Eight Odes


Contains Illustrations
ISBN 0-919754-00-7






Illustrations by Nancy Smith
Reviewed by W.J. Keith

W.J. Keith is a retired professor of English at the University of Toronto and author A Sense of Style: Studies in the Art of Fiction in English-Speaking Canada.


Ken Norris’s poetry is deceptive. When I first read Eight Odes while reviewing To Sleep, To Love (see 3138 of this volume), it seemed pleasant enough but fleeting, unmemorable, distracting in its blend of subjective and objective. Called upon to review it in its turn, I find that the book’s qualities have grown upon me; these poems are more satisfying than I thought.

Eight Odes consists in part of the celebration of four vegetable loves, devoted to the potato, the tomato, the onion, and the artichoke; each is labelled “after Neruda” to designate, I assume, free translations from the Chilean poet. These poems are disarming in a somewhat whimsical way — reminiscent of a politically committed James Reaney. But interspersed with these are four more personal odes, to “the hemispheres,” “my mother,” “the day,” “the possibilities.” These are seemingly casual, employing a quiet voice that we have to strain to overhear but one that is ultimately recognized as possessing an individual cadence.

The relation between even- and odd-numbered odes varies. Norris is, I suspect, challenging us to establish connections that are more than tonal. My own solutions: Neruda as South American poet suggesting the interest in hemispheres; Norris’s mother with her enthusiasm for the simple things of life recalling the world of the poor for whom tomatoes are both food and pleasingly sensual (even artistic) objects. And so on. One enjoys working it out.

Nancy Smith’s illustrations seemed to me a little too studiedly amateurish, as if an attempt to capture a childlike vision had been pursued with too much determination and will-power. But Norris’s text, avoiding the conventionally “poetic,” is agreeably subdued, maintaining the illusion of being artless:

The banquet is spread as are the sheets

of the bed, and I suppose I should say

something about your legs here.

This involves a poise that is easy to miss; I admit that I missed it the first time round. But if you find that quotation congenial, you will probably — eventually — enjoy the rest.


Norris, Ken, “Eight Odes,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed July 12, 2024, https://cbra.library.utoronto.ca/items/show/38562.