Time’s Wild Ghosts

Reviewed by Catherine Owen

Stanley Kunitz, enduring American poet, once wrote, “at the center of every poetic imagination is a cluster of key images that go back to the poet’s childhood and that are usually associated with pivotal experiences, not necessarily traumatic.” Tim Bowling and Patrick Lane’s oeuvres are both fiercely ghosted by such image clusters from the past. Bowling’s poems carry gentler recollections of salty sufferings on the river and Lane’s collection traces the aestheticized harshnesses of familial loss, violence, and poverty.

Bowling’s Selected Poems, an elegant hardcover offering of an array of the BC-based writer’s work from his auspicious debut in 1995, Low Water Slack, to the award-winning Tenderman from 2011, illustrates the tenacity of obsession and its potent veins of song. Bowling has always been unafraid of the romantic “punctum” (“a candle slowly removes her wedding dress), the potential sentimentality of tone (“Sometimes I wish . . . the earth a woman’s cheek, we’re being cried”), and the repetition of core words like “time,” “memory,” “dream,” “blood,” “dead,” “bones” and of course, the “river..” Although he states in the preface that his shifts in life experience have produced a “dramatic change” in his work, the tremors seem subtler, a rippling out from their initial stone. Although, from The Witness Ghost (2003) on, the allusiveness enlarges in poems like “Singing Frank” and “A Christmas Card to Strangers” and ecstatic exclamations attain greater risk such as “adult happiness! / adult sorrow!” in a piece about Nick the barber (“How to Live the Examined Life”). Throughout his growth from the figure of the son to father to middle-aged man, Bowling reassesses the impact those nascent landscapes and their characters have had on him. While he occasionally extends his narrative purview to Tennyson or Hardy, he mainly adhers to the locales and personages of his youth. Such intense focus offers a satisfying accretion, an ever-vivifying milieu, and, at times, a readerly ennui at the eternal return to one essential memoried realm. A sharper attention to form might assist those touchstone moments to assume more powerful shapes. As the triumph of Tenderman makes evident, the poet’s evocation of the titular word drawn, as it were, from the deep, serves as locutionary Virgil to our desire to plunge once again into Bowling’s alluvial witnessings.

A writer even more possessed by the past than Bowling is Patrick Lane. He manages, throughout a surprising range of poems in Washita, to renew a reader’s ache to hear once more the stories of father, brother, teenage wife, mother, and a tragic menagerie of threatened entities (doe, kitten, whales, mouse, and even tombstones devoured by lichen). Most potently, with the always-phoenix tendencies of the artist, Lane effects such continued engagement by altering his compositional practices to address a frozen right shoulder, an injury that required him to utilize his left hand to type instead, thereby slowing his cadences and imbuing them with a Zen-inflected sparseness. All the lyrics in Washita squat in their singular stanzas like compressed herons on one determined leg. Though still resonant with Bly-era mythic pronouncements (the god waiting to eat us, the cicada desiring its imago, and the vague mysticism of “there is no music sweeter than dark mothers in the night”), these new poems not only channel “sabi” intonations, crisply delineating the melancholic pursuit of recollection, but also evoke the detached yet stirred postures of the inhumanist poet Robinson Jeffers. This is particularly so in poems like “Byn Jhator” where the mostly monosyllabic clangs in, “[t]he volt hulks on the bare branches of the dead fir. / It is one place, rock, not stone” to put human angst in stark perspective. Especially moving are the poems honest about this challenging and brave compositional process like “Solstice Coming” where words emerge so slowly that they are salamanders “peering from beneath a stone” and the acknowledgment “[i]t is rare to feel anything deeply” is made with the purity of feeling’s depths. Perhaps Lane’s current stance towards existence and his art is most eloquently expressed by the line from “Soft and Moist, Hard and Dry,” a line that torques the demands of age, time and the persistence of creation, “I hang in this dark by a thread, listening.”

This review “Time’s Wild Ghosts” originally appeared in Queer Frontiers. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 224 (Spring 2015): 113-114.

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