IN PRAISE OF SMALL THINGS
I got stuck in a small
and learned to employ the unprofitable.
The small things everybody sees
and doesn’t care about.
Out on Saltspring,
up in North Hatley,
in the margins of the dance
you’ll find some insight,
Canadian poet Ken Norris is the author of a few dozen poetry titles (including two different volumes of selected poems) since the publication of his debut, Vegetables (Montreal QC: Vehicule Press, 1975). His latest poetry title is South China Sea (Toronto ON: Guernica Editions, 2021), a collection that, many ways, circles back to the travel-framing of his Islands (Toronto ON: Coach House Press, 1981). Whereas Islands focused more on the beginnings of his jaunts to foreign locales, the title of South China Sea instead offers poems on the journey itself, one that moves out into the world and back again across the length and breadth of his life. “And so the poet’s work / is never done.” he writes, to open the poem “INSTRUCTION.” In the same poem, further on, adding: “It’s all present, / often in the same moment.”
Subtitled “A Poet’s Autobiography,” South China Sea is structured in eight sections—“NOW AND THEN,” “THE UNWRITTEN,” “SINNERS IN A HOLY CITY,” “THE VANISHED WORLD,” “SOUTH CHINA SEA,” “THANK YOU FOR SMILING,” “ARTS AND ENTERTAINMENT” and “TAO”—with an array of multiple poems on each page running in sequence, something Norris has repeatedly done, as though seeking to get as much on each page as possible. Given the memoir of the collection, it holds echoes to Robert Creeley’s infamous A Day Book (1972), a book composed as a daily journal or diary in the form of poetry. Norris utilizes his lyric in similar ways, allowing one step and another step of short lyric bursts to unfold a sequence of recollections on his New York upbringing, his days in Montreal as one of the Vehicule Poets (along with Artie Gold, Tom Konyves, Claudia Lapp, John McAuley, Stephen Morrissey and Endre Farkas), a teaching career spent in Orono, Maine and numerous escapades involving travel, love, heartbreak and literature before returning, freshly retired, to Toronto, where he currently lives. “It wasn’t work,” he writes, to open the poem “WORK,” one of the early poems in the collection, “the writing of poems. / The work was everything else / that intruded.”
The poems of South China Sea are composed with a directness that even offer him as a tourist in his very skin; small moments, gestures and reminiscences lived and recalled at a slight distance. Norris isn’t a poet composing self-contained carved-diamond lyrics of exposition or wisdom, but one seeking the wisdom across a broader spectrum. To understand the nuance of his poems, one must read across a wider swath of his work, and a collection such as this is very much constructed as a singular project. “Nothing heroic in any of it,” he writes, to open the poem “LIFE,” “and yet it was life. / It was all that we had.” The wisdom of Norris’ lyrics emerge through the less obvious, the slow gradient of his lyric, using poetry as a way through which to articulate the moments of his own experience and connections. And, being a memoir-in-verse, certain poems in South China Sea harken back to certain other, smaller projects and collections. His references to “Isabella,” for example, can find tracings to the chapbook Songs for Isabella (above/ground press, 2000), a project he described a few years ago in a short essay on the press:
Songs For Isabella is written over the top of Neruda’s Twenty Love Poems And A Song Of Despair the same way that Bowering’s Kerrisdale Elegies is written over the top of Rilke’s Duino Elegies. Why Neruda? A big influence on my poetry since I was twenty, Neruda had taken part of his “pen name” from Jan Neruda, a Czech writer. I liked the undersong of the poetry of a Chilean poet with a half- Czech pen name for a sequence of poems about a Canadian poet who had fallen in love with a Czech woman in Prague.
“All the greed stands behind the lines.” he writes, as part of the poem “TED, RUTH, SYLVIA,” a poem that, presumably, references Ted Hughes, Ruth Fainlight and Sylvia Plath. “But in the beginning the love is so pure.” References exist throughout to the other members of the informal grouping of Vehicule Poets, as well as echoes from numerous of Norris’ influences over the years, from the “I did this, I did that” of New York poet Frank O’Hara, the Modernist exposition of Montreal poet Louis Dudek, the love poems and metaphysical abstract of Pablo Neruda and the passages of longing of Montreal poet Leonard Cohen. Lines such as “I came to each of them like a pilgrim. / They were the shrines of the pilgrimage.” from “READING THEIR NAMES,” for example, are pure Cohen.
I asked of everything
if it had a little more in it,
something more than structure,
and thus learned that nothing is empty,
that everything is a box, or a train, or a cargo boat,
that every footstep that took a stroll
left a message written on the earth,
that clothes had been washed
let some aspect of their existence
fall to the ground in droplets as they dried.
The things of the world
just go on being, and they are right to do so.
and I made an unspoken pledge to myself
that people would find their voices in my song.
In the end, South China Sea is a collection of travel and experience, but one that continually seeks to return, as much as The Odyssey or The Wizard of Oz, are both journeys about returning, even to the final poem in the collection, “FORTY YEARS GONE—THE ROAD HOME,” that ends:
That a heart, once
can never be closed again.