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Reviewed by Eric Schmaltz
Asian Skies is the third and final installment of Ken Norris’s Dantean travel trilogy. Now, without Dante to guide him, Norris drifts into the exotic and unfamiliar terrain of Asia. The collection reads as both a travel narrative in verse and as a series of mediations on this global citizen’s political, emotional, and geographical (dis)connections with the Asian world. The speaker struggles with strange encounters in a number of Asian geographies including China, Thailand, Nepal, and Indonesia among others. Norris quietly guides us through his reflections on these landscapes, exploring age, desire, materiality, spirituality, and the Western imagination of these spaces.
Norris is reputed for his mastery of an unadorned English vernacular in poetry. That reputation is reaffirmed here in Asian Skies. Nearly every poem reads with casual sophistication and astute observation. However, beneath each of these seemingly simple lines rests a delicate kernel of wisdom and a disguised critique of tourism, otherness, and exploitation. The text seems to propose and pursue a number of questions: What mechanisms continue to enable the West’s skewed imagination of the East? What is lost in the East’s seeming mirroring of Western culture? How can we return to a world that isn’t a commodity, a mindset that values space and culture on profound physical and psychical levels?
With these questions in mind, Norris focuses a critical eye, not on the Asian landscapes, cultures, and people, but on the West’s imagining of these places: the tendency to think of the geography and its people as consisting only of exoticism, mystery, and riches, all there for the white man to explore and conquer. In “Patong Beach–Andaman Sea” Norris communicates his disillusionment—“So what was truly exotic was how I thought about it all, / the otherness I’d imagined for it” (10-11)—and sets up one of the implicit aims of the collection: to undo stereotypical portrayals of the East.
Norris’s quiet language achieves a productive ambiguity. For example, “Bali” seems to criticize tourism as one of the modi operandi of making culture into a spectacle. Norris writes,
Still, the name Bali
conjures up dreams and mystic longings.
Not this vision
of ten thousand drunken Australians (6-9)
It is difficult to pin down the exact target of critique. Is it the fact that these tourists, these drunken Australians, have defiled this sacred space? Or, instead, do the tourists work to undo the signifier, the assumptions of mysticism that we imagine these spaces to have? I believe that the text is more aligned with the former.
Although Norris’s cultural critiques are indirect at times, he is appropriately assertive at key moments. In “Lament for the Coming Sameness” the speaker realizes that “It’s all become one world” (1) and that “You can buy worthless trinkets / worldwide now, eat Kentucky Fried Chicken / or McDonald’s just about anywhere” (6-8), gesturing towards a critique of globalization, and the West’s successful infiltration of the rest of the world. There is a sense of lament throughout these reflections. The speaker strives for a lost romanticism, for a sense of purity, a return to paradise: “I want the world to be sublime again, / want the flowers to mean something, to be richly beautiful” (13-14). And yet the speaker does not quite move beyond this sense of sorrow, regret and longing. Norris’s critiques are valuable, but unsatisfying. There is a sense that we are brought to the edge of profound realization, but we cannot cross the brink. How do we return to the lost sublime? What does the world look like in this re-accomplished purity? Perhaps there are no clear answers to these questions.
Norris’s Asian Skies does not offer a vision of this neo-romantic world—a world without commodification, capitalist exploitation—but he leads western readers to question our political and emotional relationship to the East. Most importantly the book encourages us to raise the possibility of re-imagining the West’s conception of the East, to undo the mythology, and challenge notions of difference on personal and collective levels. Only then can we begin to travel back into a paradise.
This review first appeared on The Bull Calf in 2010.