Monday, December 26, 2005

George Bowering's Left Hook: A Sideways Look at Canadian Writing

Anyone who pays any attention to me at all knows that I'm a big fan of the work of Vancouver writer George Bowering [check out this new interview at P.F.S. Post], so it seems pretty obvious that I would be eventually talking about his most recent collection of criticism, Left Hook: A Sideways Look at Canadian Writing (Vancouver BC: Raincoast Books, 2005). Bowering has published a number of collections of criticism over the years, from the smaller publications How I Hear Howl (Montreal QC: Beaver Kosmos Folio, 1969), Al Purdy (Toronto ON: The Copp Clark Publishing Company, 1971), Robert Duncan: An Interview (with Robert Hogg) (Toronto ON: Coach House Press / Beaver Kosmos Folio, 1971), and Three Vancouver Writers: interviews by George Bowering (including Audrey Thomas, Daphne Marlatt and Frank Davey) (Toronto ON: Open Letter, Fourth Series, Number 3, Spring 1979) as well his larger collections of essays A Way With Words. (Ottawa ON: Oberon Press, 1982), The Mask In Place: Essays on Fiction in North America (Winnipeg MB: Turnstone Press, 1982), Craft Slices (Ottawa ON: Oberon Press, 1985), Errata (Red Deer AB: Red Deer College Press, 1988) and Imaginary Hand (Edmonton AB: NeWest Press, 1988).

Published right after he ended his two year stint as the first Parliamentary Poet Laureate of Canada, Bowering's Left Hook is over three hundred pages of essays and articles written over the years, including pieces on British Columbia, Al Purdy, Canadian postmodern fiction, the Véhicule Poets of Montreal, Robin Blaser, bpNichol, Mourning Dove, Ethel Wilson, Michael Ondaatje, appropriation of voice, and what it is to be Canadian, all with his usual style and wit. A number of these pieces even appeared as book introductions or afterwards, including to the Canadian fiction anthology he edited, And Other Stories (Talonbooks, 2001), as introduction to the anthology The Véhicule Poets Now (Winnipeg MB: The Muses' Company, 2004), and as afterward to Ethel Wilson's novel Swamp Angel (Toronto ON: New Canadian Library, McClelland & Stewart, 1990), as well as the piece "Diamond in the Rain," commissioned by the Neue Zürcher Zeitung that appeared online in English in John Tranter's Jacket magazine. In doing her own work on Bowering, Winnipeg poet Di Brandt recently suggested that George Bowering has done more work on other writers than just about anybody, and sometimes wrote the only (if not the only useful) critical work on particular authors. When looking at the volume of critical work he's done, you can even see it. One of the organizers of the Al Purdy symposium at the University of Ottawa that will be happening in spring 2006 suggested that Bowering's work on Purdy in that small booklet from 1971 is still the best critical work done on Purdy's work. When a writer such as Bowering does so many different things, and so many of them, it unfortunately becomes easier to overlook so much.

"Why do we visit graves?

Why would we travel to a place we have never been to before, and stand at the foot of a grave in which lie the remains of someone we have never seen in the flesh?

In the summer of 1992 I drove to Omak, Washington, to visit the grave of Mourning Dove, the first Native American woman ever to write a novel. At the tourist bureau they had never heard of her, but they told me that the graveyard I had mentioned was in Okanogan, the next town.

The graveyard, white and dry under the hot familiar sun, was deserted. I parked my car and got out and stood where I could see the whole place. Then I walked to the area that looked 1930s-ish. The first grave I looked at was hers.

She had bought this plot out of her minimal wages from hard orchard work, a grave in a white people's cemetery. In Jay Miller's introduction to her autobiography, I had read that the words on her marker were only "Mrs. Fred Galler" (xxvi). But now I saw that someone had cut a rectangle out of the old stone and put a new marker in its place. It depicts a white dove flying over an opened book upon which appear the words:

MOURNING DOVE
COLVILLE AUTHOR
1884-1936

There I was, a still living white male, standing, and eventually kneeling at the last narrow home of a great woman I had not heard of while I was being educated there in that Okanagan Valley. She died when I was seven months old. I did not read her books until I was the age that she had attained at her death. What did I think I was doing there? I was reading."

-- from "The Autobiographies of Mourning Dove"

Much more a collection of more general essays than most of his previous collections, as he writes more generally on postmodern fiction, Vancouver and British Columbia, as well as on particular works and particular authors he is interested in. One of the essays that might seem more relevant these days is his piece "Backyard Burgers: A Letter to the U.S.A. about Transborder Culture," originally composed as "a talk at Cleveland State University sometime in the 90s" that seems to be aimed as much at Canadians as Americans, that writes:

"My childhood was a battleground where the armies of the United States and Great Britain continued the conflict they had been conducting for a century and three-quarters. I lived in a valley where British was veterans grew tree fruits. So there were English accents all around me. I hated them. The reason I hated them was that they valley extended across the border, and so did radio waves. Most of the narratives I knew were from the U.S. From Donald Duck to Walt Whitman, they were my compatriots. The comic books I got, the novels I found in the drug store, the radio serials, the movies on Saturday afternoon, the sport magazines, the hit parade, the popsicle wrapper -- they were all made in the U.S.A., and they were not presented as anything but USAmerican stuff speaking to USAmericans.

Things have not changed that much. At the video store I go to they regularly list movies made by Canadians among the "foreign films." The movie theatre closest to my house bears a (relatively) permanent sign that declares its fare as "American and foreign movies." In the neighbourhood chain drug store that advertises itself as "Canadian-owned" you can get two hundred different paperback novels, but you can not find a Canadian novel among them unless Margaret Atwood has been recently reprinted. It took me years to persuade my daughter that the U.S. president is not legally our president. It took me longer to persuade her that we do not have a president.

I like to ask people from the U.S.: how would you like to go into a bookstore and find no USAmerican books? How would you like to go to a record store and find no USAmerican music, unless the musicians had become famous in another country? How would you like to buy a popsicle, and read the rules about saving up popsicle wrappers, and see in fine print at the bottom: "This offer not valid in the U.S."?" (p 16-7)

What I'm really looking forward to is Bowering's baseball memoir coming out sometime in 2006, although I'm not sure when (I'm pretty sure it's with Talonbooks), with sections that have already appeared in Open Letter and online at Toronto's Dooney's Café. Who knows baseball better than Bowering (although David McGimpsey's baseball piece in a recent issue of Matrix is pretty impressive; and then his book on it too?)? Don't talk to me of Field of Dreams, or Kinsella's Shoeless Joe

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