All that poet Ken Norris has ever needed is an editor. Knowing that publisher Karl Siegler has edited the manuscript of his newest collection, Limbo Road (Talonbooks, 160 pages, $14.95 paper), down from over 600 pages to its current 160, adds excitement to anticipation. Limbo Road, for all its directions, is less a collection of individual verses than a loose-fitting sequence of poems that sometimes overlap to make a whole.
Norris starts the book at the end of the end of a marriage (where his previous collection, The Music, left off), and travels down the void of physical escape in quest of spiritual and psychological healing through nine sections structured almost like chapters. Just reading the section titles lets you see where Norris is going: "Good Morning Heartache", "Heroin Thanksgiving", "Blue Room With A Crucifix", and "Green Waves". I sense that Norris stopped writing single poems years ago, and has evolved his craft toward this current construction of complete books.
It seems somehow appropriate, then, that I started to read it on a Voyageur bus. The collection weaves in and out in typical Norris fashion, with lines leaping off the page, and an occasional nod to Cohen, O'Hara, Williams, and Gold, among others. (All the usual suspects.) This is an emotional and vibrant book, which CanLit doesn't seem to get a lot of-from our male poets anyway-without smacking of cheap sentiment.
I have taken
that was in
your top drawer
you were probably using
to fuck your boyfriend
it was adultery
and so cold.
("This Is Just To Say")
Certainly not a note to be left on the fridge. There's a hurt here that frames the book, that doesn't fall the way of rant, rancor or self-pity. Norris is an experienced poet and knows what to do with his emotions:
I used to love the way you smile-
now I hope all your teeth fall out.
Ain't it funny how love slips away?
This collection certainly isn't all bile; it is wrought with self-awareness and self-discovery, letting the heart mend and occasionally letting the mind take over. I like the way Norris leads the writing with his emotions, with the mind discerning how to shape it.
Some of the travel pieces have the feel of a little too much "I am here, see who else was" to them, mentioning the Beatles while in Hamburg, not turning into a bug at the Hotel Kafka, or Rilke's birthplace of Prague. One can argue that Norris centres himself and the reader through the references, finding solace through the familiar in unfamiliar territory, twinges that would be at the back of many a traveller's mind; but in the way they are presented, they feel too much like name-dropping.
There is much to admire in this collection, such as the poem, "The Husband", three lines long:
That asshole had to die.
I have replaced him.
One of the finest pieces has to be "Veteran's Day 1995". It ties much of the collection together, adding a nice coda, as it begins,
O'Hara bent the world in the direction of his
he taught me how to take the time for rebirth
and to shed a few skins.
With all that grief, there had to be the redemption: time does, eventually, heal all. If you let it.