The Fisher King
Tim Bowling is a prolific poet with a strong sense of place. Why hasn’t he found his own in Canada’s literary landscape?
Tim Bowling’s poems teem with fish. Herring, sturgeon and steelhead are everywhere, as are the men whose livelihoods depend on all that “writhing / silver”: exhausted crews with scale-caked hands, gutting away on the “drifting slaughterhouse floor” of a boat. Raised in a gillnetting family in Ladner, British Columbia, a cannery town on the mouth of the Fraser River, Bowling spent his mid-twenties as a deckhand before becoming a full-time writer. He’s modeled his method, if not his calling, after the species he learned to haul in with his father: salmon. The creature’s epic trek upstream to its ancestral grounds—a trip that leaves the rare survivor resembling, in Bowling’s vivid image, “a glove of chain mail / after a Crusades slaughter / the living hand still inside”—traces the bloody-minded way that Bowling revisits his elemental themes of birth, loss and death. Those themes, and the large-souled style he invented to represent them, distinguish him from peers like Ken Babstock and Karen Solie. Bowling is bardic in a way that few contemporary poets try—or dare—to be. Nearly fifty, he has set himself against the current. He swims alone.
The high cost of that solitude troubles Selected Poems, (Nightwood Editions), a book that bears all the heraldry—big-name blurbists, austere jacket, hardcover—of a project designed to give an underrated poet his due. Bowling’s raw, baroque descriptions of his upbringing on BC’s fogbound sloughs (“The ground mist like a butcher’s wax paper / shreds. Autumn, the roast’s blood, / seeps through”) have won important prizes, both in Canada and abroad. But outside of a small circle of passionate admirers—Terry Galvin thinks he is “one of Canada’s greatest living poets”—his gifts don’t seem to be taken all that seriously.
Bowling’s productivity deserves some blame for his slender reputation. Over the last eighteen years, he has released a torrent of writing: ten poetry collections, four novels, a memoir and a book of literary non-fiction. His output is astonishing, but publishing at such breakneck speed—he averages nearly a title a year—runs the risk that critics will tire of keeping up. (Tenderman, from 2011, received virtually no reviews.) Worse, Bowling’s haste has resulted in collections in which very good poems are strewn alongside very bad ones, making it impossible for even the most enthusiastic reader to remain of one mind about his work. What better way to recast an under-read, uneven opus as something irresistible than with a sleek Selected? All the same, one can’t help but appreciate the irony that one of the seventy-four poems to survive Bowling’s winnowing is addressed to the poignantly unprolific Chidiock Tichborne, an Elizabethan poet remembered for three stanzas penned to his wife on the eve of his execution for treason.
But Bowling’s fellow-feeling for Tichborne, as well as his affinity for the other bygone literary figures he name-checks in his poems (Hazlitt, Coleridge, Tennyson), points to perhaps the most important reason for his isolation: the sense that he doesn’t quite belong. From the moment he began publishing in 1995, Bowling’s grandiose tendencies have foisted on him a lasting unfashionability. Most reviewers are struck by his forceful image-making: “the sturgeon / a black chapel for flies,” for example. But those observational powers exist beside, and are sometimes overrun by, a rapturous poeticizing that can feel cribbed from the worst parts of a Victorian anthology. “When spirit loves / its flesh and does not flinch from the burn, / the black ash yields the ripening word” is exactly the kind of organ-loft utterance Paul Vermeersch had in mind when he mocked Bowling’s voice as “artificially antique.”
To read Bowling sympathetically—overlooking his defects and alert to his fearsomely good moments—requires a suspension of prejudices. He pitches his poems high because that’s where he believes his most powerful moments are to be found. To his mind, language that doesn’t risk grandeur is language without any stake in its message. This strenuousness generates lines that are beautiful (“the morning’s first heron / served its platter of fine bone china to the sun”), unsettling (“I am a man / plunged in the dark / of the earth like a shovel”), strange (“we were children inside childhood / as hunger inside the wolf / milk inside the breast”) and obscure (“I fish / in a river of acid / with bone”). But Bowling overdoes it by instinct. Something in him demands he keep writing past the point where another poet would stop. This can lead to thrilling work. “The Witness Ghost,” his four-page account of a gillnetting trip, rips along with genuine power:
Something big was down there. You held
a single mesh between thumb and forefinger
and traced its tooth-snagged geometric
on the air, careful inch by inch. Then angled
the hook of the gaff, prepared to strike,
in the invisible, acrid clots of exhaust,
I held my bones and heartbeat in, stifled a cough.
It can also lead to Bowlingese. If he wants to describe himself brimming with inspiration, he’ll write: “I raised my heart / like a cup of rainwater / and returned to the world / spilling a little / for the ache of our continuance.” A woman doesn’t scream, she “shrieks words in the just-learned / tongue of terror.” Even Hart Crane might have winced at that.
Bowling’s distance from major poetic trends has never appeared greater than it does today. Young poets flipping through this volume will instantly feel at sea. Where are the absurdist, ludic moments? The fast and flittering wordplay? The left-handed speculations about contemporary life? Seeking what he calls, in his preface, “the ancient truths that grow out of our physical and not digitized selves,” Bowling prefers to sink his reckonings deep into his senses. Early contact with the crude facts of coastal life—“shack-barnacled / bank of collapsing docks,” “sterns of slime and oily bilge”—lures him toward the dense, bristling words he uses to plumb his inner states. A backwater all to himself, Bowling is one of Canada’s last holdouts to the idea that fidelity to place is the truest sounding of a poet’s authenticity. He is, you might say, always breaking old ground.
But the real lesson here is that Bowling is determined to write the kind of poetry he yearns to read. Moves that appear to be throwbacks to an earlier era are, in fact, part of a calculated search for an alternative ancestry. Bowling wants to resurrect poetry’s traditional majesty by loading his lines with some of the art’s discredited sounds. “Dying Scarlet,” for example, the title poem of his second book, is a bold ars poetica that explicitly links the salmon’s dramatic spawning journey to the lush Romantic sensuality exemplified by one of Bowling’s masters, Keats:
And I don’t know where the spirit of any poet goes
if it doesn’t die scarlet wherever it can, Keats’s
joy in October sunsets over the Adams River, full in
the salmon’s scales as they scrabble to spawn before
the air eats to nothing their lace-threaded bones,
Keats’s fear in the eyes of the ring-necked pheasant
shot out of its heart in the blue skies of my marshland
home, the long script of its bright death trailing
off into the ditches and rushes. I have heard the music
of his lines gasped from a thousand slack jaws
while the world stood crowded on the riverbanks
Bowling riffs on the eighteenth-century usage of “dying scarlet” as a term for wine-binging revels, and then applies it to both Keats’ death from tuberculosis (“spatter / of his joy’s heaven on his clothes”) and wounded salmon. It’s a poem about tracing bloodlines. Bowling’s theatrical-mythic voice is the result of trawling the literary past for aural shapes able to embody the awesome display of life and death he witnessed in the water every autumn. “In my wrists live the ghosts of all the words / ever written in his, and his Queen’s, English; / they gather in my pulses, drinking life, dying scarlet.” I can’t think of any Canadian poet who has brought together, or could have brought together, those two inheritances—the oratorical school of English poetry and generations of fishing on the Fraser River—so unapologetically. Bowling has done it on his own overripe terms, risking the antiquarian fallout. The poem is a declaration of his calling.
The key to Bowling’s work is what Keats called “soul-making”—the process by which intelligence is made human through pain. Bowling is obsessed with his Huck Finn years roaming riverbanks a mere half-block from his house (“everything I write,” he once said, “comes out of the sense of awe I drank in daily as a boy”). The loss of that world—Ladner is now a suburb on the outskirts of Vancouver—is intolerable to him. Of course, every way of life will eventually vanish, and Bowling understands that (“Many people once I couldn’t live without / I live without.”).
What he can’t abide is human greed razing distinct communities to the ground. In Bowling’s first novel, 2003’s The Paperboy’s Winter, the narrator describes waking “to a place and time from which I was, at heart, dislocated.” That dislocation comes from watching his childhood backdrop turn into “strip malls, fast food franchises, and gated condominium developments named ‘Heron Shores’ and ‘River Point.’” In the same way, Bowling’s best poems are documents of deracination. His nostalgia isn’t quiet and dreamy, but adrenaline-charged and angry:
The street’s a chewed leash. All dogs are loose.
Each bark brings a mallard down.
In the marsh, the narrow sloughs,
the flat punts glide. The light’s dim.
Standing fathers cradle newborns
like shotguns. Already, on clotheslines
hooked from kitchen windows to smokehouse roofs
the wrung dishrags of the flock
drip on rotting windfall pears.
Notice the melodrama of his eye, how every detail is cast in a morality play against mortality. Notice, too, how the recollection is written with a vehement fluency. It’s as though he can’t help but remember the stream of images that feeds his work (which might explain why he writes poems faster than we can read them). Most telling is the list-like construction: Bowling can spellbind by doing nothing more than logging remembered sensations. For most poets, poetry’s role as a cultural data bank has become less important than its other functions—its ability to suggest fragmentation or defamiliarize ideas and objects. For Bowling, poetry’s archiving capacities are preeminent. He is good at creating intricate sonic patterns and can deploy accretive, recurring syntax to great cumulative effect. But given how often the poems appear as block-shaped chunks of copiousness, form doesn’t seem to be a real consideration. The poems are simply the result of what it all adds up to.
Bowling will never be a spokesman for a period or an aesthetic. Where other poets sound drab, brittle, his lines have a ruddy vigour (“air that’s made / of owl-breath and blowhole vapour”). He is hot-headed, garrulously imagistic. He baits himself into squandering good ideas. His structures can be ragged; he revels in loose ends. Those failings, however, are also responsible for glorious effects he would never achieve otherwise. When he succeeds—in Selected Poems, about half the time—Bowling’s poems freshen our sense of what the art can do. No one will ever call him an innovator, but Selected Poems testifies to the wise decision made by this fisherman’s son to turn to the gear and tackle of poetry.