, or during short lengths of stationary time in many different places, especially Thailand and China, but also Macau, Malaysia, Singapore, Cambodia, and Burma. Before that it was Europe, with sojourns in the Dominican Republic for psychic recovery. He is not so much a cosmopolitan as a Canadian traveler who is rarely in Canada, although most of his books are published there. He is as restless as a poet can be, “a traveler / in an antique land,” as he says in a poem, echoing Shelley, accumulating memories but suspicious of memory as such (“Why remember? / It’s only a way / to fill in the present emptiness”), living mostly in the big cities where “everything … is traffic and color,” not avoiding his demons but not waiting for them to catch up with him either. He is poetically observant without designedly hunting for exotic experiences to write about. The ewige Weiblich is part of the wind at his back, and some of his poems are inspired by his erotic successes and failures. (One poem in Floating Up To Zero, called simply “Song,” is that hoary old generic thing, a “come live with me and be my love” seduction poem.) But away from America he goes with the flow, as they say, and it is the “unfamiliar” that, paradoxically, “welcomes [him] home.” Many of his poems are paratactic out of a desire to record his sensual experience as it plays out. “Meanwhile,” a poem in Floating Up To Zero, is typical of this poetic mode, as it brings all of the senses to bear in focusing on a normal day in Phnom Penh, a day as always when washing is done and cars honk incessantly and restaurants prepare for the lunch crowd. The catalogue of sense impressions is interrupted once or twice, as when “a green heart is being born” or when Norris speaks of “lost nights and broken promises.” (The opening poem in Zero speaks of a green heart also.) But his attention is on the things around him rather than on any human negotiation or pattern-seeking, and the poem as a result has an intoxicating narrative essentially without beginning or ending. That is why Norris can speak of “an infinite repertoire” in the closing stanza of the final poem in Zero, a poem entitled “Work”:
In solitude, in a room somewhere,
in a country you have never known,
within the walls of an infinite repertoire,
at this table,
the work goes on.
Cosmological theory insists that the universe is finite but unbounded, which explains perhaps why an infinite repertoire can have walls around it. That is to say, there is no end of subjects for a poet who wishes not just to talk about his heart, but about the great world in which that heart beats and has its life of joy and grief.
In a poem in Vegetables, his first book, published over thirty-five years ago, Ken Norris tells the story of Stymie Beard, one of the child actors who made up the movies’ Our Gang, and how he kept discarding the leaves of an artichoke he was served in the mistaken view that there was an edible center to be found. When he found nothing at the center, he threw the lot away, the “inner nothingness of the artichoke” being such a disappointment. There is an obvious metaphor in this anecdote, and while it has not in any palpable sense governed Norris’s life or work in the decades that followed his first collection (and many subsequent books), it has remained a theme, along with other persistent themes: love and solitude, the seasons, travel, memory, and the realization that there is a center to experience, but that it is always changing, evanescent, and of the moment. The poet is “the reluctant witness” to this central truth.
That at least seems to be the heart of the poetics in which Floating Up To Zero, Norris’s most recent book, eventuates. “The Poetics” is in fact the title of the final section of the book, and the ten poems gathered under that rubric all constitute–sometimes overtly and sometimes indirectly–an ars poetica not so much of technique or language as of sensual and intellectual address. The poem “Mid-Day” with which the section begins combines memory (it is a poem that remembers Tonga in a book largely set in Thailand and Cambodia) with an unwavering focus on the sensual details of a moment in time, and the poet, as he often is, is “intoxicated” by what Melville once called (in Mardi, that strangest of his novels) the polysensuum. The sensual field is briefly interrupted by the prospect of a bus’s arrival and the prediction that it will run over a dog on its way to where the poet is waiting, i.e. a shift of attention to the future or the prospective. But quickly the focus reverts to the present (“for now it’s the white road and the flying foxes overhead”). “Sex,” the poem that follows, is all about the lovely mindlessness of erotic desire and physical contact, and how in bed “time breaks apart / and a new unspoken world emerges.” There are no second-hand vectors here towards a philosophy, just the witnessing of a voice speaking to passionate moments and sensual abandon, what Norris beautifully denominates in a later poem “the sweetness / of an attendance now so fully realized.” Other poems in this concluding section augment Norris’s “attendance” to the present. In many of his poems, and not just here, rain seems to represent temporal suspension; when the rain falls, everything else is blotted out:
Last night I listened to the rain
falling on the roof, falling in the street,
falling everywhere. I was trying
to get to sleep, and I could not
get to sleep. Still, the rain
comforted me. When it comes
it comforts everyone, especially
the green earth. (“Rainy Season”)
Rain for Norris is the release into fate, then, the pleasurable abandonment of strife and need: not a permanent condition, certainly, but one where poetry often takes root.
But Norris’s poetics in Floating Up To Zero are not simply about paying attention to the moment which, after all, can be tiresome and hurtful as well as liberating:
Perhaps the boredom of a moment
and the slow passage of an age
are indeterminably fused.
Along with a degree of Zen impassivity there is also an irrepressible sense of longing:
I have this hunger and thirst, a longing for the clouds and dragonflies,
a ready ear, an indirect joy. Between green swaying trees and beggars,
between directions and complaints, I see the world
in the new mirror and know it
for the displaced thing it often is,
taking refuge in the green rice fields, refuge in the arms of women,
as the acetylene sun rises in the sky.
(The dragonflies appear in another poem in the book, where Norris writes that “I used to have a mission / that made me feel at one with the dragonflies,” and the front cover of Floating Up To Zero uses a photograph of a red dragonfly perched on a lotus flower.) The longing is for work, for the work of writing poetry; having a “ready ear” is what makes a poet, finally, and, as Norris adds, the joy comes not directly from the details that fill daily life, but from the “indirect” act of transmuting them into poems. “Understand I am creating it all as I go,” he contends in an earlier poem in Zero, and in the final poem in the book, we find him alone in a room in a foreign country, conspiring with Time to get the work of writing done.
“The Poetics” is the ninth and final section in Zero. Of the other eight sections, four constellate around the seasons, while the second and eighth sections focus on the United States and Asia respectively. “Winter Carousel,” the section which falls exactly in the middle of the book, stands out by being comprised of off-beat prose poems (Norris has called them “wacky”), inserted despite their not belonging there for any obvious reason (he says so himself in one of them, called “The Poet’s Lariat”) apart from the fact that Norris had promised “George”–the poet George Bowering presumably–that he would do so. The themes of these attractive prose poems are not very different from the central concerns of the rest of the book: winter kills the spirit, old age is impending, modern life is empty (by his own admission, Norris’s central concern), and so on; but he does allow himself a greater flexibility of tone, from the flippant, to the epigrammatic, to the very offhand, to the list poem (“No to the surgical strike. Yes to fantasy. Yes to precision orgasm. No to reality TV. No to the general malaise.”) Poetry normally shrinks with good reason from mere opinions, but the prose poem, with its less definite content frontier, gives room for statements such as that Herman Melville is “the Warren Oates of literature” or that “Amiri Baraka knows how to debate. Barrett Watten knows how to pontificate. No contest.”
Almost in the middle of the prose poem sequence is one called “Zero.” Here zero is a simple measure of temperature (Celsius, of course), the point at which winter’s back is broken and “something is about to melt.” Elsewhere in the book “zero” is more allusive, more metaphorical in intent. In the title poem, which comes first in the section of poems written in the United States, “zero” is the end point or the point of equilibrium achieved, blissfully, after a period of depression and despair. But in a later poem, “Zero Itself,” zero is more allied to negation (it and the word cipher both come etymologically from an Arabic word meaning “emptiness”). Norris counsels returning to the state represented by zero, as though the search for identity were a fraud:
The individual, negated,
brings the sum back to zero.
Zeros and ones.
We live in a world of zeros and ones.
You’ve tried so hard to be one.
Now be zero.
The allusion to the binary numeral system (the zeros and ones used by computers) doesn’t seem particularly crucial here. I think rather that Norris is trying to get at a state where poetry becomes possible. He says it differently in a poem entitled “The Poet”:
So close to the quiet
and yet a voice
I’ve cleared away
everything, in order
to hear it.
I take him to mean that it is the eccentric noise of personality that needs to be cleared away in order for the poet to be able to overhear the world, and that that is how poems are made. In the title poem, it is a “halo of anonymity” that he seeks. “Zero” is not a point of dissolution or disappearance, but a kind of balance-point and much to be desired. It is where “Unity,” a key poem, in my view, proposes that we must live.
“Unity” is the fifth poem in the first section, entitled “Resident,” unquestionably with reference to Neruda’s Residence on Earth, several poems from which Norris takes as a kind of skeleton over which he writes his own poems instead of translating directly, rather like Jack Spicer in his book After Lorca. The unity addressed in the poem of that name is something akin to a nodal congruence of the human and the natural worlds. With its imagery of greenness, water, and blood, it is hard not to be reminded of Dylan Thomas’s poem “The Force That Through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower,” especially as Norris’s poem begins with the words “A green fuse.” It doesn’t matter greatly whether the allusion is deliberate or not–Thomas seems an unlikely Norris companion in poetry, and furthermore there is a Neruda poem with the same title of “Unity” that is equally germane–and Norris’ poem goes in a very different direction. The center of “Unity” is the present moment, the place where rivers merge and we are “enmeshed.” The moment does not provoke clarity all the time, since it can be characterized by “an ardent confusion,” but its “consonance” is uppermost and its color is green, the color of the natural world. Even the birds sing “their green song.” The poem ends, rather unexpectedly, with a shift of imagery as Norris likens the sunlight striking the earth as “a hard slap across the mouth / drawing blood.” The clarity of the moment having been described earlier in the poem as “improbable” suggests that we fall into and out of “unity” with the world all the time, and sometimes that falling out can hurt, like an unforeseen slap in the face, leaving us, as Norris says in another poem (“August in America”) “in this state / of evaporating grace, watch[ing] everything / on green stems waver.”
The seasons give Norris analogies for his feelings. Much of what fills the four sections with seasonal titles (“Autumn,” “When the Snow Falls,” “The Road to Spring,” and “Summer as a Topic”) presents the poet in passionate moments of ardour, longing, elegy, and fear of age and death, and in general those passions are aligned with the appropriate weather. The relationship is neither constant nor predictable. Neither is it in Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, where surprisingly “Summer” is in a minor key, like “Winter,” and, to pick another example at random, like Gershwin’s song “Summertime.” “Autumn” contains poems about the end of relationships, about memory, about our limitations as sentient beings (“the awful timidity / of our lives and works”), while “When the Snow Falls” contains poems addressing loss, aging, the invisibility of the sixty-year-old lover (“How the wallpaper longs / for what’s in the room”), and alienation from life’s fray. Spring is demonstrably Norris’s favourite season, and “The Road to Spring” is full of the imagery of rebirth: crocuses poking up, reawakened desire, the shape of women as proof of intelligent design, daffodils and sunshine. “Summer as a Topic” by contrast is not especially celebratory despite the sun and the heat. The poem of the same title alludes to Suddenly Last Summer, the Tennessee Williams play that was made into a film with Elizabeth Taylor, in which a gay man is murdered and possibly eaten in a Bacchantic fury by the Spanish boys he was trying to seduce. The “summer” of this section is not as uniformly ghastly as that allusion might portend, but on the whole Norris experiences it both as a farewell to spring and as a harbinger of worse to come, rather than as a time of ecstasy. “See you again, somehow” is the concluding line of the last poem in the section. The elegiac quality of many of the poems gathered in “Summer as a Topic” makes one realize that the polysemy of the book’s title must include surcease–that the phrase “floating up to zero” encompasses, among other significations, the course of a life and its end in nothingness.
The title poem of Ken Norris’s book ends with a direct allusion to A.M. Klein’s wonderful “Portrait of the Poet as Landscape,” Klein’s most accomplished work and one of the great Canadian poems of the mid-century. Klein originally entitled his draft “Portrait of the Poet as a Nobody,” and his surviving notes for this poem include the rather depressing sentence: “Cursed be the day I penned my first pentameter.” “Portrait” is essentially about the poet’s invisibility in society (“incognito, lost, lacunal”), but towards its conclusion Klein begins to rescue the poet from his state of desaparecido, or at any rate to valorize it. The poet, in the concluding lines of the poem,
Makes of his status as zero a rich garland,
a halo of his anonymity,
and lives alone, and in his secret shines
like phosphorus. At the bottom of the sea.
It is the “halo of anonymity” that Norris borrows (quoted above), and it is a rich phrase, one that might generally characterize not just the poet today as in Klein’s time, but hint more personally at one of the motivating factors in Norris’s long period of world travel. The halo is a crown of laurels, for certain, but the poet wears it wherever he goes and still remains a zero, a Baudelairean anonyme. If that sounds grim, in fact it is not at all. For Norris, it constitutes (to complete his line) “the silent hallelujah,” a paradox to be sure, but a joyful one.