As a poet, Tim Bowling has undeniable gifts: lyric strength, directness, musicality, and a confident sense of gesture. He has an inclination towards too-useful archetypes (strong, silent fathers; the mystery of feminine wisdom), but can usually keep that in check. In his most recent collection, Darkness and Silence, I hear the influence of Yeats, more than anyone. Not mystical, spirit-tapping Yeats, but the grave, grand, sombre poet who believes in simplicity. There are other Irish influences on Bowling's rhythms and diction: Heaney surfaces more than once, and on occasion even Joyce lifts his head, though Bowling is more romantic than either.
Bowling seems mostly to have mastered the ability to be solemn without sounding portentous. His work is irony-free, but not weighted down. Poems such as "Reading My Son to Sleep" invoke, with economy, paternal love and the seeming vulnerability of children¨
Last night, for the first time, I went down the well
my father went down with me.
it plunged deeper than the back of the little skull
whose edge lay page-thin on the white pillow
¨and spare us the parental solipsism that sometimes locks this kind of poem shut against outsiders.
There is a touch of archaism in Bowling's diction that seems at the same time both deliberate and innate. He's a man who has read his Shakespeare and Bible with close attention to their rhythmic qualities, to the effects that can be achieved by well-placed earthiness as much as ecstatic incantation, or by repetition ("Emptying the Mousetrap": "his little bones enter the arch of my foot/his little cry, my breath,/his little heart, my pulse,/his little eyes, my seeing.") While sometimes he tries too hard to convince us of meaning, or of the importance of what he's saying (I was flummoxed, frankly, by "After Reading an Anthology of Twentieth-Century Jewish Poetry"), one must respect his determination to be serious and to invoke seriousness without fear of sounding occasionally grandiose.
Reading his first novel, Downriver Drift, it remains mysterious why Bowling decided on fiction rather than a book of poems. It's easy to see from the dramatic compression of the storytelling in his poems why he might be encouraged to write a novel, but Downriver Drift covers much of the same ground as his poetry, employs similar moods, themes and emotional effects, and doesn't enliven the material in any new way. Not that Downriver Drift is devoid of interest, but it fails to show its author's skill in matters not already amply fulfilled by his poems. His lyricism, evocation of physical detail and (to a lesser degree here) his ability to compress a landscape or an event to essential information are on display. The overall effect, however, is both attenuated and scanty. That the novel seems to lack the urgency of the poems might be expected, but that it also lacks their fullness is more surprising.
Downriver Drift covers a short period of time in the life of the Mawsons (with historical flashbacks whose pacing, as in so much modern fiction, shows its debt to movies), a fishing family living in Chilukthan, at the mouth of the Fraser river. The family consists of Vic and Kathleen, their two sons, Troy and Corbett and a younger daughter, Zoe. In between the boys and Zoe another child died at birth, and this event, thirteen years before the present action in the novel, causes a long-delayed depressive episode for Kathleen, who withdraws from her family and to bed for part of the story. The descriptions of Kathleen's suffering, though careful and delicate, are less affecting, generally, than the poetic sequence, "The Stillborn Child", in Bowling's The Thin Smoke of the Heart, which assumes several voices, including the mother's and the dead child's:
("Mother, they have taken me from the cradle of you,/and I fear the cradle of you was my only one.") From the novel:
She came to view the anniversary, painful as it was, as something she could harbour as her own, something belonging most rightfully to her emotions. That her mother did not prove a threat to that possession revealed just how strongly she needed her mother's vague presence, needed someone more than they needed her. And the child met that requirement too, for he bid her not to weep, year after year, so that she must have come to the cemetery because she needed to do so for her own sake, not for his.
This is carefully observed, but somehow distant. "Vague presence" might describe Kathleen herself, and is perhaps meant to, but it could equally apply to the other characters in the book.
Downriver Drift is otherwise concerned with the daily life of the Mawsons as it relates to the vagaries of the fishing industry, particularly a strike that causes uncertainty, economic hardship and the hint of coming change. We see the passage to adulthood¨including sexual passion and dawning economic or political independence¨of Troy and Corbett. Other significant characters in the book include Joe Meers, the butcher (a lonely, socially awkward man), Margo, Corbett's married lover, and a man called Raskin and his abused, delinquent son. Despite broad strokes of character differentiation and plot detail, none of the characters really makes him- or her-self deeply felt. I had trouble keeping the two Mawson brothers, for example, distinct in my imagination.
With no one character in Downriver Drift solid enough to convince us of his humanity, the novel's people feel like background figures. Perhaps this is intentional. It's entirely plausible that Bowling means the river, the fish, and the surrounding environment to be the main characters. (I would not be surprised to find out that he admires Thomas Hardy's novels, so firmly rooted in place). His most impassioned and lyrical writing is about the physical surroundings in which the Mawsons live. Probably, though, to bring this environment truly alive to those foreign to it, he would have needed, as Hardy did so distinctively, to create at least one character vivid enough that his or her impressions are communicated powerfully or dramatically to a reader. What we're left with instead is a novel of atmosphere.
Bowling obviously has a lyric gift and a deep knowledge of the world he tries to recreate for us. He gives gorgeous descriptions of what it feels like to work on the river, to live in its weather, to handle fish. But without conveying a profound sense of the people who have this experience, these descriptions leave us with a residual sense of vagueness. Bowling tells us, of Corbett:
He walked to the edge of the river and breathed in the familiar smell of mud and brine, thinking seriously for the first time the strike was the most important obstacle in his life.
I believe him about the brine, but not the strike, or rather the effect of the strike on Corbett, who has not been brought alive to me, in spite of the following, which is both lovely and precise.
Corbett waited until he heard a jumper splash beneath the sound of the wind, its bright, hard body dazzling in the darkness. One cent, he thought suddenly, a lousy cent. Another splash. Another. He turned back to his car, while everywhere behind him, from the salted mouth to New Westminster, the Fraser continued racking the silver on its abacus.
The book is full of moments like this, that in spite of themselves, don't accrue to a sense of conviction. Its always important to ask yourself as a reader or critic whether you are falsely requiring a novel to be something its author never intended. Perhaps Bowling meant this novel to be an extended meditation on place and work, and not a close dissection of the people whose lives are tied to the fishing industry. Yet it's hard to believe, with the time he spends on Kathleen's past, Vic's anxieties or Joe's nervousness that he means them to remain ethereal.
In the end, Bowling's poems about fishing towns or the visceral realities of fishing have more impact than the descriptions in Downriver Drift. Here are some stanzas from "Myth":
In the August shimmer
while the men of our street
cracked sockeye open
on the government wharf,
to paw the roe like rubies
in thieved treasure chests,
we hunched on our sloped
front yards, waiting for
the trucks from the pea-fields
to rumble past trailing
the thickly laden vines.
While the women of our street
shoved red flesh into jars
in steaming kitchens
putting a little of their hearts
away for winter,
we tensed as the fat tires
slid through the heat-haze
of the simmering asphalt
straight towards us.
Or from "First Job":
Moonlight, a few days later.
The ditches down to the muddy banks
and someone I know
reaching for the set traps,
the coils of rusted silver.
Memory, what does it matter?
The boy could be making money
from each slick, gored body,
or he could be handcuffed
to permanent poverty.
While I'd be interested to see another novel from Bowling, I need convincing that his fiction can improve on this. ˛