Sensual Nostalgia

Hotel Montreal

By Sonja A. Skarstedt

A review of Hotel Montreal by Ken Norris

Published on October 1, 2001

Hotel Montreal
Ken Norris

Talonbooks
$16.95
paper
160pp
0-88922-456-0

These collections (Hotel Montreal and Dissonance and Shadows) show two unique lives charted via lyrical, sometimes tormented, often sensuous verse. For both love is paramount-its impact mysterious, indelible, exultant, and often sorrowful.

Hotel Montreal is a time capsule encompassing three decades and unlocking a chrysalis of perplexity, awe, joy, and revelation. A nostalgic aura permeates the early poems, resonant with that long-ago, mythic innocent skein that floated across 1960s North America. From his humorously enshrined odes to vegetables, to a lover’s mundane yet carefully dissected activity or a snoozing cat on a rainy summer day, Norris’s romantic tendencies prevail. Yet there are warning bells, even within the young poet’s wistful hope: “The romantic heart has a leaky valve,/ murmurs in the night, a believer/ intoning prayer.” There is no place for angels in the world, and “the true joys of this life/ always appear like distant smoke/ from chimneys wafting into the air.”

Within these pages, Norris considers his decision to take the poet’s path as sacrosanct as a nun’s vows. The call is irrevocable: “One morning/ a blue butterfly landed on my 6 a.m. windowsill./ I haven’t been the same since.” This voyage won’t bring escape or any cures, and can even be treacherous: “Welcome to this psychic disaster area/called poetry.” Once made however, the fruits of that vow provide sustenance: “You live in fear of the day poetry/ will walk out of your life,/ the only faithful wife you’ve ever known.” The poet’s predecessors offer strength: “I don’t feel so alone/ when I read your poems/ William Carlos Williams,/ know you struggled too/ with the grisliness of life.”

Sensual exploration and oceanic, homoerotic landscapes take the helm in Sloate’s Of Dissonances and Shadows. The poet’s mirror of death and moonlit lyrics reminiscent of Lorca usher readers into a realm of exquisite suffering. This book spans nearly five decades, with the verbal grandeur of the earliest poems still lushly apparent in the present. For instance, “Words in Miniature” reveals moonlight to be “a needle pricking at its face/ a long scar across the threshold”; in “A season returns and you,” circa 1999, “the startled bareness of November/ with its fresh-dead days underfoot/ as the season turns to take you from me.”

Death is the keynote and the lure, its call an aching luxury that nurtures the mythological continuum: “He called me white bull and taunted me/ with a wine-filled cape/ he danced for me in the wet world/ we hugged to our bodies.” For every pleasurable turn, every victorious climb, there is a terrible price to pay: ” A breeze snatched love from the dust/ and scattered it in my eyes.” Yet the seeking of perfect pleasure reinforces the quest to be alive: it would be worse to lie low, refuse to taste extreme ecstasy. Sloate plunges into the maelstrom, mingling his history with that of a past piled with the artefacts of blind and earthly fate: “The monument mocks us as we chip at our brain/ flint dust on our hands as reminders of our folly.”

Whether travelling the South Seas or weighing Auden’s legend, Ken Norris’s private and poetic evolution contains a quietly exuberant vastness. Daniel Sloate’s vision, meanwhile, remains in the realm of the dark, allegorical, quasi-imaginary – as if to physically set foot on earth would engender excruciating pain. In Norris’s “Epilogue”: “What comes after the ending is another beginning. Something new. The stirrings of another story. There always seems to be another morning.” Sloate, on the other hand, avoids that particular, potentially-poisonous light: “it’s enough to make the wind a bed for gods/ any cult that opens the grave/ and saves your dust for heaven.” mRb

Sonja A. Skarstedt is a Montreal poet and publisher.

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