My Heart Leaps Up: Reflections on Tim Bowling’s “Circa Nineteen Hundred and Grief”

My heart leaps up when I behold A rainbow in the sky: So was it when my life began, So is it now I am a man, So be it when I shall grow old Or let me die! The child is father of the man: And I could wish my days to be Bound each to each by natural piety.

—William Wordsworth

Tim Bowling began his reading/launch of his latest book of poetry, Circa Nineteen Hundred and Grief, a few weeks ago (close to home at Edmonton’s Audrey’s Books) with an acknowledgement of the obvious: his poetry tends toward melancholy and he has a basically tragic world view.  But he quickly added that having a tragic world view doesn’t mean one can’t have fun.  In Circa Nineteen Hundred and Grief  he certainly has fun with language, but there can be no doubting the melancholy darkness as he continues the exploration of his relationship with the child (his ten year old self) and the man (his actual father) who fathered the middle aged man he is.  In “So Much Rain”, Bowling writes:

The layer of dust on the floors of the condemned houses of my childhood the layer of dust on the top of my midlife library

between the footprints of the boy and the fingerprints of the man — the life that leaves no trace. (p. 57)

And in “Landlocked”

the child has children but fathers no one. We are living the epilogue to the prelude of the epilogue . . . (p. 64)

And in “Blood Pressure”

. . . midlife is the old age of youth . . . (p. 66)

As I read Circa Nineteen Hundred and Grief  I was regularly tempted to sarcastically think that if Wordsworth had had Bowling’s temperament he would have written:

My heart leaps up when I behold A rainbow in the sky But it was better when I was ten.

But that is being facilely dismissive of a remarkably rich cycle of interwoven poems growing out of Bowling’s melancholy.  Bowling’s poetry is, in part, to borrow a phrase from E. A. Robinson (in The Glory of the Nightingales), “the embellished rhetoric of regret”.  But his melancholy surrounding the child he was is not completely regret, rather, it is “a love for the present of the past”:

The many who confuse a love for the present of the past with a love for something dead roll their eyes. (p. 7)

In the title of “The Looking Glass Scented with Cedar and Rain” he alludes to the dark looking glass of 1 Corinthians 13:12,

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.

but he never seems quite able to fully embrace verse 11,

When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.

because the childish things remain alive.  He was

raised on a salt flavour for past joys (p. 11)

and that salt flavour remains always on his tongue, the past always present, whatever the adult responsibilities and burdens and boredoms his body ages into.  In “Old Town” he says “I want to wander origins” (p. 13) and asks, tasting the salt again:

What town is this whose only welcome is the salt sigh from memory’s lips?” (p. 14)

and concludes

I stand again in patterned stillness scaring the past of the past away. (p. 14)

Again the melancholy conjuring of the past into the present, an almost obsessive striving to revivify memory.  And is that not, really, what poetry is so often considered to be, certainly since Wordsworth? Bowling’s work is so much an exploration of the Father and the Son-Who-Becomes-The-Father himself.  Never more explicitly than in “The Cycle, as the generations ride their paper routes delivering

                            folded squares of blood and soot

in an eternal return which is perhaps now to be broken in the newest, internet, post-newspaper incarnation:

oil slippery on a slipping chain. (p. 42)

In “Old Town”

                                 The walls of the buildings shine like soot soot is the material of the night the texture of the walls is whale skin. (p. 13)

Here two of the many interwoven images are met together.  In the very next poem, “In the Old Neighbourhood”, the fisherman’s house

might have been drawn in charcoal. (p. 15)

When the boy enters the charcoal-drawn house, in darkness, he is alone, echoing the refrain of “The Looking Glass Scented with Cedar and Rain”. The salt and the soot, the whale and the wolf and the partridge return again and again.  And the heron, first in “But Thinking Makes it So,” where seals also arrive, and Bowling’s ancient companions, the salmon.  Bowling looks back and finds

That it’s time not place that’s haunted. The salmon and the seals, they don’t look back and salt; they carry salt with them until they die. (p. 17)

One must see the association of “looking back” and “salt” as a reference to the fate of Lot’s wife.  Lot’s nameless wife looked back and turned to salt.  The salmon and seals don’t look back, and carry salt with them. Bowling looks back constantly and sees time not place as haunted. What of his salt? In “At the Spawning Grounds” later in the collection, the salmon is ambiguous. Is this a salmon in the last spawning throws? or a man? where?  The middle-aged man and the salmon (and the eagle) are linked, are one:

I looked up. The eagle pulled towards the moon like a fish rising to a hole in ice.

I was nothing. All.

In the antique waters of my birth I washed the ravage from my face. (pp. 52-3)

“Biography as Autobiography” (pp. 19-20) begins with salmon, and mother working at the five and dime, father a construction labourer until he turns to the salmon and

I crouch in the ditch between the second and minute hands of a murderous hour.

The hands, missing from the town hall clock in “The Looking Glass Scented with Cedar and Rain”, return again and again in subsequent poems. And a gunshot, and a pheasant, and the endless falling of the hammer.  Is the hammer the hammer of the gun or the father’s framing hammer, dropped  from the adult hand endlessly turning to other work? “Two Young Men in a Duck Punt” (pp.21-2) opens with waiting for light and time and killing light and time.  The young men

wait without knowing, for everything as you have done, are doing . . .

The two young men  reflect the ubi sunt of “The Duck Hunter” (p. 46) in which young Tim and old Tim both long to be the young version of the older brother, with his fast cars and beer, but who never really was can never be. Again the clock hands appear in “Two Young Men in a Duck Punt”

waiting for the horizon’s stir the thousand clock hands at the centre of the present

and, at the end

only the silence in which is heard

light and time light and time light and time

“Sperm Whale” (p. 26) brings the whale image, here as a haunting of insomniac sleep.  And troubling images of “God’s clubfoot” which may conjure Hephaestus hammering in his dark underworld smithy and Ahab, here pursuing the soot black whale on the cover of the book, and the angel, crippled while wrestling at night with Jacob/Israel. In “High Water” (pp. 27-9) the depths of reference of Bowling’s poetry is contrasted — I think — with the modern world, which too often doesn’t even know story:

Our net — a lyre dropped out of a myth into a world that didn’t even know story.

Bowling is not writing story, he is writing myth, and myth is what poetry has been since long before it became “emotion recollected in tranquility” or “revivified memory”.

And what we saw was what we’d never seen before, not the future, but the future made past, not a memory, but life forgotten, unrecalled, and yet not death, but a line strung suddenly between the years we would and wouldn’t live.

And here we have Sir Maurice Bowra’s “Prophetic Element” I’ve mentioned before in relation to Irving Layton.  Powerful stuff.  And the stuff continues. “Great Blue Heron: A Fable” (p. 30-2), begins with a wonderful long sentence as the Heron transforms into a sort of Grendel figure, a “creature of margins” who flees human society yet cannot flee

seeking but not to find unmemmoried

The infinite eyesight of the estuary.

“Home” (pp. 33-4) is filled with Medieval imagery and the frame of the poem as a letter indicates the consciousness of it all.  We are meant to consider and savour the pheasant and the peasant, the poacher and the salt breeze, the Carolingian franking of the letter with sealing wax and the antique carriage

The black oak with an abandoned hive in its branches — one soldier on guard for the world his helmet in his arms.

The heron returns later in “The Fisherman of the Fraser River”:

Dawn, the red crust peeled wet off the back of an old faith taken down from each mast, begins to stain the gills, the men’s eyes, my own, as nearby, in the marsh, the ether-cloaked heron develops the same blank negative of silence gleaning tears from the salt. (pp, 43-4)

When reading “Somewhere Along the Coast” (pp. 35-6), I couldn’t help but think of that classic piece of late Twentieth Century poetry “Synchronicity II” by the famous one-named poet, Sting.  But Bowling absolutely kills with the imagery of cougars and seals, pickups and pilgrims, salmon and death, while Sting just tries to sell a little Jung with a pop song. “Still Winter” (pp. 37-8) has the wonderful phrase

. . . the molasses of the hour in the freshet of the life . . .

and the surreal Dali reference of

The seconds cold and filthy off my melting watch

In “My Father Walked to Work and His Work was on the Water” (p. 39) Bowling — refreshingly for contemporary poetry — plays tennis with a net, an old and lovely net, the medieval lyric structure of the villanelle.  Bowling’s successful execution of the required rhyme scheme left me thinking of words attributed to the late song-writer Warren Zevon:

I can make anything rhyme. Are you kidding? Just get it close and I’ll make it rhyme . . . Come on. It’s rock and roll. We can rhyme “thanks” with “mom”. I’ll make it work. Don’t worry. — Crystal Zevon, I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon, p. 375

The vicious openings of “Union Local 64” (p. 45)  and “Lyric” (p. 56) pair the two, I think.  In “Union Local 64”:

Last night I caught the boy I’d been in fishnet and gutted him on the government wharf by the light of an oil lamp hung from my dead father’s hand.

and “Lyric”:

The first girl I ever kissed became a whore who died on crack . . .

In “Union Local 64”, the boy he was and his father are strange revenants, as are the two people he knew in youth, connected by him in “Lyric”.  The imagery is violent, but “Lyric ends with Bowling claiming to remove himself from all words and he lets the people — his memories of the people — carry on or not as they will.  And:

The rhythm of their love and the rhythm of the ocean at the middle of the ocean

are beautiful because if they go on we must believe they go on

the human almost-human

The memories are given life, take life if they will, and we must believe they live, as we believe in unseen things whose effects remain current to us. In “Christmas Near Vancouver” (p. 54), memories are a load of years forgotten in the dryer at a closed laundromat, only noticed by the poet wandering alone at night.  Bowling writes “I am forty years ago”, the power of memories transferring existence from the present to the past, or, as Bowling writes in “The Looking Glass Scented with Cedar and Rain”, memories scare “the past of the past away”. The primary image of “Labour” (pp. 47-9) is a pair of minimum wage working men unloading a truck at night, but the poem is actually a father’s response to his wife’s labour as she gives birth to a baby who just might have Down’s syndrome.  The working men are unloading a truck-load of memories and vague potentialities.

. . . I can’t tell whether these men, this truck are from the past or from the future. (p. 48)

“Where We Worked and What We Worked For” (pp. 50-1) further elaborates what I find to be a sort of Japanese feeling, Basho on a Fraser Delta fishing boat, that began with “The Looking Glass Scented with Cedar and Rain.”  Here we find the line that is the title of the collection.  The poem is a meditation on the fisherman’s work.  And the work is the stuff of myth.  The heron and the eagle are Cain and Abel.  Unlike the Homeric day, the fishermen’s day begins with

Sunset. Wolf-torn throat of stag.

There’s no rosy-fingered Dawn here. Bowling’s imagery is densely packed:

. . . Time, crying carries its blurred charcoal drawing of a killer whale home through the salt storm

Work is making them free “with every five-pound death” of the little fishy Christs.  But there is an oriental flavour in the Japanese fisherman, sitting apart, at peace, transcendent; and in the lotus and the abacus. “The Last Days of Summer Before the First Frost” is, of course, about gathering your rosebuds while you may, both as summer’s season comes to an end and as the summer of youth fades to autumn, a theme underlying most of Bowling’s writings:

It is time to be grateful for the breath of what you could crush without thought a moth, a child’s love, your own life. There might never be another chance. (p. 55)

A certain type of book-lover will very much appreciate “Instead of an Essay on Love, a Small Story from Overseas” in which an inscribed book conjures a story of love, loss, regret and a man who “carried the salt of his life”. (p. 60) And “While I Was Reading Amichai, Israel Attacked” is sort of a companion piece.  I can’t help referring to Keats’ new vision spurred by Chapman’s Homer.  For Bowling reading Amichai,

. . . beauty assumed a strategic position (p. 61)

Reading this poem we see something new

like some watcher of the skies when a new planet swims into his ken (Keats)

But Amichai’s dark imagery of war in the end turns back to life:

till finally the blood and ink drained away and the earth was silent and the air was still and the poet’s letters swelled with the chlorophyll of praise again. (p. 62)

“To Feel”, the final poem of the collection, is a brilliant improvisation on the word “felt” as both the past tense of “to fell” and as the name of the matted fabric so often used for children’s crafts.  The poem is largely spoken in the voice of an art teacher, revealing to her young students the truth of adulthood, what is felt by the parents for whom the crafty gift is to be made. “To Feel” is such a single piece it is impossible to pick out a little passage to quote.  Perhaps it would have been better to not quote any bits from Circa Nineteen Hundred and Grief as the collection is truly a single unified piece, tightly bound by images matted together, memories felt(ed) to form the fabric of a life.

Circa Nineteen Hundred and Grief  by Tim Bowling is published by Gaspereau Press.

For those too old or young to remember the poet Sting, here he is giving a reading of his poem “Synchronicity II”, mentioned above:

Update, March 25, 2015: On March 23 the nominees for Edmonton’s annual Mayor’s Celebration of the Arts Awards were announced.  I was pleased to see Circa Nineteen Hundred and Grief on the list of nominees.  Obviously, I feel the nomination very well deserved.

Update, June 15, 2015: Well, Circa Nineteen Hundred and Grief has been shortlisted for the 2015 Canadian Authors’ Association Literary Awards.  Again, a well deserved honour!

Update, June 16, 2015: Turns out Circa Nineteen Hundred and Grief won the CAA award for poetry!

One comment on “My Heart Leaps Up: Reflections on Tim Bowling’s “Circa Nineteen Hundred and Grief”

  1. […] My heart leaps up when I behold A rainbow in the sky: So was it when my life began, So is it now I am a man, So be it when I shall grow old Or let me die! The child is father of the man: And I coul…  […]

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