Tim Bowling works each summer as a deckhand on a fishing boat on the Fraser River in British Columbia. This forms the pervasive setting for these poems, whether as foreground or background. "Low water slack" (the book's cover tells us) is that "particular tide when everything slows down: the wind, the river, even the human heartbeat." It is a time to reflect and observe; "the fishermen find themselves in a world so calm and beautiful that the very water beneath them seems a hushed breath."
I did not find this tranquillity between the covers. Bowling's sensibility, his experience with the river's depths, is much darker; he is obsessed with death in imagery that is often chilling, bloody, and sorrowful. He explores life cycles, describing the salmon and making a metonym of it. But his life cycles are rooted in death, not rebirth-in death that is often brutal, cold, painful.
Ladner is the B.C. town where Bowling was born and raised, and is also the title of the beautiful long poem that opens the book; the poem is about Thanatos, the death instinct. An anonymous driver (an indefinite "you") is inexorably, obsessively drawn along the roads leading to the place where fishermen embark in search of their catch. The driver has entered the time of year when "the killing months begin." The salt on the windshield "travels on the dying breath of stars." Marinas are passed in which "no one's awake in the portholed houses listing in the breeze" and the "streets are cracked as the sloughed skins of snakes." The driver imagines the river creatures: "Orcas slide beneath our sleep, like long, black coffins" and "the deadheads fixed in the mud begin their heavy tombstone-turn on every tide." Continuing along, "the breeze blows off the Gulf of Georgia carrying the last kiss a drowned Japanese fisherman gave to his wife," and the driver reminds himself that "the ocean teaches a whisper holds a dangerous thunder." He reaches his destination:
the only human voice is what you can remember
of your own. Your car stops on the edge of
the bank, its headlights sink in the black
depths, briefly catching a glint of sockeye
as they disappear. The engine idles with
your blood; the one shuts off, the other
just begins to move, mad for home.
A harbour seal breaks the surface
of the narrow channel like a gravestone
with sad eyes, gazing at your life, imploring
courage. But the ancient hands are still and
will not form a prayer. You have reached
a town of infinite distances where the night
whispers "nothing is gained by going with
the current." This is the final welcome.
From here you're on your own.
The death images roll along, piling one on top of the other chock-a-block. The unmistakable death-obsessed drift is almost too much: Edgar Allan Poe might happen along any minute.
These images persist in other poems throughout the book. Bowling also repeats the image of humans brutally murdering fish, the theme being "nature red in tooth and claw" and, sometimes, the sacrifice of the innocents ("our fingers wear the slick stigmata of angered gill").
The fish and river imagery is all-pervasive, even when Bowling ventures further afield for his subject-matter. Thus "the moon is gilled and breathing in the darkness" in one poem, while another, a portrait of a childhood classmate, compares the subject to a bullhead, "an ugly groundfish":
...he had the same
bulging eyes, thick lips, and roughskinned face,
and seemed more than willing to feed
his voracious appetite for acceptance
down at the murky bottom of the world.
Occasionally, Bowling's mournful passion gets the best of him and veers toward melodrama:
And the river gave [a history] to him as it gives it
to us still,
in a silver rain that blooms to roses, in a blood that
blooms to silver in our reaching hands.
let us feel the darkness loves them, let the
darkness smile at us through their nets of
While there is a reverence for the primitive in Bowling's river poetry, he also stakes out his territory as a writer among writers, consciously taking part in literary history. He does this overtly in the graceful and moving poem in praise of his father, "After Proust":
Nothing so delicate as a madeleine
but the smell of blood and oil takes me back
to those deep black waters and the salmon's silver
And more subtly in "1958", which brings to mind, apparently on purpose, William Carlos Williams's "Red Wheelbarrow":
A little blood left in the wheelbarrow
...mixes with the falling rain
this September evening.
The tasks Bowling has set for himself in this book include the writing of regional history; some of the poems look into such important parts of B.C.'s past as the 1913 Hell's Gate disaster and the World War II internment of Japanese-Canadians.
Low Water Slack richly creates a vivid sense of specific place and time and particular, personal emotion. True as it is to these missions, it also creates a sense of their universal application, as that which is authentically and deeply personal and specific naturally does, since no one is unique, and no thing is unique.
Tim Bowling shows himself to be a gifted poet, grounded in the narrative-lyrical modernist tradition, one who is adventurous and risk-taking in his use of surprising, suggestive language and unexpected, forceful juxtapositions. I finished his book an admirer of his work and will follow his career with interest.
(Libby Scheier is the director of the Toronto Writing Workshop; her most recent book is Saints and Runners-Stories and a Novella.)