canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Haunted Hills & Hanging Valleys: Selected Poems 1969-2004
by Peter Trower; foreword Don McKay
Harbour Publishing, Madeira Park, 2004 

Reviewed by Zachariah Wells

Peter Trower is often compared to that British Columbia legend of logging doggerel, Robert Swanson and to Swanson’s antecedent Robert Service. And this is not without justice, as Trower is most definitely tuned in to the sing-song ballad metres of the two Roberts. But, as Don McKay states in his forward to Trower’s new volume of selected poems, Haunted Hills and Hanging Valleys, "all labels mislead, especially those that are partly true" and Trower’s classification as a "logger poet" has unjustly limited his audience to date.

If we must engage in this odious game of poetic phylogeny, it seems to me that Trower’s poetry has stronger affinities to the verse of Thomas Hardy than to the more tonally and formally limited ballads of Service and Swanson. This comparison is made all the more appealing by a coincidence of geography. Trower, who at age ten immigrated to Canada with his widowed mother in 1940, was born at St. Leonard’s-on-Sea, England, on the eastern edge of Hardy’s Wessex, two years after the great writer died.

Like Hardy, the elegiac is a crucial mode for Trower. As the title suggests, ghosts (of people, machines, buildings and whole towns) wander in and out of Trower’s poems and the book as a whole is suffused with an affecting nostalgia that almost always steers clear of the pitfalls of sentimentality. Trower is preoccupied with time and mortality. The book isn’t organized chronologically, as many retrospective selections are, but in a loosely thematic weave between old poems and new. Appropriately, it begins with "As Long As the Wheel Turns Us":

We’re all another year
closer to our comeuppances—
the carpenters the cat the gulls
the bees the ghosts and me—
riding with time through the carousel seasons
as long as the wheel turns us.
and ends with "Ghostcamp":
I have come full circle—
across the inlet lies Misery Creek
where my brother and I watched camp
one fireseason summer two decades back.
The dead camp sprawls around us.
I can’t speak. It’s too strange.
Log long enough, you’re bound to stumble
across your own bootprints in the end.

The first poem is from the 1986 collection The Slidingback Hills, the last from Between the Sky and the Splinters (1974). Trower’s work has at times been uneven, but the great strength of this gathering is its demonstration that the sensitive intelligence and creative fecundity that generated his most powerful work in the 1970s are still going strong, as thirteen of the 96 poems have been drawn from Trower’s most recent book, There Are Many Ways. The newer poems are perhaps quieter, more contemplative, but no less worthy of inclusion.

Trower the erstwhile whistlepunk and feller shares also with Hardy, the one-time stone mason, a thoroughgoing sympathy with the working classes and an emphasis on the regional. Trower’s poems are mostly set in either logging camps and factories or in the skid road beer halls and low-rent hotels of downtown East Vancouver, and he can be relentless in his depiction of tragically brutal scenes:

She said:
"I got wrists
like anyone else, see?"
and she showed them to me.
There were five white worms
across one
and three
across the other.
She said:
"You’re supposed to be a poet,
What do you think of those poems?"
I said:
"Those are the saddest poems
I’ve ever read,"
and watched my buddy, bleak boy,
screwing her with his eyes.
-"Not-So-Still Life with Damp Beer Tables"

Thomas Hardy was almost fanatical about purging Latinate words from his poetic vocabulary and would invent compound Anglo-Saxon kennings where a simple noun didn’t exist. Trower shows similar favour to local diction, his poems chock-full of specialized logging terms like crummy, donkey, spar-tree, guthammer, choker, whistlepunk, handfeller; and he has a propensity for invented compounds that rivals Hardy or Hopkins: a forest fire’s breath is a "cinderwind"; burning trees are "sap-factories exploding"; clearcut hills are "stump-chimneyed slopes"—and these are just from one poem. Trower’s capacity for metaphorical invention seems almost limitless.

Another formal kinship of Hardy and Trower is their rhythms, which, in spite of their folksiness, are far more complex than the regular foot-stomping beat of a Robert Service ballad. Consider "Industrial Poem":

That night, Slim Abernathy
pushed the wrong button and wrapped his best friend
three times round a driveshaft
in directions bones won't bend.

They shut her down and eased him out
broken most ways a man can break
yet he clung to his ruin for twenty-four hours
like a man to a liferaft for his death's sake.

They'd hardly hurried him away from there
as we stood around shockdrunk, incapable of help
when they cranked those expensive wheels up again,
started rolling more goddamn pulp.

"Hamburger for lunch tonight, boys!"
joked a foreman to the crew.
I wish he'd smelled our hate but he never even flinched
as the red-flecked sheets came through.

The basic template is the ballad quatrain, familiar to most from church hymns, but Trower extends the alternating four- and three-beat lines at several points in order to render his subject more effectively. In the tenth line, for example, the awkward phrase "incapable of help" limns the inarticulate, "shockdrunk" state of the workers. He could easily have changed the line to conform to the metre, such as "we stood around shocked, unable to help," but such an option would have sterilized the poem and dulled its emotional force.

The point of all this comparison is not to say that Trower is "Canada’s Hardy," for it’s sufficient that he’s Canada’s Trower. Hardy’s writing was sneered at by many contemporaneous critics as the product of a regional rustic. Peter Trower’s work has suffered a more polite, if no less dismissive, neglect. It’s high time he was recognized more widely as the gifted and versatile force in Canadian poetry that he is. If this fine selection can’t garner such recognition, it’s hard to imagine what will.

Zachariah Wells is from the East Coast and has worked on the North Coast. He’s never been a lumberjack, but he’s still o.k. Visit him at







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