Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Ken Norris’ Going Home


Snow was falling. Snow was always falling.
I was looking out the window,
watching it fall. In my head
I was still dreaming of South Seas islands,
my new spiritual home.
If I didn’t get out of that room soon
the snow would erase me.
In a while I’d hop on a bus
and ride into town down to Clark Street,
for another night of not knowing
what was happening at all, another cold night
of sleeping on Ruthie’s couch.
But the snow was persistently falling,
and the islands were far away,
calling to me, calling my name.
The poems in Ken Norris’ [see his 12 or 20 questions here] most recent poetry collection, Going Home (Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 2007), remind me of the poems of Ottawa writer Michael Dennis [see his 12 or 20 questions here], both of them writing as though their best days are long behind them. Norris, for a long time the historian of the 1970s poetry group The Vehicule Poets, has always been an interesting writer, but it has been Talonbooks editor/publisher Karl Seigler who has managed to always bring out the best of Norris’ writing over the past decade or so.

It’s interesting that Ken Norris has continued, in his poems, his conversation with his late mentor Louis Dudek (he also continues conversations with the rest of his Vehicule gangEndre Farkas, Artie Gold, Claudia Lapp, Stephen Morrissey, Tom Konyves and John McAuley); Norris once talked about how he, even years after Dudek’s death, is still continuing to learn from the conversations they started some thirty years ago, and continues his side of it to this day. Norris, who considers himself more post- than modernist, is still writing plainspeaking poems about subjects and ideas, writing straightforward lyrics with, as the back cover suggests, barely a form to hold between them.

I’m the one
sitting on the steps
just out of the sunshine,

to that woodpecker
carry on.

I guess it’s the bugs
they go for,

if that pecking
were a mere

A bee busses
somewhere nearby,

inside my shirt
probably not.

The lilacs
are coming on,
and who will I

come on to
The sky’s blue,

just the way
you would remember it.
It’s all

still here, yet
you’ve departed,
our conversation

is terminated,
at least for now.
The birds sing

as always,
the grass greens,
and even I

press my pen
to the page
to make these lines.

You probably
told me

what I am
coming to know

that life
is cruel
in the extreme,

and insistent.
We all die
and the world

goes on.
In the poems in this collection, Norris (who has been teaching at the University of Maine in Orono since 1985) returns to New York (where he was born), and to Montreal (where he spent his formative poetry years and still considers home), alongside poems that make reference to a very post-9/11 consideration, referencing the wars in the middle east.

It’s good to get out from under
the CNN flood of information,
the flood of propaganda.

After a while
you start to mistake that shit
for reality.
It’s good to see Norris write outside of himself and his immediate world, and his increasing past, as one of the 1970s Vehicule Poets. Norris keeps moving his poems through various of his concerns, from the geographies of home and history, to his annual trek to the south seas (one of his strongest collections is about such a trip, his 1984 Coach House Press book, edited by bpNichol, The Better Part of Heaven), his daughters and poems for ex-girlfriends and ex-wives, long fallen by the wayside. But still, there are even a series of poems that almost don’t need to write themselves, boiled down to the two lines of the poem “JOURNEY THROUGH THE PAST,” that writes “They tore that building down / years ago. It belongs / to a Montreal that no longer exists.” (p 143), or the short piece “POEM,” saying a variant of what the whole of the collection is saying:

You can’t go home again,
you can’t go back to the arms
of the women who loved you.
One or two of them still might take you in,
but that would be nostalgia, not romance.

The future is unknown, and memory
is a nice blanket to wrap yourself up in
in winter. But mostly you need
to look ahead, to look out
the window, to see what is
and isn’t there.
This is Ken Norris’ fifth poetry collection with Talonbooks (including the publication of a selected poems, Hotel Montreal), and perhaps one of the strongest collections he’s published in some time, despite the occasional piece that reworks versions of the same Ken Norris ground. Still, what makes this collection is the way the book is ordered, moving from poems on politics to personal and back again, from Montreal to New York and the South Seas, almost as a kind of collage-work.

Fifty years old
and totally responsible.
Which means

everyone sends me the bills,
for everything that needs
fixing, or paying off.

Braces, and school fees,
every daughters’ new dress,
the essential and the fanciful

all come circling
my wallet
like piranha.

They don’t mean ill
by it, the daughters
and the ex-wives—

they just firmly
believe that I
should pay for it all.

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