It happens now.
As, the businessman in the café declares
“It’s a new world,” blowing on his green tea
to display his globalism, it begins,
another salmon run to the Fraser River.
(“It Happens Now” 7)
These lines, the first lines of Tim Bowling’s The Book Collector, display the book’s overall project. Bowling attempts to rehabilitate conventional poetic images, such as this salmon run, despite seeming awareness that such imagery has little relevance in this globalist “new world.” Let the twain stand together, the poet suggests, and illuminate one another. But they don’t.
Of course, the book cannot be reduced to the above summary, and Bowling succeeds with wonderful lyrics and lines on occasion. One deft line, that occurs later in the same poem, describes these running salmon as “Metaphors for the absence of metaphor” (8). But are they? The suggestion here is that salmon have their own alien lives, ones that do not reduce to imagery.
That may be, but this doesn’t tell us anything about the businessman blowing on his green tea. Unless the businessman lives an inauthentic life, and the salmon represent some sort of authenticity, in a simplistic opposition. But this interpretation reduces the salmon to something simply “poetic” and at odds with the above statement that connects them to the absence of metaphor.
What Bowling attempts here is to sketch out a complicated interrelationship that he simply cannot, since he lacks the willingness to vary his compositional strategies beyond the conventional where appropriate. In a basic sense, this is the flaw of The Book Collector. Its lyrical approach claims a social and political relevance that its lyrics do not have, for a variety of reasons, often because as Bowling attempts to stretch as a poet he stretches only on the level of content. Bowling is better when not attempting so much, and hewing closer to tradition. He’s a craftsman, pure and simple, and capable of great elegance:
Men in black oilskins scraped the invisible hull.
They wore the faces of men from my childhood,
men I knew were dead, they whistled songs
found at the bottom of wooden radios.
(“After Arrival” 20)
Not only does Bowling offer up the vivid “wooden radios,” but he does so along with the stunning image of wraiths whistling through the possessed workmen. There’s no need for Bowling to try out any new tricks here, because the old ones work, whereas in the previous example he might have fruitfully ventured into flarfist experimentation.
This is not Bowling’s especial failing, but a common problem of poets. They pre-claim allegiance, consciously or unconsciously, to some school or program, and forget their allegiance to poems. Bowling does a better job of making more traditional tactics work for him in other instances that still see him pushing at edges:
Somewhere a child is growing into his magicianship,
scarves, coins, cards, the rabbit of one word
pulled from the hat of another.
(“Somewhere a Child Is Growing Into His Magicianship” 46)
A more “avant-garde” poet would have here harangued us with a reference to Jacques (Lacan or Derrida, not recognizing the two as enemies), where Bowling gets the same point across with a stunning, easily-understood but not simplistic image. Bowling knows how to strut. For the most part, The Book Collector is filled with wonderful lines, although the poems have a stylistic sameness that (as indicated above) can work against the poet’s apparent purpose.
In the odd instance, though, Bowling feigns sophistication and produces drivel. Some lines are simply painful: “What do you want? I hear the universe ask” (“Our Lives Since Moving Away” 18), and unbefitting such an accomplished poet. On occasion, a poem unfortunately proceeds from a lousy conceit:
I couldn’t get out of bed this morning.
It isn’t what you think,
not illness or a hangover. Simply,
I’d become a tributary of the Fraser River.
(“The Return” 29)
This is pseudo-surrealism at its awkward worst. Overall, though, Bowling commands his language even if he could do more with his ideas, which would benefit from technical expansion and formal experimentation.
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