#688 How must it feel to write this way?
What is Long Past Occurs in Full Light
by Marilyn Bowering
Salt Spring Island: Mother Tongue Publishing, 2019
$21.00 / 9781896949727
Reviewed by P.W. Bridgman
What is Happiness? What is Good?
It is when you step into the arena of human failure,
and a consoling voice whispers in your ear, “Look up!
Look up! See those trees!”
And you do.
The worldview captured in that stanza — revealing a tempered optimism despite the many challenges that assail our troubled world — informs much of the writing found in this complex and nuanced offering from one of Canada’s strongest and most consistently compelling poetic voices.
For Bowering, the relationship between humanity and the natural world is like Einstein’s space/time continuum. To the discerning eye, humankind and the natural world (like space and time) are not dichotomous (though at first blush they appear so); rather, and perhaps counter-intuitively, they comprise a perfectly seamless, interdependent unity, each aspect inseparable from the other. Bowering guides her readers to recognise and identify the false dichotomy, reminding us again and again in subtle ways that our strivings and longings for meaning must necessarily always remain unmet to the extent that we fail to embrace and reconcile ourselves with our increasingly imperilled natural surroundings.
All of that said, it is important to add that Bowering has not — in this or her earlier books — served up a simplistic collection of “eco-poems,” peddling potted truisms about environmental degradation (although ecological subject matter plainly recurs throughout them). No. While remaining securely grounded in both wonder and worry about the state of our natural world, this writing sprawls outward in all directions, touching on questions of history, memory, war, negligence, cruelty, love and loss. It poses difficult questions. In places, it hits hard. In others it is exquisitely tender. Bowering’s poems sometimes fulfil; at other times they unsettle and provoke. There are moments of deep sorrow and glimpses of transcendent joy. In other words, Bowering’s writing is as rich in colour and texture as is the uneven tapestry of life itself.
One appreciates the welcome indirection that distinguishes Bowering’s poetry. Her poems awaken and nurture a renewed commitment in us (her readers) to value and honour our natural surroundings by conveying, most effectively, how elementally the natural world is stitched into the fabric of her own life. Thus, there are no clichés, no unsubtle harping or haranguing. What is Long Past is, rather, an homage to the rewards and fulfilment that come when human lives are lived observantly and in a way that is ever conscious of the overarching continuum. For example:
…I linger under a green umbrella
and deconstruct chewing gum wrappers and crushed beer cans
and track a hermit crab as it clicks and clambers out of its shell
and looks for another My heart remains quiet,
and so I listen, without giving consent,
to the waves’ cursive account of my life.
It is difficult to change. I could climb to the height of that island
once the waters retreat, but it is flood time now,
and I see what I see with a penlight and the quick
skipping beam of a lighthouse, its pulse like a heartbeat
What I’ll come back with, I have no idea,
but happiness is always ready to speak.
Always ready to speak. Yes, indeed. But, as Bowering also shows us, happiness sometimes speaks only after seemingly interminable silences. So it goes.
Bowering is a poet of stillness and gentle motion.
Her poems deftly conjure moments of tranquility from reverie and imaginings, from the letting go of what must be released. Thus, in “The Writer’s Museum” the deceased recipient of a letter is soothingly urged to:
Imagine, instead of reading this letter, you are
still in your body, but in the writer’s museum
in the company of objects left behind.
Imagine none of the women you love — your wife,
your girls, their children — are grieving,
but playing, instead, on the floor with the toy theatre
that belonged to Robert Louis Stevenson. Imagine a donkey
to carry your burdens; imagine turning back for a moment,
to become it; the hands of your loved ones moving it gently
onto the stage of the toy theatre and into Stevenson’s story.
There everyone will speak to you, not knowing who you are,
but adoring the way you refused to be moved along
by a stick or a harsh word. You respond only to those who look
into your eyes and find the arrow of a perfect bird in flight…
And when she is in motion, Bowering picks her way along, slowly, observantly and cautiously:
When I go looking, I have a card in my pocket
and a note in the bottom of my shoes: my family will need
to know what happened…
She also shows us that that caution is well justified. In “Coffin Island,” Bowering gestures to the dangers that can sometimes lie in wait for young women when, at last, they fledge — that is, when they venture out from their homes and into a sometimes cruel, wider world. “Coffin Island” ends with a line that echoes in the mind like the crack! of a sniper’s rifle.
We all shined our shoes back then,
when we left the regard of our families
and stepped onto the target range.
Through this, and other such poems, the point is made again that Bowering is no Pollyanna. As preoccupied as she can sometimes be with serenity and reflective thought borne aloft by the wonders of the natural world, her ear is also well tuned to tragedy — sometimes resulting from random acts and omissions and, at others, traceable to unalloyed and unvarnished evil. The inclusion of these poems in What is Long Past demonstrates again what Bowering’s readers already know about her extraordinary poetic range.
Two of the most chilling pieces in this new collection are found back to back. Their titles give nothing away. They are called “Regina Street” and “The Brontës.”
“Regina Street” in particular is not recommended for reading immediately before bed. In it we see the tragic consequences of a parent’s momentary inattention. The mother “step[s] outside for a moment to view the wet, green park / at the bottom of the slope below the garden.” The boy “is too small to wake up on his own,” the mother thinks, not knowing that he has “filled his pockets with matches.” Bowering continues:
…This is how the world grows itself
into the ordinary; but his shadow consumes its fairy shape
on the cold cement wall, and flames climb the leg of his sleeper.
It takes too long for the fright in his voice to shiver the jars
of canned pears and peaches on the shelves of the cellar,
for his scream to crack the bell jar of silence.
Behold the beauty of creation in its cauldron, your hand on its ladle.
And then you run, like and unlike a dog
which digs at the house foundations
for the bones it buried for an unimaginable future…
A similarly disquieting sense of menace and dread builds as one reads “The Brontës” where, again, it is helpless vulnerability in the face of impending danger that sends a chill up the spine:
Sometimes a baby or a few dishes or an infant rabbit
swims in the sink. An owl waits in a tree, its eyes on the
straw-filled box, dropper of milk, scissors and bandage and tape,
and the movement within the towel on the counter.
When the candle burns out,
nothing matters except what is loved
or abandoned, or left;
and the moon over the owl,
and the stars lighting deep
One hesitates over the lines, “When the candle burns out, / nothing matters except what is loved /or abandoned, or left.” Is Bowering nodding gently here in the direction of Larkin? Recall that he ended “An Arundel Tomb,” perhaps even more equivocally, by musing:
Time has transfigured them into
Untruth. The stone fidelity
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.
Perhaps she is.
In any case, Bowering (like Larkin) is certainly no Pollyanna. Rather, she is both tender-hearted and, at times, hard-headed. These poems reveal that she is perfectly alive to the fact that Nature comprises more than Milton’s pansies “freak’d with jet,” Hopkins’ “branchy bunchy bushybowered wood” or her own “willows with their troves of birdsong.” That is, she is perfectly alive to the fact that in arbitrary and occasionally purposeful ways, the natural world and some who populate it are capable of bringing perfectly horrifying calamities to perfectly unsuspecting doorsteps. That awareness has found its way into the poems that make up this deeply honest and affecting collection, giving it added depth and texture.
It seems somehow appropriate to end this review with a brief discussion of the “Woof” poems and the Afterword that follows them in What is Long Past.
Just as they were about to move to a new house recently, Bowering and her husband were taken by surprise by the sudden death of their beloved Border Collie, Tessa. Bowering laments the fact that, owing to their preoccupation with the mundane practicalities of preparing for their large move — a significantly disruptive event for anyone — they didn’t pick up on the signals that Tessa’s health was failing almost until the end.
The “Woof” poems (which, collectively, are titled “Woof — At the Door — Woof”) present a beautifully lyrical meditation — at once sorrowful and thankful — upon the ways in which a companion animal can deeply enrich a human life. This, of course, is a realisation that settles upon one and is felt most keenly in the wake of a companion animal’s death.
Here again, Bowering steers a wide berth around shoals of potentially cloying sentimentality. The “Woof” poems present an affectionate (to be sure) but nevertheless clear-eyed account of the place that Tessa came to occupy in the lives, hearts, and minds of Bowering and her family. It is a powerful testament to the gentle loyalty and selflessness we sometimes see in companion animals; a gentle loyalty and selflessness that, at times, may even transcend what can be taken from the more complicated relationships that humans take up, especially when the complications work to undermine or unseat a temporarily fragile happiness.
Bowering catalogues certain endearing personal attributes of the dog, Tessa; her “dislike of suitcases” for example, and her “nose interrogating the backs of knees.” From these bits of information we come quickly to understand and appreciate the weight of the loss suffered by the poet and her family when the dog finally dies. Following that death, Bowering comes slowly to accept that the dog must, then, “…come to a river / and swim, without weight, / to the other side.”
And yet, while the dog has passed, in a way she hasn’t:
…love unlocks you from the earth,
and you scramble up the drive,
a pinecone from the underworld
in your mouth for us to throw;
so tender to our hearts
that you return.
The tender, heartfelt, and hopeful keening that is laid out before us in the “Woof” poems calls to mind the two beautiful stanzas which open another Bowering poem, this one simply and sparely titled, “Dog.” “Dog” recalls a previous companion animal in the poet’s life. Its name was Gráinne (named, perhaps, after W.B. Yeats’ daughter-in-law, the famous harpist? Or, for the “Grania” in the play, “Diarmuid and Grania,” co-written by Yeats and George Moore?). Gráinne is immortalised in the first of the new poems found in the otherwise retrospective collection of Bowering’s work, Human Bodies (Vancouver: Beach Holme, 1999). It begins as follows:
When I am dead,
someone will weigh my heart.
It will be Anubis,
or, with luck, my old dog, Gráinne,
who will gaze at the golden scale,
add a feather so they’ll let me in…
One is left to wonder, as one savours lines like that — and there are so many in What is Long Past Occurs in Full Light — “How must it feel to write this way?”
P.W. Bridgman writes from Vancouver. In 2018 he was one of nine participants in the intensive writing summer school program offered by the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry at Queen’s University, Belfast — an experience that he says was a defining one in his writing life. Bridgman’s selection of poems, entitled A Lamb, was published by Ekstasis Editions in 2018. It was preceded by a selection of short fiction entitled Standing at an Angle to My Age, published by Libros Libertad in 2013. Bridgman’s writing has appeared in The Moth Magazine, The High Window, The Glasgow Review of Books, The Honest Ulsterman, The Bangor Literary Journal, The Galway Review, Ars Medica, Poetry Salzburg Review and other periodicals and anthologies. Learn more at www.pwbridgman.ca
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