#736 Bowering’s ashes and sparks
Taking Measures: Selected Serial Poems
by George Bowering, edited by Stephen Collis
Vancouver: Talonbooks, 2019
$49.95 (hardcover) / 9781772012378
(softcover $29.95 due Fall 2020)
Ten Women: Stories
by George Bowering
Vancouver: Anvil Press, 2015
$20.00 / 9781772140316
Writing and Reading: Essays
by George Bowering
Vancouver: New Star Books, 2019
$18.00 / 9781554201549
Three books reviewed by Nicholas Bradley
For sixty years, George Bowering has been a continual presence in Canadian writing, as dependable as a utility infielder, as consistent as a great leadoff hitter. He has written so many books that to call him prolific is both a cliché and an understatement. In 1989, when Bowering was still in his early fifties, Roy Miki completed A Record of Writing, a splendid bibliography of Bowering’s works. It is over four hundred pages long. Yet the thirty years since have rendered it hopelessly out of date; a second instalment is sorely needed, and it too would be a tome. In the last decade alone, Bowering published a lifetime’s worth of books. No genre is safe: his recent volumes include poetry, autobiographical fiction (or “fictobiography,” to use his own term), and memoir. For good measure, he wrote another book about his abiding passion for the national pastime of our neighbours to the south: The Diamond Alphabet: Baseball in Shorts (2011). Meanwhile, he and his publishers have been consolidating his reputation with retrospective books — Writing the Okanagan (2015) is an anthology of his depictions of the part of British Columbia he first called home — and new editions of older novels, including Burning Water (first published in 1980; reissued in 2007), Shoot! (1994; 2008), and Caprice (1987; 2010). Rebecca Wigod’s biography of Bowering, He Speaks Volumes, appeared in 2018. Inevitably, the first chapter was titled “Mr. Prolific.” What else?
On my desk are two new books by Bowering — the immense Taking Measures: Selected Serial Poems, edited by Stephen Collis, and Writing and Reading, a collection of essays — as well as a sequence of short stories from 2015, Ten Women. Another thousand pages of Bowering! For readers, keeping up with George means finishing a book of his a year, more or less. (For writers? Good luck.) And it has always been this way. A little while ago, I had to look something up in a back issue of the academic journal Canadian Literature. Bowering had not been on my mind, yet there he was, in these forgotten pages from 1972, with a critical study of the “artfully daring” poet Margaret Avison. And there he was again when, in the same issue, two of his books were reviewed. Touch: Selected Poems 1960-1970 was assessed by no less than Al Purdy. That review was followed immediately by an account of Bowering’s monograph on Purdy himself. Simply titled Al Purdy, it was the first book about the poet, and it remains a point of scholarly reference. Regular readers of Canadian Literature might have noticed that part of Bowering’s book — including the deathless quip that “Purdy is the world’s most Canadian poet” — appeared in an earlier issue of the journal. My point is simply that Bowering has been virtually omnipresent in Canadian letters for a long time, almost inescapable, and to read his new books is to consider their place in a remarkably extensive body of work.
Among Canadian authors, perhaps only George Woodcock was as prodigious, and like Woodcock, Bowering has been a resolutely western writer. He was born in Penticton in 1935, but despite his lasting imaginative attachment to the Okanagan, he has lived in Vancouver, for the most part, since the late 1950s; and he has been staunchly committed to the aesthetic or even ideological vantage of the writer at the geographical margin. Twenty-five years ago, he published a popular history of the province called Bowering’s B.C., the title meaning something like “B.C. according to Bowering’s perspective.” I think that the phrase can be read more personally still: “Bowering is B.C.” (He is certainly one of the world’s most British Columbian poets.) And yet with poetry as with sport, the American influence has been crucial. At War with the U.S. (1974), one of the poems collected in Taking Measures, is politically relevant today, little having changed, in some regards, between Nixon’s era and Trump’s. But as a writer, Bowering made peace early on with a strain of contemporary American poetry. In Writing and Reading, he describes this formative moment: “Even while I was a UBC student, my friends and I made some kind of fuss across the country with our poetry newsletter Tish, and our championing of the new USAmerican poets that were unknown to our professors. They provided poems that would always stay with me and my poetry buddies, poems such as Robert Duncan’s ‘Poem Beginning with a Line from Pindar,’ and Charles Olson’s ‘Songs of Maximus’ and Robert Creeley’s ‘The Door.’”
After dozens of books, and countless essays and poems, Bowering has become a constant aspect of the Canadian literary landscape — constant yet restless, like the sea, or like the play of cloud shadows on a dry hillside. He has been recognized as an author of national and local significance, his publications always making “some kind of fuss.” My sense is, however, that his writing is less appreciated than it should be. His incredible pace may bear the blame; readers may wonder if each successive book enriches the corpus, or simply adds weight to the shelf. In addition, his critics have at times identified a superficiality in his writing. Although he generally admired the poems in Touch, Purdy warned, back in 1972, that Bowering could be inconsequential:
I think it’s trivial to write an eleven-page poem about baseball (and life too, of course): unless the poem isn’t trivial. … Obviously, a good poem can be written about anything … But a good poem about baseball seems to me very difficult to write, perhaps because of the superficial nature of the game. Superficial because such games are the froth and entertainment of daily life, and because one game is really interchangeable for another. … The integral things of life are, life, death and sex (which last includes love among its other implications), and possibly taxes. Therefore, even a good baseball poem is bound to be trivial froth — unless its umbilical cord connects with something much more important.
I’m not sure that I want more poetry about taxes, but the crux of Purdy’s complaint — that poems about superficial subjects are trivial, unless they aren’t — hints at a fundamental problem, or dynamic, in Bowering’s writing, namely that “the froth and entertainment of daily life” lie at the heart of his oeuvre.
If the protean Bowering has a characteristic mode, it is an allusive form of autobiography rooted in quotidian details and in his vast library, and marked by linguistic games. No pun is avoided. In the poem Allophanes (1976), for instance, Bowering makes a passing reference to “Oedipus at Kelowna,” yoking the classical to the local. Collis describes Bowering, and poets like him, as “improvisational language machines around whom the pages continually accumulate at breakneck speed, who simply cannot stop producing, for fear they will stop, once and for all.” Because he writes so much; because he cleaves to experience; because he views writing as itself a record of writing, to borrow Miki’s phrase; and because his literary personality is exceedingly loquacious, Bowering’s books in all genres contain trivialities. His cornucopian body of work thus demands astute readers who discern connections to what Purdy called “something much more important,” or perhaps who perceive significance in the seemingly ordinary. In the end, choosing Bowering’s ten or twenty finest poems, or his best novel, is less urgent a critical project than illustrating how the rhythm that he has cheerfully sustained, decade after decade, has created a complex imaginative whole.
A beautiful edition and a gift to Bowering’s readers, Taking Measures goes some distance toward realizing that goal. As editor, Collis assembled Bowering’s “long serial and procedural poems,” which are “premised on the sort of ongoingness that best suits this poet’s propulsive need to continue writing.” Length alone is an imprecise means of classifying poems — how long is long? — and Collis does not draw an absolute distinction between single, extended poems and sequences of discrete or nearly discrete poems. Baseball: A Poem in the Magic Number 9 (1967) is sixteen pages long in Taking Measures, and has to be read as a single unit, while Kerrisdale Elegies (1984), at one hundred and twenty pages, can reasonably be seen as a group of ten individual, though linked, poems. “Serial,” rather than “long,” is the pivotal term. Collis follows the American poet Jack Spicer, to whom Baseball was dedicated, in defining the serial poem as one that takes the book as a unit of composition, and that is improvisatory or exploratory in conception. Some contrivance is typically required to usher the poem into existence. Thus, as Collis notes, Allophanes “was written while Bowering sat in on a Robin Blaser course on Yeats and Joyce at Simon Fraser University in 1974 – each installment of the poem written during one of the twenty-six lectures.” Or as Bowering puts it in his brief preface to Taking Measures, “I sat in on a semester’s lectures by the great poet Robin Blaser and wrote a poem … all the while he was talking.”
Collis and Bowering agree on the decisive influences on Bowering’s interest in the serial poem: Spicer, but also William Carlos Williams and H.D. Other poets, such as Blaser, Duncan, and Olson, clearly had an effect too. In Writing and Reading, Bowering calls Spicer “the foe of manipulative poetics,” and observes that “a series might have the potential to go on forever, unless someone sets a limit, as in the World Series, wherein the first team to collect four wins is this year’s champ.” But on the dedication page of Taking Measures are lines from Shelley’s Queen Mab, and in Writing and Reading Bowering remarks that he has “often said that Shelley is the greatest English poet ever.” Elsewhere in the collection of essays he claims to “have had Shakespeare, Homer, Rilke, Stein and Keats whispering in my skull.” Although the poems in Taking Measures are indebted to Spicer and other avant-garde poets, they often bespeak as well his engagement with the canon of English poetry. Do Sink (1992) is an extended inhabitation, as Collis has it, of Keats’s “When I have fears that I may cease to be.” (The title springs from the sonnet’s last words: “then on the shore / Of the wide world I stand alone, and think / Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.”) Bowering once played on a baseball team called the Zephyrs. In The Diamond Alphabet, he shrugs off any connection between the name and either the west wind or Shelley’s “Ode” to it – “maybe the simplest-sounding, most complicated poem in the English language,” he claims in Writing and Reading. I don’t believe it for a second. Shelley and baseball — that’s Bowering through and through.
Conventional wisdom holds that Kerrisdale Elegies represents Bowering’s greatest poetic achievement; it is, Collis writes in Taking Measures, “perhaps his most accomplished poem.” Fine as it is, its genesis in Rilke makes it somewhat atypical, and it might have been omitted from Taking Measures and placed in another volume in the notional Collected Bowering. Collis explains that “after a false start with a homophonic translation from the German, which he does not read, Bowering began a loose translation of Rilke’s ten-part long poem Duino Elegies, working from a range of well-established English translations. … It is an audacious and unattributed theft (the poem’s source in Rilke is unattributed) and — the great poetic sin — toys with being mistaken for a mere paraphrase of an original ‘masterpiece.’” Whether a “loose translation” of a non-serial poem constitutes a serial poem is, I suppose, an open question, but Bowering’s geographical and temporal transposition of Rilke is in any event memorable and moving, as in these brisk lines from Elegy Two:
In love we have a secret language we dont remember.
We catch a word or two,
as the wind passes,
we turn an ear to the cool,
it’s gone. The trees
shake their leaves to say look,
The house you’ve sat in for years remains
against all odds,
a part of the earth.
We are the wisps,
we flit invisible
around all that wood.
They dont even hear us,
they may be waiting for us to say something important.
Of the thirteen long poems in Taking Measures — from Baseball to Los Pájaros de Tenacatita (2013) — the most satisfying are, to my mind, Kerrisdale Elegies and His Life (2000). As the title suggests, His Life chronicles Bowering’s days and places, from 1958 in Merritt to 1988 in Canberra. An assembly of moments, often melancholy, it alludes to domestic tensions, the onset of middle age, and the interminable disappointments of the literary life. Wigod’s biography describes plainly circumstances that the poignant poem treats obliquely, and in some respects it is easier to understand His Life after having read He Speaks Volumes. Yet if the biography makes the poem more intelligible, the poem equally makes the biography seem superfluous, as if it were a mere elaboration of the essential particulars already recorded and distilled by the poet, who describes himself in the third person:
Winter 1972. Vancouver
The bills unpaid, un-
payable, the cheques written
cannot be mailed, the bank
is empty, the poor little tree
is atop a stereo speaker,
the new dishwasher gleams.
Was Whitman right? Should he
dance? He has a pain
behind his left eye, they
have no sickness save home
but a child separated from a tree
by a chair. They
save her from pulling it over
on herself, she who
never sits anyway. Was
Duncan right? He makes a poem
ending with a word called Pindar.
I was less enthralled by Blonds on Bikes (1997), an account of European travels and a record of “the mind / fidgetting.” It begins in Denmark — thus the title — and Bowering finds in pretty cyclists an image of intellectual restlessness: “Mind scurries / like a bike in the north / downhill.” Formally, Blonds on Bikes is similar to His Life, and the two poems are comparably personal, but Bowering achieves greater perspective in the latter than in the former. Perhaps the balance of the trivial and the integral — Purdy’s terms again — is off, at least to my ear. I write that sentence and catch myself, remembering that somehow the pieces all go together, and that reading Bowering well demands patience. Because he writes ceaselessly about his life, his preoccupations recur, and there are predictable repetitions. His command of arcana about the major and minor leagues no doubt exceeds most readers’ enthusiasm for baseball. (In the poem Baseball, the speaker arrives “At the park an hour early, / scribbler full of batting averages.”) And his autobiographical poems brim with references to other authors and to the minutiae of academia, Bowering having been a lifelong teacher as well as a writer. Readers must therefore be willing to absorb this or that mention of the Vancouver Canadians or the Kamloops Elks, and of Bowering’s colleagues and contemporaries — inside baseball of one type or another. His poetry’s quirks and tics may distract from the essential quality of the writing — namely that it enacts the roaming of a playful, inquisitive mind — but they do not conceal it. Taking Measures is a book of riches, with Collis a clear and effective guide. I look forward to a companion volume dedicated to Bowering’s shorter poems.
The “Note on Usage” in Taking Measures explains that “the original terminology used in these poems has been retained, even where that terminology, for very good reasons, has changed in general usage over the past few decades.” Thus the poems (still) use “man” as a generic term, and occasionally refer to “Indians.” “No poetry,” Collis writes, “escapes its times’ uneven distribution of authority, advantage, and disadvantage. If the speaker of these poems sometimes strikes the contemporary reader as problematically unaware of his advantages and viewpoint, it is because the male poet of the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s — and the white heterosexual male of European descent alone — had a particular licence that is only now slowly being revoked.” Offensive terms can be placed in historical context, as readers of Mark Twain or Joseph Conrad will understand, even if they remain perpetually inflammatory. Collis’s note suggests, however, that the true concern is not Bowering’s language but his point of view. Like countless other poets of the mid-to-late twentieth century, including his interlocutor Purdy, Bowering sometimes wrote from a conspicuously and lasciviously male perspective. What to make of the Great Male Narcissists, as David Foster Wallace dubbed John Updike and his ilk, in a time when male narcissism is problematic at best?
Bowering addresses “The Objects of My Affection,” an essay in Writing and Reading, to the staff of ECW Press, one of his publishers. It begins with an explanatory note:
At the end of January 2018, while I was working on a new book in Mexico, I got an e-mail from Jack David, publisher of ECW Press, in which he informed me that some of the women at ECW who had read the manuscript of No One were uneasy with ECW’s publishing it, feeling that the fiction “objectifies women.” … [David] did for us all the respectful thing of reading the manuscript again, and because the writing is good, decided to go ahead with printing and publication. But he would not force anyone to work on the book if they felt that it should not be published. … So I decided to write the following letter in an attempt to defend my novel.
Whatever the merits of Bowering’s defence, it is not difficult to imagine his other recent books attracting similar charges of objectification. The tales in Ten Women, for example, have as their principal subjects heterosexual male fantasy and desire, and youthful misadventure and transgression. Although a distinction between author and narrator is always pertinent, it cannot be denied that Bowering’s narrators are rarely pure in thought, word, and deed.
The tenth story, “Ardell,” is narrated, at first, by the callow Delsing. (The names echo each other, and the author’s; a dell is not unlike a bower.) Delsing makes judgments about Ardell, his lover, that seem destined to bring censure upon his creator. Some are possibly only dubious — “I think that you will agree that a slightly overweight woman while she is still pretty young is more attractive, let’s say desirable, than a slightly skinny one” — while others are manifestly derogatory. For instance, Ardell is said to have eaten “eagerly and greasily, like a Labrador retriever at a bowl of Alpo.” But in the second part of the story, narrated by Ardell, Delsing is revealed in all his unsophistication: “He was skinny but not lithe, if you get what I mean. … His hair was limp and tended to fall in his face, and he could have used some clippers up his neck. … I had heard rumours that he thought of himself as a young poet, but he looked more like an extra in a dirty movie set in a motel.” Ardell’s recollection of her liaison with Delsing both complements and unsettles his version of events, but when Delsing is skewered, what becomes of his story? Are readers left with any sympathy for him, or for his depictions of Ardell? If he is exposed as a misogynistic figure of contempt, then what of his alignment with the author? Bowering leaves such questions unanswered, although there is a note of authorial self-criticism in Ardell’s comical question: “What kind of future was there,” she asks, “with a guy whose name is a present participle?”
The other stories in Ten Women are correspondingly open-ended, and likewise concerned with desire fulfilled or frustrated. The collection is to some degree out of step with the times; it also clearly belongs to Bowering’s extended project of transforming episodes of his own life into art. The book brings into relief the conservatism of Vancouver in the early 1960s — the milieu in which Bowering began his literary career — and provides further evidence of his predilection for engaging in dialogue with classical myths and modern classics. For what it’s worth, I prefer Bowering’s poetry to his ribald fiction, but I see how Pinboy, Ten Women, and No One, all of which dramatize his early days, form part of his long, quasi-autobiographical undertaking. Bowering’s narrators and characters will, as Collis writes of the poems’ speakers, “sometimes strik[e] the contemporary reader as problematically unaware of [their] advantages and viewpoint,” but I suspect that the author is more savvy than his feckless young men.
The essays in Writing and Reading are in the main less contentious than the stories in Ten Women. The new volume supplements another compendium, Words, Words, Words: Essays and Memoirs (2012). The title of the earlier book suggests superabundance; that of the new collection, activities without surcease, and indeed Bowering is a wolfish reader with eclectic tastes as well as an unflagging writer. Writing and Reading gathers brief literary essays — one as short as nine lines — on his own works and those of other authors (mostly contemporary, mostly Canadian). Readers not already well versed in Bowering may find that the book’s miscellaneous nature makes it somewhat abrupt or opaque, especially because Bowering relays his reflections in his usual bluff mode, but the volume is nevertheless an important addition to his body of late work. Whatever his idiosyncrasies, Bowering is never dull, and it is rewarding to have his further thoughts on Judith Fitzgerald, Robert Kroetsch, Alice Munro, and Joe Rosenblatt, on the books he read in 1967, and on the landscape of Oliver, B.C. His words are scattered, like Shelley’s ashes and sparks, or like fly balls during batting practice, across a wide field. Compilations such as Writing and Reading, and such valuable editions as Taking Measures, make it possible to begin in earnest the task of coming to terms with George Bowering.
Nicholas Bradley is an associate professor in the Department of English at the University of Victoria, where he teaches Canadian literature and American literature. His most recent book is Rain Shadow (University of Alberta Press, 2018), a collection of poems reviewed by Christopher Levenson in The Ormsby Review (535) (May 17, 2019). He has previously reviewed the poetry of Daphne Marlatt and Fred Wah in Ormsby (423) (December 5, 2018).
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