An Object among Objects

Reviewed by Ryan J. Cox

Conventional life writing is predicated on an intimacy rooted in the subjective—the idea that the author is a person sharing their (true) story with the reader. It moves around the formation of a subject-to-subject relationship in which the speaker constitutes a clearly constructed “I” that readers necessarily recognize as a subject like themselves. Formal variations—the difference between autobiography and memoir, for instance—can be read as variations in the strength of the truth claim or the degree of intimacy, but such works all seemingly revolve around the central construction of the speaker as a subject in relation to other subjects: the people in their lives, the reader. There are, of course, texts that disrupt these conventions. George Bowering’s 2021 memoir, Soft Zipper, is one of them.

 

Calling Soft Zipper a memoir doesn’t fully encapsulate it. It is not a memoir in the sense that it produces an intimate narrative of Bowering’s life; nor is it marked by a subjective focus. When Bowering writes that his “favourite object in the world is a baseball,” he isn’t describing a specific baseball with a singular story; rather he is situating himself in relation to all baseballs. Bowering may be revealed in his thoughts about how he never held a white baseball until adulthood, and how they now seem to accumulate rapidly and mysteriously, or in his brief reflection on the labour conditions that produce the baseball as material object, but this revelation is almost always indirect and accumulative because the formal structure and theoretical underpinning of Soft Zipper come not from the memoir and its practice, but from modernist poets like Gertrude Stein and Charles Olson.

 

From Stein, Bowering gets the form of the work, using Tender Buttons’ cubist-inspired portraits of objects as the conceptual foundation, with each vignette—like “The Cane,” “Pie,” or “Drunk Tank”—focused on a singular thing. However, despite going so far as to borrow the section titles “Objects,” “Food,” and “Rooms” from Tender Buttons, Soft Zipper doesn’t read like Tender Buttons. Instead, as Lisa Robertson astutely notes in her introduction, it feels more of a piece with Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, which deploys a plain-spoken series of rememberings marked by particular attention to the domestic details that position Toklas, and by extension Stein herself, within social spaces. Further, Stein’s book functions as an indirect autobiography that allows her the opportunity to reveal and construct herself in ways she couldn’t without using Toklas as a cypher. Similarly, Bowering’s focus on things and places allows him to explore the self through the social, spatial, and symbolic networks that surround them. His experience of the cane in “The Cane” is linked to aesthetics and fashion, but also to family histories and the material lives of specific objects. All of these constellate around Bowering’s relationship to and understanding of the object.

 

This is important because Soft Zipper is predicated on understanding Bowering as an object among objects. As he writes in “Objects”: “Charles Olson announced that it might be a good plan to regard oneself as an object among objects, and in that chance to share the secrets objects know. To me that suggests not holding oneself as subject with the material about one and in one’s poetry as objects, subjects to one’s gaze” (15). The refusal to privilege the gaze, to assert control through that gaze, allows for an intimacy that would not otherwise be possible. It allows Bowering to depict youth and aging through the slow shift in the object-to-object relationships Soft Zipper describes.

 

Aging is one of Soft Zipper’s major subtexts, always already present in each act of memory. In Could Be, Bowering’s latest collection of poetry, aging seems to be the central theme, with many poems reflecting on both the decay and decline of the body and the persistence of life. References to the loss of friends and the acquisition of dentures are haunting reminders of Bowering’s 2015 hospitalization and coma, a brush with death but one survived. In the opening lines of “Sitting in Jalisco,” the beautiful twenty-two-page poem that closes the book, Bowering declares that “Jean had fish for lunch, dinner and breakfast, no Oxford comma for her, no more coma for me,” before reflecting on the various greens of the umbrellas, the surf on the beach, and the eight per cent chance that he had to see it (85). There is an awareness of the fragility of life, but also a stubborn defiance and a resolution “to get,” as he advises his body in “Bloodlines,” “older than anyone thought you would” (64). There are meditative moments in Could Be, but they are tempered by an extraordinary wit and energy. As a result, Could Be is an engaging work that rewards the reader’s time.

 

The two books, it should be noted, work particularly well as companions, with Soft Zipper’s reflections on Bowering’s life providing depth and resonance to Could Be’s poems, and vice versa. They share settings, spaces, events, and seemingly a moment of composition. Thus each expands the other in exciting ways. The books are marked by memory and age, but hold open the potential for more. They are innovative and playful, challenging both the conventions of memoir and the spectre of mortality. Bowering closes Sitting in Jalisco” by declaring “the end I’m coming to is not mine” (107). The poem and the book close, but the animating life endures, an object fiercely among objects.