Returning from exile

The Capital City of Autumn
by Tim Bowling

Hamilton: Wolsak and Wynn, 2024
$20.00 / 9781989496862

Reviewed by Harold Rhenisch


Tim Bowling began his writing career with poems remembering the salmon fishery on the Fraser estuary. His first book Low Water Slack (1995) earned him a place on deck with such seasoned fisher poets as Kevin Roberts and M.C. Warrior. Then he moved to Edmonton but never severed his poetic ties with BC. Now he’s back with a report on the difficulties of returning home in a world where everything grows older, including poets and poetry.

Endurance is important here. During the 1990s, considerable swathes of literary culture in both Bowling’s native British Columbia and his expat Alberta retained embedded English connections, with venerable poets like Victoria’s Robin Skelton and Calgary’s Christopher Wiseman casting long shadows and Anglo stage traditions (in Edmonton, Calgary, and Vancouver) a commonplace.

For decades Bowling has worked hard to bring Canadian poetry to the world. He has won acclaim for his own in Canada, the US, and Britain. I watched him personally at work in Britain, when we toured the East Midlands together in the late 1990s. 

He was a consummate showman throughout and an audience favourite. When British local Arts Development officers tried to determine what social class we Canadians belonged to—hosting us alternately in a shoe factory workers’ cafeteria, a rough working class pub, and a five star restaurant—he was always at ease.

Author Tim Bowling (photo: Jacqueline Baker)

That old assurance wavers now. In the autumn of life, at the height of his powers, Bowling is watching himself become a ghost. This is no small thing as British Columbia continues the long, fraught journey into an also ever-changing Canadian identity. The “British” in British Columbia, after all, is more than just a claim of ownership. The culture planted here in the tapestry of ancient Indigenous cultures on the North East Pacific Coast was profoundly British. Bowling gives us four different approaches to this British poetics. 

The book’s first sequence is written in the English tradition of Phillip Larkin and the anglo-Welsh cleric R.S. Thomas, two musical poets of displacement. A mastery of Welsh-based poetic style is rich in Bowling’s work. At times, to this classically British Columbian and Alberta aesthetic, Bowling has added a Canadian prairie touch by cutting punctuation. Each line of this kind floats in the air. As an assessment of Canadian culture within its English dynamic, this woven fabric has few equals. Bowling’s ear is sharp here, and his ability to dance between the expected and unexpected remains delightful.

The book’s second sequence is a series of monologues by minor characters in The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel about a man who left small town life for great success in the East, yet was never fully accepted. Bowling accepts his minor role in this story of civilizational change, in what resembles the bonus interviews with actors after the filming of a movie, where actors and the characters they play meld. Such clips are often used as trailers while the audience takes their seats for some other show entirely. The film itself is missing. Such is the past in life as well.

Such use of foreign material as a mask for settler culture has deep roots in Canadian poetry. In the 1970s, for example, the technique was made famous by Michael Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid. A lot of books written since have continued this work of integrating US and Canadian culture. 

Bowling uses the form’s masks to express his own frustrations at the unkindness of the poetic act over time. One starts as a new kid on the block, blessed with hope and promise, and ends up just hanging on. Sharp asides, familiar to readers of Fitzgerald, fill the section, such as here in “Girl at Nick’s Office”:

I liked him. A girl just wants
to feel elegant after the end
of a sweaty shift tapping keys
and fitting paper like a corset
into place — even if it’s only pretend,
big deal. Pal, I’ve had plenty 
of the real. You can have it.

The fit of tone is close enough that it helps if you liked Gatsby as a novel. With timing rooted in prose and discrediting poetry openly, though, these monologues remain masks, mocking their irrelevance like a series of laughing clowns in a minor horror film.

The book’s third sequence offers lyrics about “men of a certain age” coming to terms with the simultaneous approach of full capacity and hints of coming death. The poems in this romantic series about loss tumble down Bowling’s pages in a richer American style than his Fitzgeraldian prose rhythms. 

The effect is like the artful distance of Phillip Levine meeting the tumbling cascades of A.R. Ammons. The results are a long series of crisp grammatical phrases, ending often at expected moments of syntax. Here’s the ending of “3:00 AM,” Bowling’s remake of Rilke’s “The Panther,” about art as a powerful spirit pacing in a cage: 

I set the tongue’s trap 
for thought, want
to kill what makes the hour
tick. Can’t. Listen
as the panther’s paws
erase the pawprints of the cage
of the elevator that rises
before the unpaid admission
and amusement of the mortal laws.

Unfortunately, the cascade’s length leads to a dependence on a final rhyme that almost can’t hold the weight assigned to it.

This uncaught weight is a departure from the exquisitely musical lyrics of the book’s first section, where lines were always surprising. In this section, they are inevitable. Each phrase spawns another, like champagne spilling into a glass that overflows into a glass, that overflows into a glass, until a whole tower of glasses is full. It works when the linkages are nouns and verbs. When they are prepositions, they become replaceable. Too often in such cases only the river of the syntax remains. 

The book’s fourth section is a return to the lower Fraser. Its ghosts haunt. Metrical complexity has returned, this time companionable, romantic and heartbreaking, like Richard Hugo’s funereal “The Right Madness on Skye.” In Bowling’s titular poem, such writing and high music consists of “letters of apology … to the future that is already past / by the time our postal service of dray horses / and forgetful authors delivers the saddle bags of mail.”

The section also contains a series of poems about the loss of his beloved dog, whose love, he writes in “Dog,” he “wore like a womb.” The grieving is genuine, yet the poems are too pared down to fully anchor their resonances. It’s left to readers to do that work.

All in all, there’s a tragedy in settler culture. A great British Columbian poet, put up against Canadian and American literature, has the gift to wear any mask he pleases, always playing to an audience, always garnering applause, except for the one mask he wears best: he is in large part a British lyric poet writing about home and the Earth in ways fresh and engaging but on a continent flowing away.

Exile plays funny tricks, because the one thing that might have brought Bowling home as more than a ghost is the one thing absent: Indigenous culture at the ancient metropolis at the mouth of the Fraser River. During his absence, that culture has found modern voice, after a struggle that Bowling does not reflect upon here. He doesn’t have to, of course, but the lack shows, and places him with his eye on the past, even while it is the living British and American poetics of his best verse that keep him present, relevant and alive.


Harold Rhenisch

Harold Rhenisch has written thirty-four books from the Southern Interior since 1974. He won the George Ryga Prize for a memoir, The Wolves at Evelyn. His other grasslands books are Tom Thompson’s Shack and Out of the Interior. He lived for fifteen years in the South Cariboo and worked closely with photographer Chris Harris on Spirit in the GrassMotherstone, Cariboo Chilcotin Coast, and The Bowron Lakes; and he writes the blog Okanagan-Okanogan. His The Salmon Shanties: A Cascadian Song Cycle will appear this fall. Harold lives in an old Japanese orchard on unceded Syilx Territory above Canim Bay on Okanagan Lake. [Editor’s note: Harold Rhenisch has reviewed books by Hamish Ballantyne, Zoë Landale, Kerry Gilbert, Robert Hilles, Sho Yamagushiku, Bradley Peters, Aaron Tucker, Dale Tracy, Dominique Bernier-Cormier, Selina Boan, Joseph Dandurand, Délani ValinRobert Bringhurst, Rayya Liebich, Sarah de Leeuw, Roger FarrStephan TorreDon Gayton, and Calvin White for BCR. His book Landings was reviewed by Luanne ArmstrongThe Tree Whisperer was reviewed by Adrienne Fitzpatrick.]


The British Columbia Review

Interim Editors, 2023-25: Trevor Marc Hughes (non-fiction), Brett Josef Grubisic (fiction)
Publisher: Richard Mackie

Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an online book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board now consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. The British Columbia Review was founded in 2016 by Richard Mackie and Alan Twigg.

“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster

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