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Review in Arc

The Compleat Angler

In his book Can Poetry Matter? American poet and critic Dana Gioia bemoans the fact that poetry now belongs to a subculture. One reason for this, he suggests, is the profusion of poets being churned out by creative writing programs, many of whom end up as teachers in the same programs. Not only does this produce "sameness" of style and subject matter due to similarities in backgrounds, but literary standards are often forced to conform to institutional ones. The audience too has become increasingly specialized: "Like subsidized farming that grows food no one wants, a poetry industry has been created to serve the interests of the producers and not the consumers." A dangerous situation, warns Gioia, and the solution is to leave the well-ordered, stuffy classroom and restore a "vulgar vitality" to poetry.

Canada’s work-poetry movement, I think, can be seen as a response to this dilemma, though it too has produced some pretty slack and unmemorable writing. The two books under discussion here have managed to combine the best of both worlds. Both authors are sons of fishermen: Tim Bowling a product of the west-coast salmon industry, Michael Crummey of the east-coast cod business. They come out of the tradition of work poetry, yet both have had the benefit of a university education. They combine a knowledge of tradition and technique with an untapped subject matter.

The first section of Bowling’s Low Water Slack charts the history of Ladner, BC, a small town just south of Vancouver, paying tribute to the men who fish there and to the fish they catch. "Ladner," a long, meditative poem opens and sets the tone for the entire book. While respectful and even proud of the history and traditions of his area, Bowling expresses remorse that the "killing months begin," contrasting the beauties of the natural world ("belies rubbing swiftly over silt") with the demands of commerce ("a million fortunes swimming in from the sea"). It is at once an elegy to the salmon and an expression of sympathy for those who have given their lives in the practice of their dangerous profession. There is a mingling of reverence and sadness for these silent men who "speak only with their calloused hands." Bowling is attracted to the dignity of this kind of work, yet recognizes "nothing is gained by going with/the current." We have the impression that the decision to leave this way of life behind has already been made, albeit tinged with regret for the road not taken.

The next three poems continue in this vein of historical scene-setting: "The Tinsmith" documents the life of the only nonwhite canner of the Fraser River's early days; "Hell's Gate: 1913" explores the massacre of thirty-million salmon trying to swim through the Fraser Canyon when illegal railway blasting has choked the channel; "West Coast Winter: 1942" describes the internment of a Japanese carver of duck decoys who "sat in silence carving masterful lies." All three point out man’s folly in exploiting, not only the natural world, but his own kind. The section's remaining poems focus on Bowling's family history. In the superb "The Photograph," he demonstrates his considerable lyric gifts. Gazing at a picture taken before he was born of his infant sister, teenage brothers and father posed beside a dead salmon, he anguishes over the death to follow of an unborn brother with whom exists only as "the tiny shadow within the shadow" of his mother, who is taking the picture: "It's taken nine years to understand/ why their happiness pains me/ youth cannot accommodate absence." His own? His brother's? "After Proust" explores the point where art intersects his life, which is very different from Proust’s, to put it mildly! He uses the comparison "Nothing so delicate as a madelaine/ but the smell of blood and oil takes me back" to launch into a moving portrait of his father. The section's last piece, "The Old Fishermen: 1973" is a tender paean to the men who fought so that Bowling's generation might have an easier life. Again, there is an intimation he will be leaving this way of life: "the distant water doesn't call my blood;/the canyon-walls have yet to narrow for my climb." He closes with a stirring passage for these men who are approaching their final days: "Hangman, slip the blood of/ summer softly on them, rope each face without/ a burn, whisper, whisper sweetly as a mother,/ let us feel the darkness loves them. . ." There is a multitude of hands in this book, usually weather-beaten and gnarled. They are one of its leif-motifs.

Bowling identifies viscerally with both predator and prey. Part II catalogues the various species of salmon, each with its unique appearance and personality. "Sockeye Salmon" depicts the fish as playful on the surface, yet darkly humorous underneath. The "Dog Salmon," whose flesh is fed to dogs, can break wrists with a quick jerk. The "Jack Spring" is taken home to elderly widows, providing a week of suppers. "Bullhead" mourns a tough school chum who resembled the ugly fish and died an early death.

With "Oolichan" (candlefish), he embarks on in exposition on light, using art to elevate the commonplace to a more honourable and fitting position: "And in the light, one hand,/ strong, veined like the delta, forming a fist/ over the bucket-handle. A hand off a da Vinci oil./ The light on the hand, the hand in the light;/ in this almost total darkness the tiny masterpiece/ of an unsung Renaissance swings gently......

This is a colourful book, mostly silver and red, the silver of the salmon's scales, the red of its blood. Bowling shows us "the river's silver abacus," "the silver notes our fingers once possessed," "bloodhammered silver," "a silver rain that blooms to blood," “tossed roses," "the soft red/ gloves the salmon weave when dying." There is always the sense of blood on Bowling's hands, of his complicity in the deaths of these creatures. Witness "Midnight," a moving lyric to a seal in the harbour whose cries make him feel the loss of all the pups that have been killed in the name of commerce. In "Gaff-Hooks," he laments his role: "I have been reaching/ with a sharpened hand all my life." In "After Learning My Girlfriend Might Be Pregnant," he is stunned by the possibility of creating life when his body "is bent to the task of killing."

Part III treats the various accoutrements of fishing: aprons, skullcaps, gumboots, gaff-hooks. Bowling has an uncanny knack for revealing profundities implicit in the commonplace, for mingling matters sacred and mundane. This one-foot-in-both-worlds quality enables him to take intrinsically unpoetic material and write lyrically (and lovingly) of it, to articulate a way of life. He gives voice to silent men with calloused hands, women waiting at home peeling tomatoes in their kitchens. He not only chronicles this life's "darker truths," but imbues the paraphernalia of the trade with dignity and worth, making us see that these are lives that matter.

In "Sunset: Ladner Harbour," Bowling muses over the end of the day, of summer and the sockeye run. "The crabs are waving like children on a school bus/ bound for the rest of their lives." Perhaps waving goodbye to him since he has "chosen a different course." Maybe he had to write this book in order to be able to leave. His poems have an emotional intensity that brought lumps to my throat. There is a resolve, a high moral purpose to everything he is doing here, coupled with a compelling melancholy and an astounding level of artistry. With his grasp of the human condition and his lyric gifts, Bowling has the tools to become not just a good poet, but a great one. Low Water Slack (that particular tide when everything slows down, leaving time to reflect) went into second printing in less than a year, suggesting someone besides poets are buying it. Fishermen, perhaps, hungry to see their lives so accurately and movingly rendered.

- Pat Jasper, ARC, no 39 Autumn ‘97