rob mclennan Reviews
My Darling Nellie Grey by George Bowering
(Talonbooks, Vancouver BC, 2010)
Whether you are aware of it or not, all through 2006, Vancouver writer George Bowering made it his goal to write a sequence a month, a poem a day, with each monthly project using a different construction (or, as he’s called it before, “baffle”). Each monthly sequence was then meant to appear self-contained by different chapbook publishers, with all twelve having finally made their way in print, including Crows in the Wind (Toronto ON: BookThug, 2006), A Knot of Light (Calgary AB: No Press, 2006), Some Answers (Mt. Pleasant ON: Laurel Reed Books, 2007), U.S. Sonnets (Vancouver BC: Pooka Press, 2007), Eggs In There (Edmonton AB: Rubicon Press, 2007), Monenegro 1966 (Calgary AB: No Press, 2006), There Then (Prince George BC: Gorse Press, 2007), Tocking Heads (Ottawa ON/Edmonton AB: above/ground press, 2007) and Fulgencio (Vancouver BC: Nomados, 2008). Now, after months of anticipation, the sequence of twelve has finally appeared as a whole unit as My Darling Nellie Grey (Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 2010); who else but Bowering, Canada’s first Parliamentary Poet Laureate, could convince a publisher to take on a collection of some four-hundred-plus pages?
The mother murmurs a quick prayer,
the children too terrified to scream
crowd her, the foreigners in shock costumes,
oily rifles in their hands,
smash everything with huge heels,
shout in an unknown language,
looking for boys to kill,
leave blood and filth behind.
They must have come from those high
aircraft, they and their anger.
As a bird hasteth to the snare,
and knoweth not that it is for his life,
so these disguised youth
unpin their future as ours,
end the day washing oil from their bodies. (January, “Crows in the Wind”)
As Bowering wrote in the email press release for the chapbook Shall I Compare (Vancouver BC: Beaver Kosmos, 2008):
In late December of 2005, for various reasons, I decided to make a New Year’s resolution to write a poetry book that would require writing every day of 2006. That is, I would write a page a day for 265 days. I thought that I had better not do a single 365pp stream, so I determined to make the book out of 12 shorter books, one each month. (This sounds like the idea of a whack, eh? But it worked, and I liked the result a whole lot.)
Further, each 30pp (or 31pp, or 28pp) book would have its own structure or restraints differentiating it from the others, though there would be allusions across the borders, so to speak. (You may know the way I work.)
One, for example, is an “I Remember” book, the form invented by Joe Brainard, and which I used in my book about Greg Curnoe, The Moustache. One is made of poems written in response to famous paintings in the style of William Carlos Williams’s Brueghel paintings. One details my first trip around Europe exactly forty years earlier.
In My Darling Nellie Grey, Bowering has turned what was once a press release into a much longer introduction, on writing Oulipo before he’d even heard of it, his history of writing through constraint (what he, over the years, has called “baffles”) and how the project of a poem a day, a chapbook a month for a full calendar year came out of the frustration of becoming stalled while writing a novel. As he writes to open this new collection:
So when January 1, 2006 came around, what could I do? I opened a notebook and wrote: “When this idea/ found a way to reach me/ it was worn.” As the poem progressed, it seemed to be about someone with the habit of seeing the world through poetry, and the world this third-person figure sees includes beauty and reality, the two words whose top halves resemble each other, even while he wonders whether he is entering the old age of a wise man or a fool. That January poem fills up with another USAmerican war and whatever else comes his way, including the death of Irving Layton, the other mortality called the news, the necessity of being long in the world headed for the earth. It became another elegy, Crows in the Wind, and I heard it after thirty-one days, familiar music, the way I made poetry when I could do it the way I like to read.
One thread that seems to be recurring in Bowering’s recent poetry, including the sequences that make up his previous trade collection, Vermeer's Light: Poems 1996-2006 (Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 2006), is how he seems to be returning his poetry to its original, basic points, with this suite of a dozen sequences working poems from Williams, another sequence (Shall I Compare) from the Shakespearian sonnet, and so on. Certainly, the last decade or so have seen some of Bowering’s most compelling poetic works appear in print, including his Governor-General’s Award nominated His Life (Toronto ON: ECW Press, 2000) that came out of his own journals during thirty years worth of equinox and solstice entries, and his self-investigative Rewriting My Grandfather (Vancouver BC: Nomados, 2005), both of which were compelling and interesting new directions for Bowering’s own poetry to go into. A poem a day worked through as monthly baffles is a worthy experiment, and there are echoes here that resonate throughout Bowering’s previous poetry. When John Newlove published THE TASMANIAN DEVIL and other poems (Ottawa ON: above/ground press, 1999), there was something of each of the fourteen poems that spoke to an earlier thread of Newlove’s own poetry, from the historical poem, the poem on death, the hitchhiking poem; it was as though he had boiled the entire ouvre of his writing life into a series of boiled-down lyrics, closing up shop. Bowering’s considerations through these chapbooks come more like familiar touchstones, returning to certain threads, certain ideas when required, when needed, and trying to find something new from a ground previously covered.
In the Calgary International Airport
throngs of German Alberta peasants,
men wearing blue straw fedoras,
women broad as pantry doors
joined Tony and Lorna and me. I blew a kiss
from the dramatic screen actor hero
entrance to the DC6, what a safe
plane, full of German words and baby screams.
I took off my boots over the pack ice
and the stewardess could see holes in my socks.
I could see a stick of gum in her breast
pocket—Juicy Fruit, it said. So went my wit
There’s a swimsuit in my suitcase
and the Mediterranean up ahead, but we’re
on the ground at Keflavik. Iceland smells
like fish and there are U.S. sailors
Later in Düsseldorf I stood
across the street from my first Cinzano sign,
watching fluffy dogs on expensive leashes. (May, “Montenegro 1966”)
There are sections here that echo whole reams of Bowering’s previous work, from April’s “U.S. Sonnets” echoing At War With The U.S. (Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 1974), May’s “Montenegro 1966,” a piece written out of diary entries from that period, echoing his Mexican periods, from The Man in Yellow Boots / El hombre de las amarillas (Mexico City: el corno emplumado, 1965) and Sitting in Mexico (Montreal QC: Imago / Beaver Kosmos Folio, 1970), to December’s “There Then” showing trace echo of a particular thread that exists in, among others, his Urban Snow (Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 1992). There are cadences that echo Kerrisdale Elegies (Toronto ON: Coach House Press, 1984; Vancouver BC: Pooka Press, 2008; Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 2008) and Do Sink (Vancouver BC: Pomflit, 1992), for example. And how can the June section, “Some Answers,” be seen as anything but a continuation of Delayed Mercy and Other Poems (1985), moving from responding to lines from other poets to outright answering them? Or is it from Robert Kroetsch, who originally wrote in Field Notes (Toronto ON: General Publishing, 1983) his “Four Questions for George Bowering”?
is without fault?”
I once aimed for that, to be
some will have it,
purely, I thought why not, given
one whole life?
they introduced the notion of
inherited sin, or sinfulness, or
I never made it, though
I gave myself a chance, the chance
this one, sir, this one
in any case.
The thing I like best about the August section, “According to Brueghel” is the fact that Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1525-1569), a Flemish painter famous for depicting peasant life in his work, doesn’t actually get mentioned, and the Williams book that Bowering refers to is Pictures from Brueghel and Other Poems, published in 1962 and posthumous winner of the 1963 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, a book that opens with a cycle of ten poems each based on a painting by Brueghel. The strength of the poems that make up “According to Brueghel” is in Bowering’s usual deft hand, the quick turn and line break, and the quickness that comes from a sequence of poems moving through and around visual art, much in the way Vancouver poet Fred Wah has been working his “artknot” poems over the years as an extension to his own ongoing “Music at the Heart of Thinking” sequence, or American poet Robert Creeley did through a number of his own works. Where does Bowering fall into all of this? This is not even close to the tenth work of Bowering’s composed as a series of direct responses over the past five decades of his publishing history, from his long poem Genève that worked out of a tarot deck (Toronto ON: Coach House Press, 1971), to his recently reissued Kerrisdale Elegies and his magnificent Delayed Mercy and Other Poems (Toronto ON: Coach House Press, 1987), but why does it feel as though Bowering, through these new poems, is simply re-working the same ground as before?
A poet/critic friend a few years ago commented that some of the frustration of the TISH poets is how none of them have really done anything “new” over the past twenty-plus years, simply repeating old exploits, old faults and old victories. The question becomes, where does all of this go, where is all of this headed? Just what has Bowering learned in the intervening years? Just what has he accomplished? Writing not just for writing’s sake, but a deeper appreciation for the cadences themselves; a kind of Zen attitude to writing poems, writing poetry, as he writes in his introduction:
Texts, I now understand, are not there to replicate life, but to generate something else, including further texts.
Born in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa. The author of more than twenty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, his most recent titles are the poetry collections Songs for little sleep, (Obvious Epiphanies, 2012), grief notes: (BlazeVOX [books], 2012), A (short) history of l. (BuschekBooks, 2011), Glengarry (Talonbooks, 2011) and kate street (Moira, 2011), and a second novel, missing persons (2009). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books (with Jennifer Mulligan), The Garneau Review (ottawater.com/garneaureview), seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics (ottawater.com/seventeenseconds) and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater (ottawater.com). He spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at robmclennan.blogspot.com