by Claudia Lapp
“All this world to wander in.
Many roads, many directions, many loves.”
– Ken Norris, The Wide Way
“What the traveler knows
is that he accompanies himself.”
– Constance Urdang, The Luggage
Floating Up To Zero, with its gently provocative title, is the latest in an ongoing series of linked books by the protean Ken Norris, a poet who has always offered the reader everything, his arms overflowing with gifts. Poems tumble from this 126-page cornucopia, multi-dimensional, confessional, in turns romantic and street wise, bearing sad or wry witness to global folly and materialistic disenchantment. Norris is a vagabonding everyman (“Like everyone/ else, I’m just/being dragged/through the blood” (Not Getting Into It) who crosses seas, continents and borderlines of waking and dream with “a ready ear” “longing for the clouds and dragonflies”, (Morning). He seeks moments of unbroken wholeness in a time of hyper-fragmentation, hoping for the company of beauty to dazzle him at mid-life, and residing whenever possible in the tropics, to escape from mercury and psyche’s descent to below-zero and up again. He has declared his colours, and they are not those of a flag or team uniform, but the greens, reds and saffron of Asia, where his heart has been seared, thawed, and given refuge. He has bundled all of it into a jewel of a book, more than ever a writer in sync with himself and his chosen trajectory.
Floating is exquisite heir to books Norris has created over four decades, most especially In the House of No (1991) for which Louis Dudek wrote an introduction, calling him “a poet of great scope, a major poet surely” whose work “could have arisen nowhere but in the American Tradition, with Whitman and Melville as godfathers, and … could have been written nowhere but in Canada,” “a book of his full maturity”. At forty, he already had sixteen books , not including translations and work in Vehicule anthologies. He continues to publish nearly a book per year, with a lode of poems always waiting in the wings.
Emblematic of the human and planetary beauty found within its pages is the cover photograph of a vermilion dragonfly in mid-summer, medicine of dreamtime and elementals to First Nations people, a winged spirit which the poet, “at one with the dragonflies” , has welcomed into his work. Dudek had called In the House of No “a book to love and live with. It will nourish your life.” The same can be said of Floating. It employs a format well suited to support the poet’s hybrid modes of expressions. Flowing narratives co-habit with light aphorisms, amorous odes and laments a la Neruda, with prose poems that are never dull. In the twenty years since In House of No, the strata of memories have accumulated and clarified even as the writer’s awareness of mortality sharpens (“Let me do this now, while I still/am capable”.(Let Me Do This Now). He has forged an alliance with time: “Together we conspire/to maximize our resources.” (Work). Floating is the offspring of a strong work ethic coupled with a restless imagination.
Those who read Ken Norris for the first time will find poems which seduce, inform, and entertain, poems soulful, romantic and filled with the “unbearable lightness of being”, as well as many in plain brown wrappers which speak the lingo of everyday. His are poems unashamed to champion beauty, yet grounded in the “texture of reality”:
“Now walk down /a street/ and Know it /to be the street/on which/you live.” (Fifty-One). Scenes of suffering and its causes are witnessed and wept over : “sad eyes of women and children/in shattered villages” (Traveller). In the tattered children of Asia, Norris the father, sees his own daughters.
Floating is all about perambulation, and Norris is a meta-traveler. In Buddhist lands, he’s the undeclared itinerant with a writer’s dharma. He turns out poems which hold “the slim line/that leads back/to the wide way.” (Poem) In Biography, he advises:
“choose the road not taken, or the road taken,/or the road under construction, or the void/reaching out under you. Take to the road, Jack…”
Anyone who has been astonished by a bright port in a foreign city, or stepped off a plane to jasmine flowers in November, understands the magic words in Mid-Day :
”the perfume of everything intoxicates me… I am where I have never been before”.
This is not hyperbole, but reality of the senses. The images in Floating are not found in any travel brochure. Norris is one of those “unencumbered travelers” Melville talked about in a letter to Hawthorne, who “cross the frontiers of Eternity with nothing but a carpet bag”.
He has lived long enough as a resident in South Asia, to embrace its paradoxes and seamy side, and he knows intimately the everyday effects of its climate on everyone and everything. Sun’s heat, Moon’s relief, hours of day, the elements:
“This seasonal wind, the green wind,/this laden sky that hovers and hovers,/releasing great god-like vessels of water,/…Rain is the lingering coinage of the moment, and it falls, splattering like alms …” (July Monsoons)
Women he encounters under Asian skies are seen as natural forces “with whirlwind tendencies who chew up the landscape” and for whom the poet has “retained …a blue involuntary taste.” (Taste)
These natural elements become characters in the cast and are viscerally portrayed from the very first poem, Resident, which unrolls like a movie’s slow opening take. We are transported to the scene of action, from early heat to the cyclo drivers’ staggered sleep at midday, to sundown and first stars, “the dark blue/of the burgeoning night sky deepening.” Floating never loses the luminous clarity of this first view. Already, there are so many unforgettable lines:
“The infinite declares itself, a knife/slipping through a durian.” (Resident), a line that delivers the timeless on a prosaic plate, totally specific to this foreign place.
“…Sunlight strikes the world./A hard slap across the mouth,/drawing blood” (Unity).
This poem could be a broadside emblem for the book. Every line in it portrays the essence of the poet’s temporary residence in an improbable and mysterious geography.
Phnom Penh presents a marvelous city view:
“The sun bakes black dogs into listlessness,/ everything here is traffic and colour
crushed by the pure weight of light.”
Eighteenth-century Italians called these kinds of paintings or etchings vedute.
In Afternoon Heat, “Sun’s bouncing off the golden dome of that mosque/…Uniformed soldiers walk indolently in the mid-day heat/…the closest star burns the green world.”
Norris as tropical resident is often partial to the relief of night, when lovers and murderers are about, when “heat abates … and it will be another/magical night in Asia.” (When the Night Comes Down). The second poem in the book, Evening in Asia, is a nocturne, a multi-sensorial 3-D cityscape which connects sky to rooftops to the mind of the witness. Embedded in its stately lines , an arresting video clip:
“Seven in the evening, the moon already rising/in one of its miraculous forms.
A naked body meeting water./On a rooftop, surrounded by tin and time.”
From the onset, we know we are in for an uncommon journey.
Floating has a symmetrical construction. The opening pair of sections (“Resident”/ “Floating Up To Zero”) are mirrored by a closing pair (“Lost in Asia”/”The Poetics”). These four sections contain the most sustained lyric outpourings. A pair of seasonal chapters (“Autumn”, /”When the Snow Falls”) – call them “grommets” – connects part one to “Winter Carousel”, a series of prose poems at mid-book, while another pair, “The Road to Spring”/”Summer as Topic” lead to the final poems in the book.
This scaffolding feels natural, not artificial. Balance is anchored by the opening and closing poems, which are cinematic, lyrical and characterized by extravagantly-detailed long lines, and connector poems which contain shorter more prosaic lines, some of which are like haiku, notebook sketches, snapshots; these poems, like many in “Lost in Asia”, are by no means lesser, just in a different modality. Examples include: Afternoon Heat, Phnom Penh, Playing Pool, Hotel at Ten. In them, Norris clicks on Now and “claims the poem”. These poems appear casual but are artfully- placed, hanging out together, so accessible, egging the reader on, then delivering an unpredictable punch, as in Ten, one of the last poems of the section. It stands in contrast to other pieces in this section; it is a before-Asia memory, self-portrait as New York boy, marked by the history and celebrities of his time. It tells us, here stands your “reluctant witness” who was this boy, now a world traveler, teacher and poem spinner. “When I was ten…/W.C. Williams was still alive. …Martin Luther King was still alive./The Beatles were in Hamburg…/I was still a Yankees fan…”
At book’s mid-point, acting as its fulcrum, comes a mini-chapbook. “Winter Carousel” is a collage of mental odds and ends which fend off depression when temperatures inch up from Minus Thirty-Five, to Minus Twenty (“All I want is a day of zero.”) Mixed with trivia and stand-up comedy are serious themes, lightly salted. The poet names his two great motivators: the practice of poetry and the pull of love:
“I stubbed my toe on the tree stump of poetry. I lost my heart in a sea of pretty faces. I couldn’t tell whether it was words or love calling me forward.” (Words, Loves)
Inseparable from the writing life is the personal library: “These books that aren’t mine fill up the house…Sometimes I welcome them into the work itself. You must understand that I consider books as sacred. So much human life has gone into them.” (These Books). Diverse feminine portraits abound – a list of ex lovers and wives, their names “street signs of the road I had not taken” (The Road Not Taken), The Goddess of Gloom, a date who offers a Hermetic Kiss, and burnt-out, underpaid working women.
For the unromantic, a Valentine: “Though you are May and I am September, be my valentine.” The wit and right-brain style of “Winter Carousel” gets you through another winter. Finally, in The Poet’s Lariat, all the fragments are tethered together and the method revealed :
“The poet takes his lariat and ropes what’s running by. After years of practice,
it doesn’t matter at what speed it’s moving.”
In the final section, “The Poetics”, are ten poems, each one a shining example of the most endearing qualities of Norris’ way of writing about place. Mid-Day, which opens the section, is an astonishing memory impression of the beach and heat in Kolovai, Tonga, its magical flora and fauna, as Paul Gaughin’s spirit is evoked. A daydreaming girl on her mat in the shade puts the “fragrance of the feminine” within reach and links the book to earlier travels in Tahiti. Meanwhile, and Understand, from” Lost in Asia” could easily fit into this group of poems. Their melodic lines are cinematic and precise. They brim with sensory details:
“Meanwhile the heat eats away at the most patient,/ants parade on their way to new bounty, …air conditioners moan,/green parrots squawk, fine fabric is woven,/black satellite dishes receive their messages,/as the motos, trailing blue smoke,/weave in and out of the late morning traffic.” (Meanwhile)
These and poems like Density, with its image-packed wheel-like stanzas, exist to be savoured, not dissected. They possess a quality missing in much over-crafted contemporary poetry: mystery. They lend themselves to being read aloud to lovers and friends. Please do!
Norris has chosen to relate personal dramas to those of his own times premise he laid out in his Report on the Second Half of the 20th Century: “to write about myself/is to write about the age”).
This theme is expanded and updated in Floating. In Going Home (“Autumn in America”), Norris owned his grief over 9-11; “Now it’s the new world/whose eye/I don’t have the stomach/to look into .” (“Ides of September”) In Floating, this altered time has become the normal state: ”It’s a darker world now./We know there are people out to harm us./ Children get abducted./Tall buildings are prone to collapse/when pushed.” (The Change) His response to a world “gone corporate or terrorist” (The Old World) is to go on living even as impermanence swats us:
“Perhaps we weren’t made for permanence./Perhaps our anxiety and suspicion/root us in a temporary world….everyone’s been born, only to die./We create and destroy ourselves/with such a delicate care.” (Speculation).
Despite all, Norris still takes refuge in transitory beauty:
“The beauty in the world is inexhaustible./You can find it everywhere./From the moment/you open your eyes until the moment /you close them. You just need/to see it…”
Those same eyes never turn away from the suffering of the poor :
“The young Madagascar boy,/“following the time-worn tradition/of the poor of his island, catching/rats to eat. What do you eat/when there Is nothing else to eat?” (Eating Rats)
There is an aspect I like in many poems in Floating, one I call everyday cordiality, kind notes addressed to people with whom the traveler spends casual time – the lovely girls Nooch, Vi, Anee (Playing Pool), Johnny at the reception desk in a conversation on East/West differences, observing: “ It’s the weather makes the difference./Where you’re from/it is cold. So you go go go.” (Hotel At Ten).
One of my favorites is What Is Learned, which appreciates the qualities of fifteen nationalities in an itemized list. Traits include: kindness, fun, hysteria, stately grandeur of life, “thinking beyond my one life.”
In a trance of enthusiasm and possessed by a deep affection for Asia, the musical cadences of the opening and closing poems are gathered and spun. For a moment, we merge with the flow of traffic in these latitudes, under these constellations. Displaced, but temporarily a resident, the poet takes his place, “The unfamiliar welcomes me home” Out of a chaos of infinite impressions, guided by keen eye and ready ear, motivated by “his hunger and thirst, a longing for the clouds and dragonflies”, Norris has found his groove, earned from practice (“My ear/it wasn’t natural./I had to train it for music” till it perceived “the subtler tones” (Fifty, 200 ). He is on a roll:
“Understand that I am creating it all as I go, and I go, in a taxi, in a cyclo, on a moto/weaving through the congestion of psychopathic traffic/to arrive somehow…” (Understand). Floating ’s direction is circular, its lines are vehicle wheels, water wheels, prayer wheels, wheels of karma, while memory spins another round, “like a spider, going about its arduous business.” (Resident)
“I thought I knew/where I was going/walking in circles./ Well, there is/a kind of knowledge in that.” (I Thought I Knew)
These non-linear poems and the ones which open the book especially, are Norris’ most ardent. They are love letters, really, to Asia and her colours – red, saffron, gold and above all, her greens and white: “A green fuse, an ardent confusion,/something dense that operates at root level…We are enmeshed in a consonance,/a confluence of merging rivers./And everything is green at its core,/and made of water.” (Unity)
The quantum physicist David Bohm (1917-92) had an unconventional definition for reality, calling it the “unbroken wholeness in flowing movement”. I think the phrase suggests what Norris has achieved in Floating Up To Zero. The watery image evokes repeating loops of Philip Glass, brook-melodies in Schubert’s piano music, the spontaneous concert outpourings by Keith Jarrett, the open structure of a gamelon orchestra… and the cadenced procession of life under Asian and home skies described with affection and cordiality in Floating Up From Zero.
What remains constant in Ken Norris’ perambulations of “the green world with its many roads,/ winding through wooden villages,/winding through the emotions of a girl I wanted” (The Wide Way)? The final two poems answer: the faith of a wanderer in The Old Star Charts by which to navigate (“a way of knowing the sky”), and the solitary focus of a writer’s dharma, “like the labour of ants/it slowly accumulates” “in a room somewhere…within the walls of an infinite repertoire” (Work).
Reviewer’s End Note: Readers who like Floating Up To Zero should explore other recent titles: Fifty, Going Home, and Asian Skies (all by Talon), since Norris writes an unending series which are “interlocking pieces of a puzzle”, each book adding to a larger mosaic. Having a broader context is like being handed 3-D glasses at the Cineplex.