A life built up in poems: an intersection with some of George Bowering's lines*
Men who love wisdom
should acquaint themselves
with a great many
epigraph to Curious
Since the announcement that Vancouver poet George Bowering was chosen as Canada's first Parliamentary Poet Laureate, those of us who care for writing but not for politics or correctness couldn't be happier. Like a crazy uncle, saying those things you should and shouldn't say, sometimes getting himself into trouble, but far more clever and craftier than anyone around him. Uncle George who, when the announcement was made in the fall of 2002, was quoted in the Globe & Mail as saying that Ottawa hadn't given him as much as a bottle of "Alberta plonk"? (the British laureate gets a case of something. Whiskey?). So, when he read in Ottawa the following March, a friend and I were there, with the requisite bottle of plonk, Alberta Springs rye whiskey, as recommended by Talonbooks publisher Karl Siegler. Why not take George at his word?
His so often quoted line, whether epigram to Curious, or included in the poem "Desert Elm," written as sound advice: "Men who love wisdom should acquaint them- / selves with a great many particulars." (George Bowering Selected).
What was it that first triggered my own connections? Who's to know. Poems when we were seventeen, my eventual ex-wife handing me a paperback copy of Eli Mandel's Canadian Poets of the 1960s? My favorite John Newlove poem still lives there, his stomach of contents. Was it the pared down speech? Was it the consideration of the local that made me look at me, at mine? Was it simply the lack of anything else that tweaked an interest in (deceptively) simple speech? This, after years of the religious bent of Ralph Connor novels, and Dorothy Dumbrille poems.
Moving later into his solo collections, was it the consideration that the books were different compositional units, trying something new each time? Bowering as BC's figure Coyote, the trickster god, as seen in so much more, including one of his own favorites, Sheila Watson's celebrated novel, The Double Hook. Bowering the shape-changer.
Of his best friend for so many years, the late London, Ontario painter Greg Curnoe, they used to say that he was worth watching, partly, because they didn't know what he'd do next. Do you see the connections here?
Poems on other writers, poems on his wife and daughter, friends, teaching, what he'd read or seen, history, what his day was like, on the back of his own life.
For the longest time, the only book I wanted that I didn't have, twenty or thirty volumes into it, another week in the east, published in 1982 by Edmonton's own Longspoon Press. From the first part of the opening series, "Smoking Mirror," asking,
Who is teaching me
to climb down to heaven
to fall upward to
to later write in the same series:
It is in the brain's shared work
we discover the music
Here we read the questions of body and soul, of God. A series of pieces each leaning toward the suggestion of another ear. Here we see parallels later on in Robert Kroetsch's title series to the collection, Letters to my Friends (General Publishing, 1985). The story of a legend. A legend of another long telling.
A book filled with questions as important as the answers, if not moreso. A book filled with learning. They tell me that Kerrisdale Elegies (Coach House Press, 1986) is supposed to be his best poetry collection (his "translation" of Rilke's Duino Elegies), but I disagree. Structural resonances to that later work, HIS LIFE, A POEM (ECW Press, 1999), and repeated phrases that exist in both, clipped questions, and mentions between the body and language, passion against reason. A resonance with God, and how the senses come into play, in the work and in the play -- ear, brain, heart.
Less a matter of me claiming favorites, than the one of his more than any I return to, continually. More and more often. There is always something new to learn, admiring the way he would leap off lines and phrases, taking the pieces into a direction made most by language, much like previous of his works such as Autobiology (Georgia Straight Writing Supplement, Vancouver Series, #7, 1972), taking a moment and simply running. At a reading I recently heard a friend say, to my astonishment, that the writer they were there to honour once told her that a poem wasn't just about language, but was about telling a story. How wrong they were. If it's not about language, then its not about anything. Its the language that propels it, whether poem or story or grocery list. It's the language that makes you sit down and listen.
These pronouns are confusing & so personal,
I can eye birds in the sky & fat,
well, maybe not fat flying toward the brain.
Tell me, if you can, old fat, what's the difference
between brain & the blue sky? Is it
that the brain will never cloud up & rain?
What I've always liked about Bowering and his work, wherever he goes, always willing to take others with him. His poems are like reading lists, what else I should be looking at to learn.
He is not there to tell you how great he is, he's there to tell you how great other people are.
He is not there to tell you how great he is. He expects you to already know.
When I was a little kid fifteen miles from the border I got a neat
Christmas present. It was a jigsaw puzzle map of Canada.
I put it together and took it apart, over and over. It was not a
game: it was a puzzle.
I got really good at it. I could put Canada together upside down. I
could do it in the dark.
Then as often happens I lost a piece. I did what people always do
when a jigsaw piece goes missing.
I threw the whole thing out.
A simple and complicated piece about a complicated issue, and an issue of different sorts and proportions depending on where you were situated. Quebec? British Columbia? Ontario? Anywhere but Ontario? It's the brevity that gets, and the boiling down of a simple puzzle. A man from the provinces he ain't, having taught in three and even schooled in another, but for the longest time, anthologies that published him as the guy from BC. How much and how little it all means. Its only just a puzzle.
George Bowering Selected: 1961-1992
When I have fears that I
may cease to be
open to pain that shines
wet on the side of a gold
fish in my own, I thought,
I ought to forget
comfort, forget family
history, drive a black sedan
over thin prairie roads
looking for a town even
my mother does not believe
was ever there
pain is not colour, not value
but condition, the cost
of starting a damned life
in the first place, where no
thinking man ever was.
A brilliant poem, included in the George Bowering Selected: Poems 1961-1992 (McClelland & Stewart, 1993, edited by Roy Miki), that by itself, was the bpNichol chapbook award winner in 1992, a fourteen part piece, three stanzas each, with every part including a consecutive line of the Keats classic, "When I Have Fears That I May Cease to Be," written in January, 1818. Driven by this, it tells the story of the author/narrator, going "home" to find a town that was no longer there, of his mother's family, and the graves that went with it. Great to read aloud, just to hear the rhythms inherent to the poem. It must be a George thing, to watch either Bowering or Elliott Clarke read, with such an attention to the musicality of a poem, the rhythms, watching the one hand keep beat, keep score. Does Stanley do the same?
Conducting yourself, as one might say. Conduct yourself, Bowering.
Another poem, originally in the collection Urban Snow: "My Family's All in Bed." A great simple piece, to end the selected, starting
against the silences to come .
They keep telling me to talk more,
write less --
but I can't figure this out, I
will be doing neither
soon enough .
Writing not only of a life, but against a life. Life and death. His running joke for how long, trying to publish a collection under the title "Death & Other Poems" for years, with his title poem, "Death" that eventually ended up in Urban Snow, and later, this Selected, that includes this section, pulled out of the middle:
You see? said D, you announce that you are going to say
something straight about death, and there you are talking about
life, as far as I can see. That's just my point, I said. Death will be
horrible because it won' have anything of life in it, no matter
how many fancypants graduate students have told me that you
can't really submerge yourself in life unless you are fully conscious
of your death. They have all been reading Albert Camus lately, &
they are so much wiser than I am.
After another publisher would say no, that no one would buy a poetry collection with that name, Bowering claims, he'd pull the title poem and include it in the next attempt. And so on, until something else happened, and it was left in Urban Snow. An urban myth propagated by Bowering himself. Another lie, perhaps. Another misleading direction. Not how much he has written about life, but how long, instead, thinking about death.
HIS LIFE, A POEM
Island, Island, I wish I were no man.
In the basement, doing laundry,
in the kitchen, doing supper,
in the lineup, buying canned goods,
four-year-old at the table.
He wishes he was at most an isthmus,
a continental compromise.
"FALL 1976. VANCOUVER"
A book of fifteen years -- and thirty in the making -- a poem for each season, no matter where he was, from "SUMMER 1958. MERRITT" to "SUMMER (WINTER) 1988. CANBERRA." Bowering, sly trickster, retracing thirty years of seasonal steps, going back through not only his own life, but his life with wife Angela, daughter Thea, his parents, friends, students, writing and travel. In short, a life. Taken from notebook entries on equinoxes and solstices, and the arbitrariness of the entries from those dates, what I think Bowering's strongest book of poetry since Delayed Mercy and Other Poems (1986), tracing quirky movements and the reflective voice in the pinpoint accuracy of short takes. In HIS LIFE, Bowering gives us what he's known for -- strange and sharp poems that don't always make sense, rife with puns and bad jokes, hidden tricks and the occasional namedrop (although fewer than usual), and the turns that drop even the most expected wretch on his ear.
Certain chords throughout the text repeat, touching in on itself, such as the thread of reworked "Classical / relation makes a family of us all." ("SUMMER 1958. MERRITT") to "Classical re / duction makes a family of us all, / even his happy daughter." ("SUMMER 1980. VANCOUVER") and "Classical re- / lation makes a family of us all." ("FALL 1986. VANCOUVER"). Not only are there threads that run the stretch of the text, but back into previous work, such as into a series of related poems, "Paulette Jiles & others" in Urban Snow (1992), displaying his interest in pieces fixing friends and family in a specific time and place, or back further, to Delayed Mercy, where he took a phrase or foreign point to leaps a poem out of it, talking about small family moments. Those thoughts at home writing late night poems, expanding on his localized time even further, from "This long disease, my life / lets me some days stand / & even walk where my eyes / have shown me a path." (Delayed Mercy, "The Pope's Pennies"). How much an extension, then, from where he sits now (and then) at his west window, writing "This long disease my life / is much the same this year." ("FALL 1977. VANCOUVER"), or "Island, Island, I wish I were no man." ("FALL 1976. VANCOUVER").
As much as anything, this is sincere and classic Bowering, illuminating new corners of phrase and personal/public history, and expanding others, of home and life and love and ordinary moments, beyond all the familiar and unfamiliar tricks. "Any symphony by Bruckner, played loud enough / will please you if you've just started middle age. // If he just didn't have this terrific desire / to be taken seriously. But I sympathize too." ("SUMMER 1978. VANCOUVER"). These poems move because they are ordinary, and familiar, and because they are unfamiliar, opening up to new turns. There are such layers woven in, that its hard to keep track, synapses firing in the kitchen light, even as he starts "FALL 1961. VANCOUVER" piece with the phrase "Oh clarity to come," just where he ends his "FALL 1981. VANCOUVER" piece, bookending thirty years of awareness that arrives too late, at all, if ever. "Later outside, the liberated boys and girls / were learning to make snowballs. // This, he told his daughter, / is what happens when you marry the sea." ("WINTER 1981. VENICE").
Sitting in Vancouver
who the hell works here?
offers hard-eye love
not a ghost in this place,
tracks, no smell of sausage
this train station's
a museum, like
the notion of Calgary
("Sitting in Vancouver: Central Station")
A sequence of nine poems from the IV Lounge Reader (Insomniac Press, 2000, edited by Paul Vermeersch), an anthology celebrating a range of past readers at a regular reading series in Toronto. The disconnected series harkens back to his Sitting in Mexico series (1970), composed after two trips he took to Mexico in 1964 and 1965, and published as the 12th issue of his IMAGO longpoem magazine. Sitting in Vancouver, in hospitals, malls, and the Simon Fraser University cafeteria, a different setting each time. Sitting in Winnipeg as well, in a one-piece aside (almost): -- my old time / Metis girlfriend, / I made her arm green // wearing my ID bracelet in Manitoba. // Was that history / or mistake --" ("Sitting in Winnipeg: West End Cultural Centre").
In the series, echoes of his late wife, Angela, between the UBC Hospital and a multiple sclerosis clinic, and a strange, yet personal distance, if there can be such a thing. In one piece, moving from asking "Chinese woman stares / at setting sun, black cedar things, / her hands wrapt around tea, // -- where does she / truly live? Where is her life?" to asking "My dear woman in a machine / reading her, another chapter, // a good sentence or two?" ("Sitting in Vancouver").
The wisdom hindsight allows, seeing Boweringâ€™s poetry as a single unit of fragments broken into fragments, with countless links between; writing out his whole life, again and again. What originally struck me about his work was the language, the play of leaps into the unknown, and his willingness to shift between books, altering style, tone, purpose. No long thread broken into books, but working dozens of small asides, still with that unmistakable Bowering line, no matter the size. Tongue planted firm within Okanagan cheek.
Bowering, known more for books than for individual poems; for more than the poem â€œGrandfather,â€? out of how many Canadian anthologies since the 1960s. Now the author of dozens of books of poetry, fiction, essays. Two young adult novels. Three books of history, including Stone Country, An Unauthorized History of Canada (Penguin Canada). In 2002, a collaboration in prose, Cars (Coach House Books) with Vancouver poet and former student Ryan Knighton. Rumours of three selecteds out in 2004 -- poetry, essays, stories.
Troublemaker George. Trickster George. Foot in a new direction every time, with firm links back to central core. A ball thrown out to start, despite the rain.
A game set into endless innings.
(*with apologies to Alice Notley)
an earlier version of a fraction appeared as a review in the Globe & Mail