The Good, the Bland, the Quirky

  • Christian Petersen
    All Those Drawn to Me. Caitlin Press
  • Bruce Hunter
    Two O’Clock Creek: Poems New and Selected. Oolichan Books
  • Tim Bowling
    Tenderman. Nightwood Editions
Reviewed by Joel Martineau

All Those Drawn to Me collects nine stories set in the BC interior, ranging from the Barkerville Gold Rush in the 1860s to contemporary river kayaking, from revisiting nineteenth-century histories to reviewing twenty-first-century economies and cultures. Christian Petersen authored one previous collection of stories that appeared in 1999 and a novel published in 2009; his small body of carefully crafted work shares the confidence in local language and concerns essential to his mentor Jack Hodgins, while only fleetingly employing the magic realism Hodgins favours. “Aurora” playfully recounts the tail end of gold fever in Barkerville, when the hurdy-gurdy girl Anneke escapes her evening duties long enough to artfully seduce the newly arrived fire-and-brimstone preacher. Their trysting lights up the sky then sparks the fire that levels the town, magically enabling Anneke to stare “into the face of a final, mighty joy” and recall rolling in the Friesian fields with her youthful true love. “Horse from Persia” begins in December 1879 with a note from the outlaw Alex Hare to the officers and posse surrounding the McLean gang, then shifts to his final words from the gallows at New Westminster on January 31, 1881. Petersen gives Hare an articulate voice steeped in vocabulary and biblical references learned from his Native mother and leavened with touches of wit; the condemned adolescent portrays respect for the warring frontier factions that he and his gang represent, even as he admits befuddlement at their fate. When Hare pauses, the narrator chillingly concludes: “The Hangman then adjusted the ropes, commencing with Hare; the signal was given by the Sheriff, and the doomed men fell.” At their best, regionally based collections offer sharp glimpses into local particulars that insightful readers will extrapolate to global concerns. All Those Drawn to Me reaches far beyond the Cariboo.

Two O’Clock Creek combines poems from Bruce Hunter’s four previous books of poetry with new material. The eighty-three poems trace his path from boyhood and adolescence in post-World War II Alberta through decades as a gardener in Ontario (often mowing grass in graveyards) to his recent work as a college instructor. “Images of War” pits Billy and Klaus at opposite ends of their small street in their small town, learning their fathers’ respective versions of the war: one a Dutch Resistance fighter who ate tulip “bulbs boiled into bitter soup,” the other a “former SS sergeant / his flower garden precise and clipped.” “Deep in the South of My Country” shows union workers in St. Catharines, a “hard town of steel plants,” hurling bricks to “air-condition the house of a scab” because the union men, “their wives / swollen with a first or second child,” are “banded in fear.” In “Hawk on a Shrouded Urn,” a raptor perches at dawn and dusk on the tallest grave markers: “When a blade or twig moves / she drops” then springs “steep over the trees / to a nest of sticks, / a shadow dangling in her grip / for the young / in that dead oak across the canal.” Hunter’s poems typically hint at such circularity as they reflect a quiet, measured life view. Many seem personal, likely more important to the author than to most readers.

Tim Bowling debuted in 1995 with Low Water Slack, a collection of brilliant poems that caught the divergence between the rapidly fading BC salmon fishery and the exploding urban sprawl. His acute use of industry vernacular sharpened the contrast between the Steveston docks and Ladner sloughs at the mouth of the Fraser River and the encroaching city. Bowling has produced fifteen books since—poetry, novels, a memoir, and industry analyses. The sixteenth, Tenderman, gathers forty-one poems written at some spatial (he now lives in Edmonton) and temporal distance from the titular figure, the poet’s youthful doppelgänger. Bowling defines a tenderman as “a crewman on a salmon packing boat” and dispels romantic notions, insisting that such workers have “gone into that pulsating grave of spirit where most wild species have also gone.” The tenderman synecdochely stands for the salmon industry, and Bowling admonishes nostalgia: “Wake up, tenderman. This is our stop. / The past — where the unhappy take their honeymoon.” Bowling repeatedly juxtaposes the technologies and sensibilities of the tenderman’s heyday (linen webbing, “the world of towns”) with the instantaneity of contemporary communications (uploading and iPhones) and urges his other to avoid regret: “You don’t have any children, tenderman? / No one to pass the hopelessness on to? / . . . I stand with my three at your door.” Bowling masterfully titles one poem “An Hour of Twitter, Texting, Facebook and Thou,” another “Real Men Read Jane Austen.” I urge you to sample his work.

This review “The Good, the Bland, the Quirky” originally appeared in Canadian Literature 216 (Spring 2013): 151-52.

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