canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Darkness and Silence
by Tim Bowling
Nightwood Editions, 2001

Reviewed by Geoffrey Cook

Tim Bowling's fourth collection of poetry further develops a poetics sponsored ultimately, it sounds, by Al Purdy and by the imagery of Canada's rural west. As the title obviously implies, Darkness and Silence is preoccupied by death and absence, by loss and tragedy, out of which the poet nonetheless wrests a sense of life's surprising richness and a sustaining sense of cultural belonging and history. In his introduction to Where the Words Comes From, a collection of interviews Bowling edited with Canadian poets, which appeared at about the same time as Darkness and Silence, Bowling writes:

It perhaps comes as no surprise to poets, but might to others, that the act of writing poetry is so often informed by the idea of not writing poetry. After all, as most poets readily concede, silence is perfect in a way that language never can be. Yet it is the poet's joy and curse to be forever seeking a companion perfection in words for the purity of silence.

Bowling is prolific -- besides four books of poetry and an anthology, he has published two novels (six books in eight years) -- and the casualness of his poetics, as well as the momentum of his line and his ambition suggest this young writer will not be silenced any time soon.

Yet the very poetics which provides some uniquely viewed, metaphorically rich material also tempts sentimentality and a certain aesthetic laziness. Bowling's elegiac vision is ultimately religious and comic: the imagery of the poems imply an equality not only between two people, including between man and woman, but between the living and the dead, and the human and the animal. This resultant linking of past, present and future (or the blurring of chronological distinctions) suggests a quasi-religious or spiritual insight of universal oneness. This vision, when expressed lyrically, is Bowling's strength; but when the poet tries to make more of it in self-conscious philosophical digressions, the same intuition leads to spiritual kitsch.

The theme of the interlinking among generations, genders and times can be found throughout the collection in at least a dozen poems. In "Washing the Dishes", the poet, engaged in an apparently banal domestic job, is "thinking of the past,... the immediate past./ Of the future, the immediate future". He suddenly recalls disengaging a sockeye salmon from a fishing net when a boy:

These quick parallels we live among
hearing, not hearing, seeing, not seeing,
why should they seek to bring us back
if not to consecrate each coming breath?

In "Gathering Eggs After Dark", which opens, "Nothing moves but my blood and the river," the poet reflects on the "hens at roost: what are they to what I take / that I am not also to myself, that the dark is not / also to the river, joined but doomed to separate?"

This impulse to find connections manifests itself in the opening poems of the collection in the technique of listing: poems like "The Past", "Laundry Day in Fishing Town", and especially "Transmontanus", seem almost to catalogue at least the last two generations in Bowling's world (his geographical and cultural heritage). This listing is a form of metaphor, if only because the documentation of objects found in a Transmontanus, for example, creates a hyper-reality, and a reader is bowled over by the inundation not of objects but of a world which the poet is anxious to salvage from darkness and silence. I will look again at "Transmontanus", but want to point out here that the opening poem, "The Past", ironically almost undoes itself through this technique, which is employed in the desire to understand the past, as well as the poet's relationship to that past and how all things are interconnected. The first stanza exemplifies my point:

Through the rotting cave
of the baby narwhal
on the beach
is no way back, nor through
boxcars of coal soot junked
in a puddled field of culled spuds,
nor down the gaping tunnel
of a grizzled lab's howl, nor
by grasping the drenched gloves
the bats swing through the rain.

The consistent negation - that whatever the image, it is "not the way back" - finally exasperates the poet (after a page), who cries, "Then what way, what way?", and then proclaims -- in the face of the contradictory evidence amassed by the listing --

My past isn't yours, and it is yours.
It isn't mine in a single list
and it isn't fodder for the nib
or clacking key. Nor is yours.

Well, no and yes; true and false: the poem's nib does draw in the fodder of objects to evoke this past and this longing for union; yet of course, the use is morally suspect: I am not you, and metaphor knows this. The final stanza seems to reverse the poet's conclusion:

But I'll take you where the tracks go,
walk you hand-in-hand
through the stench of the beach cave
to what I can still recover;
not just the spud-rot in sacks
and bitch-hunger on dykes,
but beyond these lazy ruins
to the blood that turns the teared eyes
and shuddering heart
of a baby narwhal's mother.

The point would seem to be that metaphor will 'get you there', to the moral centre, for that image of the baby narwhal's mother is imagined, not merely recorded as the other, inadequate images seem to be. And yet it is more sentimentalism than metaphor that provides a 'way out' (of the poem, if not a 'way back'). And a reader feels somewhat cheated, for sentimentality is cheap art.

"Transmontanus" employs the listing technique to the extreme. Bowling describes the evisceration of this ancient fish and catalogues the extraordinary contents. The objects spilling from the fish's stomach are initially credible enough, until we come across such items as, "the Salish word for joy", "the rouge of a Royal City whore", "the tears of a Scottish governess / accused of infanticide", and "the viscera of going to and fro in the earth". The poet seems to be using hyperbole to suggest the dizzying variety of experience in the twentieth century. The poem begins with an intriguing epigraph: "It can engage its body in a bizarre process that has excited the attention of neurologists studying phenomena related to comas in human beings." But, frustratingly, neither the epigraph, nor the poem, identifies this "process", or its connection to human comas. Given the lack of guidance in the poem, one is left assuming-- perhaps incorrectly--that it is the metaphoric process which is "exciting":

When Al Purdy wrote, "For I am a sensitive man", there were implicit quotation marks around the noun phrase. Bowling seems to have missed this irony, as if he had read too much Robert Bly and too little Ted Hughes. The word "tenderness" (or "gentleness", or at least the notion) appears almost as often as "darkness" and "silence" in Bowling's collection, as if tenderness were the (righteously asserted) alternative to darkness.

The poem, "First Job", about trapping muskrats, turns away a bit too smugly at the end: "I've chosen/ to turn my back on the irony / of the undertaker's laughter." In "After Reading an Anthology of Twentieth-Century Jewish Poetry", Bowling recalls, with shame, being angered at a robin he couldn't shoot when he was a child -- making a strained analogy between his blood thirst for the robin and Nazi genocidal attack on Jews (and others), presumably; the poem ends: "and I turned back to gentleness / which for poets, choked with song, / their breasts naked and puffed out / is the only absolution." Is it? Can poets afford to "turn [their] back[s] on the irony of the undertaker's laughter"? In And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos, John Berger writes about the virtue of poetry's coldness:

The suffering of the present and the past is unlikely to be redeemed by a future era of universal happiness. And evil is a constant ineradicable reality. All this means that the resolution -- the coming to terms with the sense to be given to life -- cannot be deferred. The future cannot be trusted. The moment of truth is now. And more and more it will be poetry, rather than prose, that receives this truth. Prose is far more trusting than poetry; poetry speaks to the immediate wound. The boon of language is not tenderness. All that it holds, it holds with exactitude and without pity, even a term of endearment...

In his poem "A Cup of Coffee in Solitude", Bowling regrets having hunted pheasants when younger; the poem ends, "Homeward, I will look up, again, / for a voice to command tenderness / out of the cold, / cold black." Even "Emptying the Mousetrap [at] 10pm" gives Bowling the heebie-jeebies of a moral crisis: "I have been killing easily / for

over thirty years"; and then concludes that "my blood isn't mine / and my hands are always the tensile necks / of birds of prey, scanning." Well, isn't the point, if one were to accommodate Bowling's guilty pose, that it IS his human blood; they ARE his human hands? Wasn't it people who massacred Jews in Germany and Europe, hacked up Tutsies in Rwanda, slaughtered Muslims in Bosnia and Christians in Zaire? Isn't a metaphor like "I am an eagle or hawk or owl" a little too easy and deceptive here, both aesthetically and ethically? In "Emptying the Mousetrap", the corpse of the mouse is later proclaimed "the relics of the saint"! A little too fast and easy with the metaphor here, too, no?

Metaphor attains a radical priority when one is dealing with absence and failure (darkness and silence), because metaphor is the basis of making any metaphysical, imaginative and spiritual connection, of animating the inanimate and concretizing the abstract. When Bowling allows the lyricism of metaphoric identity, the poetry works; when the metaphors of inter-connectedness become too self-conscious - or when Bowling employs dead or dying metaphors (all men are killers and misogynists), co-opting the poem for psychological, ideological, and therefore sentimental purposes - the poetry doesn't work. Of Bowling's effective metaphors, my favourites are those about cattle: "the cattle are tugs / dragging the log booms of their bulk / oceanward to the Asian markets"; or "the cattle stand lumpen and stupid / in their fat" ("A Rare Rain"). Or the pheasants who move "like a stick in a grandmother's cloth" and are a "surpise of colour, like spilled oil in a rain puddle". ("At Sunset, The Female Ring-Necked Pheasent" and "The Ring-Necked Pheasent"). Fuller examples of Bowling's enviable ability to identify with his subject, often of the natural world, and to fade within the vision include "Watching a Lone Rider Cross the Hills of the Red Deer River Valley":

The horse is a vanishing conception of time,
also churchbells ringing and the sun
coming up - hoof on the prairie,
knell in the rain, and no heart arrested
by the breaking of dawn.

The plough is a lagging hand on the clock,
also shadows falling and the tide
going out - blade in the acre,
bough on the ground, and no footprints
open to the roaming salt.

The stars are shatter on the face of the dark,
also gravediggers yawning and bee-drone
dying down - light in the sky,
blear in the look, and no flesh
wearing the sharp sting of dusk.
What measures the hour goes under the hour:
the plough turns ochre in the earth, moss
signs its name on the digger's stone,
and the wind to the silence
and the pulp to the core
and the thought to the poem
whisper loss   loss   loss

faint as the metronome ticking under the horse.

And "Nine Doe":

They stepped out of the dusk like a girls' softball team, wondering,
expectant, half-afraid of the high pop fly and me among the low stars
on the hill crest without a bat or ball, just a desire to seem
gentle confronted suddenly with such tenderness.

Why nine of them and why alone?
If I turned would I find nine stars?
I'm so tired of what it means to be human.
I'll just pause in this gold church and bless
the sage and rose hips, be calm
among those who praise by their nature,
nine hearts briefly in constellation,
and one dying like a star, like creation.

Metaphor is one of Bowling's strengths. Editing, careful attention to the craft both aesthetically and ethically isn't (at least in this book). This is the problem with being prolific and award-winning: publishers indiscriminately rush your poems into books to keep the poor little cogs of the poetry industry grinding away.

Geoffrey Cook is a poetry editor with The Danforth Review.







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