A Brief Appreciation of Tim Bowling’s “Tenderman”

Metaphor’s just a word for life,
nothing to be afraid of, or laugh at,
unless life is.
from “Please Do Not Disturb”

The Tenderman of the title of Tim Bowling‘s tenth poetry collection (Tenderman, Nightwood Editions, 2011) is literally a seasoned — and salty — crewman on a Fraser River salmon packing boat.  But, as becomes clear in the poems — not least in “Real Men Read Jane Austen” Bowling, an actual tenderman of slight ability in youth, is very much a Tender Man as he approaches the end of a half century on Life’s River, ready

to settle in with a sigh
to a few hours bliss
with the masculine prose of the feminine.

The Tenderman, Rosie, to whom many of the poems are addressed, does not seem to be a Tender Man.  In “Seminar in Ladner: Moby Dick” he asks “So does he ever catch the fucking thing or what?”  The image of the poem is  the young educated crewman trying to bring an appreciation of great literature to the older “uneducated” tenderman.  But who is leading the seminar?

Tenderman, it’s because
the story’s so simple
we complicate with meaning.

The Tenderman has cut to the working man’s heart of Melville’s novel with his question:  does Ahab catch the White Whale or not?  That question is what drives Ahab and the novel:  the rest is the complications of meaning.  And meaning is all about memory — and forgetting:

All sorts of things are caught,
forgotten, fixed in our forgetting.

While the Tenderman seems forever in the Now,  pulling the nets, counting the fish, tipping back the bottle, fixing everything in the forgetting, Bowling obsessively looks back at his childhood and youth, at memories and the meanings fixed in his forgetting, the old days of

Handwritten letters and
childhood, things we have no time for,
what our mothers called “common courtesy”

Childhood is always present, even in mortality.  Bowling requests

Inter me, tenderman,
with the blown-glass flaw
a child with absolutely
nothing to do
picks up
on his solitary way
to nowhere

(“After a Trip to the Museum and Archives”)

This flaw, of course, is not something negative: it is the irregularity, the colour variation, the random, contingent bubbles which make hand-blown glass objects more valuable than mass produced utilitarian things.  Bury me, Bowling says, with the uniqueness of the child I was, the child which is the father of the man.  Bowling mentions Wordsworth in “Between Men” but here the reference is not explicit, but there is an echo, not least in the hint of wandering lonely as a cloud in “on his solitary way.”

And here is, I think, a key to entering Tenderman:  this cycle is Bowling’s Prelude.  He is presenting a brief, somewhat impressionistic Growth of a Poet’s Mind.  Although the poems are short lyrics and elegies, Bowling provides epic touches, reference to Virgil and Aeschylus and Beowulf and Shakespeare.  I can’t help hearing an echo of Homer in “Beekeeper and Tenderman”.  Bowling’s poems are pregnant with ancient allusion, something not terribly fashionable these days:

Ah tenderman, who would be an antiquarian
the trembling meat in the piranhas’ aquarium?

(“Despair, or the Technologies”)

The answer to that question is:  The boy from Ladner, the unsuccessful tenderman told to count the Arctic Char (“A Little Song of Carnage”), now the greying father approaching fifty, most of whose friends are dead poets.  He isn’t much concerned with what is fashionable these days

My shadow bag clatters
with discarded cogs and wheels
and gears turning amongst feathers
handpicked off pheasants
and shoeboxes stuffed
with photographs that didn’t
turn out as we expected,
which are the truest images
after all . . .

(“After a Trip to the Museum and Archives”)

The poet would be an antiquarian, and damn the piranhas!

Bowling’s poems grow very much out of intimations of mortality and are no doubt at times uncomfortably melancholic.  But there is such celebration of life in, for example, “Courage” the most Homeric of the pieces in the collection, and even in the most melancholic underlies a celebration of a life lived.  But it is a celebration is of  life being recollected in tranquility:

This coffee’s not instant, tenderman,
this food isn’t fast.  If you flense
the whale of life with only haste
you’re using a dull blade, boyo.

(“Are You Contemporary?”)

Bowling, approaching fifty, has had a longer life than many of his dead poet friends.  They are in their graves.  But he is not, and oh the difference to those who appreciate poetry!  Tenderman is a magnificently rich mid-life Prelude to what one would hope will yet be a long and productive poetic life.

Update, April 11, 2012:  Tenderman has been shortlisted for the Stephan G. Stephansson Award .

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