Saturday, November 28, 2009

Open Season On The Real

Tim Bowling is a Canadian poet with extravagant gifts of association, high-powered technical dexterity, and a rich effortless voice all his own which have served him well over the course of eight volumes of poetry. His poetry is both regional and international in scope for he is equally comfortable talking about fishing for salmon in the Fraser River or writing eloquently about Thomas Hardy’s personal life, or even elegizing a forgotten collector of books, Harry Elkins Widener, who died with the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, a man now the subject of the title poem in Bowling’s latest collection The Book Collector.

In his poems, memory, loss, and celebration all share bunk-space together, but always he goes back to poems about the Fraser River in British Columbia which appears to be a particular source of inspiration for Bowling. Although some poetry critics have viewed this repetition of subject matter as stasis, this is an inadequate view of Bowling’s private obsession with the Fraser River for it acts as a personal symbol or triggering subject for him.

It represents the ethos of his poetry; one that makes all those other poems he writes on different subjects possible. It helps to trigger his need for words and to create his inner life as Richard Hugo once remarked about such recurrent images an individual poet uses in his essay “The Triggering Town”:

Your triggering subjects are those that ignite your need for words. When you are honest to your feelings, that triggering [subject] chooses you. Your words used your way will generate your meanings. Your obsessions lead to your vocabulary. Your way of writing locates, even creates, your inner life. The relation of you to your language gains power. The relation of you to the triggering subject weakens. (15)

If you follow Hugo’s way of thinking, it is precisely because of Bowling’s continued private love affair with the Fraser River that ironically enables him to leap off into unknown poetic territory and to write all those other poems of his on diverse subjects. Although I love many of Bowling’s poems about the Fraser River, I thought I would veer away from its importance in his oeuvre by looking at “The Childhood Wall”, one of Bowling’s new poems from his collection The Book Collector:

The Childhood Wall

A child climbs the childhood wall
unscrews the glass eyes from
the mounted pheasants and mallards
and plays a game on kitchen tiles
over which a mother’s shadow
seeps like a tide. The stakes
are the rest of his life. For now,
he’s winning. His wild eye gazes
through the manufacture of the world
and sees another world – a man
at a desk who’s trying to rise
above the burnishments
of hunted autumns. The man
wants to see death as it is
to a child – remote, intimate,
the firelight in the glass eye
of the flocks a vitality
from the heart of flight.
Child’s play. Man’s work.
The bird the gun is always raised at.
Among the approximating instruments –
open season on the real.

What first came to mind after I read this poem a few times was the contrast of different worlds— the boy playing with the glass eyes of the stuffed birds and the taxidermist trying to approximate life—that coexist simultaneously within its lines. It is this overlapping of worlds which put me in the mind of an essay by Stanley Plumly called “The Abrupt Edge” where Plumly talks about the phrase the abrupt edge taken from ornithology to mean the edge between two different types of vegetation so birds have the advantage of “living in two worlds at once”(6). Plumly extends the idea into the realm of poetry by suggesting the abrupt edge is a doorway between endless juxtapositions:

The edge is the concept of the doorway, shadow and light, inside and outside, room and warlde’s room, where the density and variety of the plants that love the sun and the open air yield to the darker, greener, cooler interior world, at the margin. It is no surprise, then, that the greatest number of species as well as individuals live at the edge and fly the pathways and corridors and trails at the joining of the juxtaposition. (6)

In Bowling’s poem, the juxtaposition of two different worlds, the real and the imagined, is what creates its strong tension and dramatic underpinnings. It begins with the boy playing with the glass eyes of the birds on the kitchen tiles while his mother’s presence looms large nearby:

A child climbs the childhood wall
unscrews the glass eyes from
the mounted pheasants and mallards
and plays a game on kitchen tiles
over which a mother’s shadow
seeps like a tide. The stakes
are the rest of his life. For now,
he’s winning.

The phrase “childhood wall” in the first line immediately signals to the reader this is a recollection as do the lines “The stakes / are the rest of his life. For now, / he’s winning.” The idea of the abrupt edge, however, enters the poem in the next section as one of the glass eyes becomes the doorway through which this child sees the man whose hands first mounted these birds as trophies:

His wild eye gazes
through the manufacture of the world
and sees another world – a man
at a desk who’s trying to rise
above the burnishments
of hunted autumns.

This is where the element of transcendence arises in the poem as the boy imagines this other man as an artist trying to recreate the warm-blooded vitality of life from the cold matériel, the inertness of death. For the man to accomplish this task, however, he must see death as the child does, which is to say he must not recognize it; for instead, he must be negative capable, to borrow a phrase from Keats, and imagine amongst the birds “a vitality from the heart of flight”:

The man
wants to see death as it is
to a child – remote, intimate,
the firelight in the glass eye
of the flocks a vitality
from the heart of flight.

The juxtapositions that make this poem so remarkable—the child’s innocence and wonder versus the man’s dedication to his art; the stuffed bird as a symbol of life versus the always raised gun as a symbol of death—are made acute in the poem’s conclusion.

Child’s play. Man’s work.
The bird the gun is always raised at.
Among the approximating instruments –
open season on the real.

It is these several juxtapositions of different worlds which creates what I see as the abrupt edge in this poem. Or to put it another way—it is by using that image of a boy playing with glass eyes on the kitchen floor and then having the boy imagine the hard determined work of the taxidermist elsewhere that Bowling shows poetry for what it is, an act of transcendence, by declaring “open season on the real” in its last line.

If you enjoyed the poem “The Childhood Wall”, please pick up Tim Bowling’s latest volume of poetry The Book Collector published by Nightwood Editions.

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