Monday, March 12, 2012

Time and Tide: The Fraser River Poetry of Tim Bowling

Of all the poets of his generation, Tim Bowling’s poetry is the most unabashedly linked to place. His poems cast a wide net over history and subject matter, but the primary influence that runs through all of his books is The Fraser River in British Columbia where he grew up and once worked as a fisherman. This should not be understated as suspicions have surfaced around the provincial, the regional, the local in Canadian poetry over the last two decades, but despite the whims of poetic fashion, Tim Bowling has held a singular course in humbly attempting to express the spirit and place of The Fraser River.

Rivers, of course, are an old image in poetry and mythology as they have been terribly important to the cultivation of human civilization, but it seems for Bowling they also constitute a condition of the mind by mirroring consciousness itself. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus may have said we can never step in the same river twice, but neither does a person think exactly the same thoughts twice. Words, sensory images, memories may often return, spring to the mind as if by their own accord, and yet the experience changes because our circumstances change.

It seems to me that far from being mere self-expression or mimesis, Tim Bowling’s river poems are less about autobiography and appearance, and more about the search for the authentic. The speaker in his poems gazes upon the surface of the river and slowly the moorings of the self slip away, and in that silence, the voice of the imagination enters which helps the speaker to transcend the limits of what he knows. The central paradox is always to get beyond the self and the world that has been built-up, imposed upon nature, to a point where the essence of the place speaks for itself through the poet.

This is what makes Tim Bowling’s poetry so shamelessly lyrical and broadly universal in its appeal. He can write of “the million perfect moons on the body of the salmon” or of the night like “the dark inside a dead whale” or of a coal train’s cry leading “its black pod a little closer to the kelp”. A time when the river “shunts ash to sea.” Never does Bowling merely describe The Fraser River, for his poetic vision is larger than that. He embodies it as a spiritual source where connections between consciousness and river, people and salmon, life and loss are renewed in his best work.

Over the course of ten poetry collections in less than two decades, Tim Bowling has shown time and time again that he knows how to write and what he is writing about. His poetry, like the Fraser River itself, gives up its secrets slowly and contains something of greatness within it.

Time and Tide

Were you ever happier, tenderman?

Two days without sleep, the catches huge,

the river slack at last and

almost closed for the season,

you were about to be removed

from consciousness, but fought it

out of the pure delight

of knowing you had emptied the net

of summer’s riches. Outside,

salmon bones brittled the oak

and maple leaves, the nights

revolved on rims of frost, the boats

waited slaughter-house cattle thick

in the harbour. If you slept

too soon, you’d lose the pleasure

of smelling the potatoes frying

in the pan, of hearing your father

ask your mother for a second cup

of tea, of feeling the armchair’s

mild swell, if you slept too soon

you might wake

to a river that never opened,

to an absence of salmon,

a silver hole in space,

to dead voices whose timbre

was fading, a buoy-bell struck

by a killer whale’s sounding

for depths suddenly shallows.

Tenderman, what is this happiness

constructed on so frail a thing

as the earth and those

who labour in it?

Yet you were happy once,

we were happy there,

fighting sleep with youth,

counting the earnings

of muscle, even as

silt filled the veins

of those we loved

and the bones snapped

in the spawned-out leaves

of the sorrowless oak

and maple.

By Tim Bowling

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