Sunday, December 28, 2008

Tim Bowling's "The Witness Ghost"

Tim Bowling's The Witness Ghost (2003) is a book length elegiac sequence on the death of the author's father. This -- the topic and the multiple poem approach to it -- has been a popular one recently in Canadian poetry, and the subject is a good personal fit for the moods previously dominant in the Ladner-born poet's work.

The volume's obsession is also beneficial for Bowling in that the serious singularity of his reflections naturally shortens -- in line length and total lines -- most poems, giving them a concentration lacking in other books.

Abstractions are also reduced here, and when they pop up, they usually act as complimentary accompaniment to the raw images, not stand-alone precious statement substituting for experience. I say "usually", because a few egregious spiritual didacticisms rankle. "The Grieving Place" opens with: "If you're human, you'll have to go there", and continues in the next stanza with: "But the place will be yours: no one/ can join you in it". The death of a loved one is not an unusual event; in fact, it's kinda par for the course unless one makes an early exit in a ball of flame. I've lost my father, my mother, my oldest brother, all grandparents, many animals, friends (one by murder, two by suicide) , and I don't need stock bracing "knowledge" in this vein.

Bowling, however, erases the bromides in that poem with the follow-up "How the World Looks After a Death": "I can tell you what it's like,/but you already know, or will,/or it won't be the same for you at all." Much better. But it's a few lines further along in the same poem where I was brought up. I came to a complete stop of wonder, paused indefinitely, then reread the same two lines countless times, before completing the poem. Here they are: "the hollow whalebeat of a shunted boxcar/echoing across yards of ash and cinder." Those are easily among the best lines of poetry I've read this year. I could hear that spondaic "whalebeat", its loud flukes thumping on a distant plain, followed by the doubly unstressed silence which still contained the "echoes" of the rattling freight. And note the allusiveness of "hollow", "ash", "cinder". Unfortuantely, the poem's ending destroys the build-up and profundity: " .... raking/with its claws/fierce tears out of the eyes of God." Ugh! This is the frustrating unevenness of Bowling, a poet with exceptional talent and possibility (two lines from "West Coast": "a salmon lifts and turns over,/ the arc of a pewter spoon."). That said, though an organic strength and consistency in the complete poem is not Bowling's calling card, there are some wonderful exceptions in this book, most notably "Since July" and "Last Time Home, Late Spring".

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