Haunted Hills & Hanging Valleys|
by Peter Trower
Post Your Opinion
|A is for Axe: Peter Trower's Gruntwork
by Carmine Starnino
Crack open The Cambridge Companion to Canadian Literature to "Poetry" and David Staines will give you the skinny. You'll learn about ur-pioneer Susanna Moodie, the post-confederation poets, and Louis Dudek. You'll learn about the Modernist shake up in Montreal, West Coast poetry, and Al Purdy. You'll learn about Margaret Atwood's political themes, bp Nichol, and the postmodern vibe of the Canadian prairies. Think of it as a bluffer's guide: essential for anyone who wants to talk knowledgeably about the subject without having read too much beforehand. Summaries of this sort, needless to say, are hard to do well, and Staines packs an impressive amount of official wisdom into eighteen pages. His stocktaking is rather low on new details, but because such jobs are conceived as a first point of reference for newcomers they are often defended on the half-a-loaf principle: a bare outline is better than no outline at all. But can such a principle also be used to defend unexceptional prose and thinking kept completely free of intellectual verve? In sentence after sentence of Staine's one-thing-after-another account we get the sense of a bored mind running in place, leaving things exactly as it finds them. No doubt there are foreign readers who will be impressed to learn (and a few, closer to the subject, who will be grateful to be reminded) that Michael Ondaatje's poems "suggest a breaking down of traditional boundaries between genres" or that Patrick Lane "investigates the male ethos" and "draw[s] moral conclusions about mankind's inhumanity." But while these ideas may still be buzz items among Canlit's commentating classes, to an implicated reader-deep in the fray of it and eager for fresh insight-Staines comes across as a modern-day Medici of bland, much-recycled truisms. Discussing, for example, how Robert Kroetsch "fashions a complex archeological metaphor out of autobiography" is the equivalent of having no opinion. It is the default position, and by unwaveringly embracing the safety of such positions-safe because they stick to a rhetoric that, by confirming clichTs, is not likely to be challenged-academics like Staines have made themselves worthless to us.
None of this would matter much, maybe, except that few moments in Canadian poetry have been hungrier for the future, its newness and potential, than the present. "A shakedown is in the works," is how Ken Babstock recently put it, "a kind of peer-directed reckoning of who's where and what's what." With such revisionism in the air, the appearance of any serene, perfectly settled perspective is a kind of mental decadence. And so recent books by pooh-bahs like Sam Solecki and W.H. New only confirm what has already become distressingly clear: the tenured world is ill-fitted for this era of change. What does it mean to publish, as Solecki has, a pair of docile studies on overhyped poets like Michael Ondaatje (Ragas of Longing) and Al Purdy (The Last Canadian Poet) or to publish, as New has, an encyclopedic run-through of our high points (A History of Canadian Literature) that excludes Don Coles, Richard Outram, Eric Ormsby, and Charle Bruce? It means you aren't working first-hand, that you've no interest in the grassroots energies of your subject and no nose for finding its groundbreaking moments. In the middle of the last century, Northrop Fry's insights caught, and shaped, the emerging careers of Atwood, Layton, and Reaney. E.K. Brown and Desmond Pacey's books were indispensable for anyone who needed to make sense of our then-surging poetry. And today? Today the professoriat's main contribution to 21st century Canadian poetry has been to ignore its shifting-and-developing complexity. The reassessments increasingly on display in Books in Canada, Arc or The Fiddlehead hold no thrill for Staines & Co. They see literature as a still-life; faced with sea-change, they can't react. This is why a hardmouthed, independent, belletristic criticism-what R.P. Blackmur dubbed "the formal discourse of an amateur"-is more vital than ever. We need to return our poetry to a condition of singularity and strangeness, and success depends on full-time "amateurs" willing to vex protocol with the idiosyncrasies, even perversities, of their biases. From their mettlesome reviews it's clear that poets like Asa Boxer, Kevin Connolly, Shane Neilson and Zach Wells have made this project the very engine of their criticism.
If an underdog is what these knuckly grubstreeters need, a poet in perpetual endgame against the status quo, they could scarcely do better than Peter Trower. It doesn't hurt, either, that in an era of staid and sedentary existences Trower's got a great story. Born 1930 in England, he loses his test-pilot father to a plane crash; moves to Vancouver at age ten with mother and brother. Eight years later, needing cash, he drops out of school and signs up at a logging camp. For two decades he risks life and limb along the province's heavily timbered fjords, rising from whistlepunk (a signalman, often the youngest on a crew) to rigging slinger (second-in-command, he picked out the logs to set chokers on and shouted signals to the whistlepunk). In the face of conditions so punishing you'd think they would have asphyxiated any writerly ambition, poems begin pouring forth in the 1950s. Soon after his first book appears in 1969 he calls it quits to pursue a "dream of songs and stories". What greets him next is easy enough to guess. Some poets have a knack for delivering their product in an especially mesmeric way. Their poetry leaps out of the pack, gets fellow poets talking, finds a sort of fame. Trower, alas, was not one of those poets. Now entering its third decade, his career is still off to a slow start. This despite the tireless devotion of two publishers-Harbour and Ekstasis-who have between them given him thirteen books, including three novels.
Yet things are improving, if slightly. British Columbia's Terasen Lifetime Achievement Award in 2002 was the first hint of a turn-around (previous winners are Phyllis Webb, Audrey Thomas and P.K. Page). And this year the CAA prize, in delightful unexpectedness, hoisted him high on its shoulders. Trower has, to be sure, a fiercely loyal cadre of West Coast fans, but he's pretty much unknown to general readers of Canadian poetry, and is absurdly underrated by those who pretend to know the subject well (he doesn't make Staine and New's cut; and you can bet Solecki isn't devoting his next treatise to him). Yet these prizes are, I think, the good tidings of a larger shift. We are witnessing the opening of a fissure in the complacency with which we have habitually regarded literary neglect. And Haunted Hills & Hanging Valleys is a bellwether of this new mood.
Trower's selected-all one hundred fifty-seven unskippable pages of it-is also the first of his books to take seriously the quiet puzzlement he has triggered. Namely, is he a talent spurned or a figure too minor to fuss over? While this selected doesn't make the question go away, it performs, on behalf of his fans, the salutary function of making it a fair fight. And the credit for this, oddly enough, belongs less with the poems, which are indeed impressive, than with the exceptional eye that vetted their inclusion. At a time when readying a book for publication means nothing more than circling a few typos and begging for blurbs, HH & HV testifies to the difference a good editor can make. Silas White's uncompromising sorting-out has powerfully focused the tendencies of Trower's career, and like any elite squad, the poems do exactly what they need to: they take a big, decisive, reputation-defining leap into the contemporary scene, showing us the Trower everyone has missed.
And who, then, is this new-fangled Trower? Some previous reviews, such as Zach Well's incisive piece on The Danforth site, have hinted at the three reasons for his distinctiveness, as does Don McKay in the excellent foreword he contributes to the collection. The first thing that becomes clear is that he is one of the few poets of his generation to channel the flow of sumptuary colloquial English that courses from Chaucer to Clare through Hopkins and Hardy to Frost. This is one of the central traditions of English poetry, but it is rarer to find in Canadian literature than you might think (plain-style peers like Al Purdy and Patrick Lane have drawn on its phrasal and syntactic effects only intermittently). Trower thus embraces a natural diction, a talking voice; he writes a poetry primarily made in the mouth and abundant in sophisticated, phonemic arrangements ("Back slams the windfall / but this time / there is just enough slack / to unhook the choker"). This leads to the second reason for Trower's importance: the worn-fresh fluencies of his prosody have kept pace with, if not outraced, the trendier experiments that began alongside him. The leading poetry circle of the time-UBC's Tish group, founded in 1961-was dedicated to the expressionist, "open field" ideals of Black Mountain poets; ideals that, as he admitted in an interview, Trower set little store by:
"The big thing at the time was this stuff with no imagery that was just broken-up prose. I never could stand the goddamn stuff but it was all the rage back then. These days, some of those guys are friends of mine but then there was a schism. I sided with the guys who preferred the streets to the groves of academia. We were the outlaw poets."
One wonders if such a sneering, streetside rejection of the era's biggest literary trend-a trend that still holds sway in our avant-garde communities-made it easier to pigeon-hole Trower's populist tendencies. Yet when you consider that colleagues like Milton Acorn, Alden Nowlen, Al Purdy, and Patrick Lane were, at the time, running a very successful franchise of this "outlaw" versifying-defined by the way it strafed its targets with plain-as-dirt wit-the neglect of Trower's poetry becomes all the more intriguing. Despite close friendships with many of these poets and despite first-rate credentials (not only did he spring directly from the blue-collar experience he wrote about, but he cut out the intellectualizing middleman and went straight for the stark details), Trower was handed the short straw. Why? Were chasers, donkey pitchers, guthammers, caulk boots, and crummies so far outside our poetry's ken that they appeared irretrievably provincial and anti-poetic? Did he acquire a reputation for being unlettered by writing about the unlettered-the boasters, shirkers, rapscallions, bullshitters, and ne'er-do-wells he toiled alongside? The same species of men appeared in Acorn's poems, yet the acclaim that met Acorn's brand of jut-jawed toughguyness eluded Trower. Unable to build a convincing association with the very pleb-poets whose popularity might have absorbed the stigma of his so-called coarseness, he was left out to dry. Reviewers were free to define his hard-nosed qualities according to a different class-system: he was seen as uncouth and bearish, prone to obvious rhymes and trite diction, poor logic and clumsy thoughts-and all this early enough in the game for the insults to stick. Had the same poems been credited to Purdy they surely would have seemed more plausible. Instead, poetical but never poetic enough, Trower's everyman guise egged readers to typecast him as an artless "child of nature". Literary neglect is, of course, a complex phenomenon, and the problems of reception run deep and in many directions. Yet an enduring sense of Trower's "primitiveness" seems a good reason why doubts about him linger. We enjoy thinking of Acorn, Purdy and Lane as the Greeks to Canadian poetry's Rome: sensual, earthbound and authentic. Trower, however, stands with the Goths at the gate: wild, undisciplined and cacophonous.
Given the perception of his work as clodhopping in its clarities, it's not surprising we've lagged in recognizing Trower for what he is: a poet capable of remarkable beauty. The irony here is that to read his poetry is to pursue the poetry's own primary action. It is, in fact, a "dropping out of school" into a world as registered by newly-awakened senses. His best poems appeal as live reportage, as spontaneous, open-minded noticings. Not only with regards to nature-a martin as "a streamlined package of brown wariness", waves that "lathered and leapt / lurched and crashed"-but also on the specific business of forest plundering: dead trees as "hollow fire-gutted cedar shells / spiking up among the felled timber"; a faller who "carries the powersaw casually like a suitcase"; or the "rotten right-of-way-timber" and how "no matter which way we undercut them / they keep dropping crooked and counter". (Only a very good poet would hear how flawlessly that final "crooked and counter" locks up the line.) Rhapsodic, straight-talking, heavily reliant on aural effects, these poems are best defined as robust philistinism in love with precision. There is something manically absorptive about them, the greed with which they soak up mood and detail. When it comes to living inside the moment, Trower is a zealous inhabitant, rather than a bored tourist. There are even some rare, eerie moments where he seems almost mineralized, half-transformed into the material of his labour ("In these aisles / in this trenched incredible quiet / I am one below summer / burning in the neutral wood").
Trower not only loves the job's exposed-to-the-elements slog and shoptalk, but insight, for him, arrives through logging; he feels the wisdom of such a life on the pulses. The real test, therefore, is whether his craggy voice can touch readers who have never logged, who have never lived in the male-locked society its evokes. It can-powerfully. And therein lies Trower's third, and best distinction. He manages, in a way other poets can't or don't, to dissolve the distance between poem and reader. It looks effortless, though it can't be. The following stanzas, taken from "A Testament of Hills", have the stand-easy slanginess of a poet talking right at you:
It was riding those doodlebug planes
up craggy inlets-
bouncing through the airpockets
in gutgrabbing skips and hops
to land with queasy relief.
caulk boots and a duffle bag
at some forlornshack camp.
It was block breaking
with a spar-tree half raised-
the tree smashing back into the swamp-
part of the block whistling by your head
like angry shrapnel
and in your mouth, the rusty taste of death
for the first time.
It was trying to unhook floating logs
with greenhorn fingers
in the churning bullpen
of an A-frame show-
the hard-nosed engineer
bursting with laughter
each time you hit the shivering drink.
It was sometimes the inviting eyes
of a faller's wife
dangerous with discontent and townhunger,
bored with isolation and her new husband's
rough and seldom hands,
enticing reluctant chokerboys
into scared-stiff affairs.
If the action-footage here sounds more folksong-pastoral than modernist (and bear in mind that, for Trower, Pound "died in his own intellectual garbage" and Eliot succumbed to "dryrot") it's because its chanting tempo implies a listener. Slick the poem is not. But accessible it certainly is, and none the worse for it. "A Testament of Hills" originally appeared in Trower's second collection called Between the Sky and the Splinters published in 1974. The same year, incidently, that Tom Wayman assembled Beaton Abbot's Got the Contract, the first small anthology of what he dubbed "work poetry"-working-class poems, in other words, written from "the insider's perspective". Trower didn't make it into the book, but an "insider's perspective" is exactly what he brings to his poetry. His portrayals of backbreaking, often brutish forest sojourns display an eye for detail that can be downright hyperkinetic. Trower has built these visual effects around a coarse palate, as someone whose gritty exaggerations are only a hair's breadth away from accuracy. Similar effects exist in Purdy and Lane, of course, but Trower's abrasiveness cleaves to a descriptive idiom that, while not quite sui generis, belongs uniquely to him ("part of the block whistling by your head / like angry shrapnel / and in your mouth, the rusty taste of death / for the first time").
But more than just capturing the adrenalin of gruntwork, Trower's poems are also brusquely tender. The flinty precision and unillusioned straightforwardness of the "faller's wife / dangerous with discontent" is just one example; his poetry is abrim with hundreds of similarly sad, human moments. Trower's achievement, therefore, flows from his refusal to retreat into a manneristic turtle-shell of indifference. For all his stoic machismo, he strives for the simplest, most sensation-rich terms to pin down the hardscrabble reality of coastal camps. He wants to include everything, especially the language fussier poets snub ("gutgrabbing", "bursting with laughter", "scared-stiff"). Our poetry has long cherished the local, but I can think of few Canadian poets who have identified themselves so strongly with a specific place; and none who have tried to preserve, in colloquially airborne speech, the goings-on of such a deprived and depriving working-class world, and the half-journeyed days of its citizens.
Low-life odysseys have always been a factor in the tall tales that loggers ledgered into their verse. A spin-off of rollicking ale-house ballads, the logger poem turned hard luck stories into something brisk, artfully paced, and wry. It was not preoccupied with style and stylishness. It had no posh notions of how "good" poetry should sound. You sung it merely to keep evenings lively around a shanty stove. And as North American oral traditions go, it is old. The earliest known example, a short jingle called "Lines Upon the Death of Two Young Men", appeared in a Maine newspaper in 1815. But logging dates back even further. Timber began to be stripped in the 1600s, in New England, to create charcoal for iron-smelting. It's easy to imagine that even for those who took part in the bygone days of this industry, before its big westward push, isolation was rife and recitation a sanity-saving necessity. Early sailors were tested in similar ways by their grueling open-ocean trips, which explains why a sailing chorus provided the template for the great 19th century anthem "The Lumberman's Alphabet". It begins "A is for axes that you may all know; / And B is for boys that make them all go; / C is for choppers so early begun / And D is for danger we often stand in". As it happens, this quatrain neatly packages the salient details-axes, boys, danger-of Trower's oeuvre. Indeed, you might say he has assembled his own alphabetary to the "gyppos" that crowded BC's waterways and inlets. Of course, the hugely popular Robert Swanson-also from Vancouver, and a protegT of Yukon poet Robert Service-deserves mention as a precursor. Writing during the '40s and '50s, his logging poems are still admired on both sides of the border. But as Trower has respectfully pointed out, Swanson's minstrelsy created a "storybook place" of hard work, hardened workers, and hard-won wisdom. While such sentimentalized heroism defines a great deal of the bunkhouse repertoire, Trower's own poetry stops short of any eyes-raised worship of this "woods kingdom". It plainly sees the "drawbacks"-i.e. the "bugs, hellish weather and wall-to-wall danger"-and proposes a competing aesthetic, one where larger-than-life and lament are intimate with each other, and the claim of neither is compromised. A capital example is "Early Shift":
At 4:30 am
by the ghostly gas station
a piece of silver paper
wind-scratching across the asphalt
is a noisy insect for the nerves.
I wait, unwillingly awake
with only a gutcan, a cigarette
and random thoughts for company.
The cops are all asleep with their guns.
The town lies ripe for the taking.
But I haven't a burglar's belly.
I'll help steal trees instead
from a hill that's warming up for me now.
By noon that bitch'll be hot enough
to make the devil sweat blood.
Across the last stars
three puny cloud-threads crawl.
Not a whisper of rain in those timid drifters.
They'll scatter like scared dogs
when the haymaker comes up.
It's time. Inescapably the crummy
trails its headlights
through the locked village
come to shanghai me once more
to a clockwork mountain.
These lines belong to a poet disabused of his frontier bravado but creatively obsessed with logging as a store of adventure and anecdote. He is also a poet who writes English by ear ("By noon that bitch'll be hot enough / to make the devil sweat blood") and thus is too anarchic a technician to settle for thumping rhythms. Such a poet prizes the ritual dialect of the rigging crew ("early shift", "gutcan", "crummy") but needs a music less foursquare, less hidebound, less chauvinstic. He needs a music that can convey the bite of circumstance as well as smash through the ersartz patina of a mass-produced style. He needs a music that can, as it were, "feel" his feelings. Because what's clear from "Early Shift"-which functions as an EEG, an image-coded graph of a mind holding its breath right before the plunge into occupational drudgery-is that Trower is a far more ambivalent breed of troubadour than Swanson. Prey to qualms, his poems are always caught up in the scrutiny of urges other logging poets embrace without reservation. Legends about the mighty, muscled, bellicose ur-logger Paul Bunyan-how at three weeks old he rolled around so much in his sleep he knocked down five square miles of standing timber, or how he dug a few ponds for drinking water that we now call the Great Lakes-give a sense of logging poetry's penchant for outsize storytelling. Trower's no drooping lily, but he was coping with a very different story, one whose discontents fell slightly outside the signature themes of derring-do, exceptional courage and victory against impossible odds (anyone "unwillingly awake/ with only a gutcan, a cigarette / and random thoughts for company" isn't interested in sing-alongs). What choice was left except to take apart the logger poem and put it back together as a vessel that could accommodate his bafflement, anger and desolation? Even those of us unfamiliar with the stereotype being breached will register at once that a norm has been jiggered. After all, it's in the music: the teethgritting way "a piece of silver paper / wind-scratching across the asphalt" becomes "a noisy insect for the nerves", or how words like "shangai" and "clockwork" are stamped with the sullenness of a self-divided consciousness.
Poems like "Early Shift" (others include "The Last Spar-Tree on Elphinstone Mountain", "Booby Trap", "Day to Day Blues", "Hell's Gate", "Cinderwind") mark a shift in logger poetry away from workmanlike craftsmanship toward expressive unconventionality. Opting for the beauty of accuracy, Trower exchanges verbal airbrushing for an unprecedently direct gaze at unpleasantness. Free of literary obligations, there's nothing to stop him from reading the forest as an almanac of vengefulness, where "the season takes aim on us" and "the woods hiss disappointment" after each narrow escape. Trower's unsettling close-ups (where even "slugs move like severed yellow fingers") are thus a means of registering feeling as well as a way of seeing. In such a hostile environment he hears his own protest echoed everywhere ("saws will yammer their nagging dirge") and even weather darkens in sympathetic meterological glower ("In the sinister season / the mountains pull down the rain."). The task of accurate description, you might even say, forced Trower inwards; logging, and its lethal landscape, became a spiritual staging-ground for fatal reckonings of the self. Yet Trower seems, at times, sincerely worried about his bias for logging's danse macabre: "What would my English uncles have said-/those staid upstanding good and proper men", he asks. We'll never know, though it would seem that Trower's Canadian uncles have certainly had their revenge. Two generations of reviewers and academics have missed the innovatory aspects of violence in Trower's work-the sophistication simmering under the sturdy, unpretending surface of its depiction-and have fallen on the regionalism of his details, his eye for the close-at-hand, as proof of his genre status as a "logging poet". And what pigeon-holing left for dead, misguided enthusiasm has finished off. Ungenerous as it is to say, Trower aficionados have often taken low-brow delight in his booze-bottle-broad crudity. A genius of the genius loci is thus Bukowskied into a roughneck ruralist. Howard White, a fellow B.C. poet, has gone so far as to accuse hero-worshiping "urban poets" of wanting to create an "impossible fiction" about the working-class, and loggers specifically. In "These Here Poets" he complains about how
Canada Council gives em ten thousand bucks
to write about what it's like
to be a workingman
cost you half a day's pay to buy it
and here's all your own words
all phonied up to sound like
some fucking Okie or something
White has a point. We've all come across these "phonied up" poems. And lately, with so many of our poets showboating a bias for ruggedness, it's hard not to feel Canadian poetry is being overrun by professional toughies. This is nothing new, of course. The working-class has been creatively revered ever since Virgil's Georgics. The difference is that ordinary Joe is today so fetishized for his authenticity that any poet who tries to make him feel "comfortable" regards himself as having touched the hem of a great profoundity. This is why we feel easy with Trower. By combining the two-labourer and lyricist-he embodies the nobility of common sense; he is artlessness incarnate. We forget, however, that there's nothing instinctive about true accessibility. We forget that comprehensible idioms are not intuited but painstakingly forged. Casual, colloquial poets like Tom Daw, Al Pittman, and barfly-wunderkind Daniel Jones have been vexed by similar "impossible fictions." Each poet helped encourage the clichTs-i.e. earthy, unspoiled by sophistication, hotly emotional-by which he was later dismissed. Les Murray has called these clichTs literature's "inbuilt habits of scorn", and their prevalence has made the displayed naivety of Trower's poems a low-hanging fruit for readers (be it plucked in praise or rebuke). Fact is, Trower is "merely" a logger-poet only in the sense that Frost is "merely" a farmer-poet. Logging may have given him a subject, but Trower's poetry-like any significant poetry-is distinguished by its style, by its exceptional arrangement of sounds and meanings. This style, as I've argued, emerged from the need to reinstate the realism of hardships softened by sentimental vocabulary. But more crucially, it's also the expression of an ear smitten with the unloveliness of those hardships. What helps the rough-stuff descriptions in HH & HV rise above lumpen-prole writing, in other words, is that they're dedicated attempts at getting new sounds down on paper. You might even say that by acting out his fascination for jaw-cracking vernacular, Trower produced the autobiography of an aesthetic. As a young man, he arrived at "the jungle" and listened to its native speech (slackassed, mancatcher, moolah, poor stiff). As an artist he took to this language like an inner land, and migrated into it:
One slackassed spring
I picked up a hiring-slip from a man-catcher in a
told him I'd fly up the following day
guy was so tickled he fronted me twenty bucks.
I had more good intentions than a Sally Ann street
but with all that moolah, I ran a little amok
found a lot of beer a bottle a broad
missed the goddamn plane.
Well, I kicked myself a bit over that one
played the duck for the mancatcher
felt like sixteen kinds of a drunken fool
till I read the evening paper.
Seems like half a bloody mountain
had slid down the camp I was bound for
bulldozed the cookshack into the sea
buried the rest of it, killed five men.
One of those poor stiffs could have been me!
That was about the only time
drinking ever handed me more
than a sore head and a bad reputation.
This-called "A Ticket to Ramsey Hill" and published in 1986 in The Slidingback Hills-is a lovely effort at putting readers in touch with the briskly colloquial sentence-sounds Trower was hearing around him. If you had cause, I suppose you could dismiss the poem as crude yokelism. "With all that moolah, I ran a little amok" reads like kitchen-sink English. In fact, it is kitchen-sink English. Trower's coup was simply to create a voice from such low diction, to let loose its monosyllabic ordinariness in moments of quick, precise, vivid phrasing. The effect-an impulsively paced, extemporaneous fluency-is remarkable, as is the robust character that emerges from the unpretentious wordplay. Each word pulses with the speaker's sense of his own particular, complicated personality; uncannily so when he grins at himself at the end ("One of those poor stiffs could have been me!").
For all its coherences of syntax and stanza, it would be easy to overlook the poem's structure. Form, here, vanishes into the sonic sum of its parts, leaving an elusive, but tactile sense of someone talking aloud. Trower has a special talent for making his audio effects credible-how he gives the wryness of "tickled" its perfect decibel level-but when one's successes are this rough and homemade they risk going unnoticed. Idiomatic grace-notes like "one slackassed spring" and "felt like sixteen kinds of a drunken fool" are so instantly readable they lull us into ignoring the accent being registered on our ear; and how, with such subtle pressures of plain speech, they compel us to care about the speaker. There are more poems like this in HH&HV-"The Slidingback Hills", "Goosequill Snags", "The Animals", "The Guests", "Day to Day Blues"-and they are worth paying attention to. Trower likes percussion, brazeness, volatility; his poetry has been, in part, an attempt to find a style that can absorb those qualities. But through deft reseedings of slang, his half-sad, half-stoic voice can ripen into something altogether more unsettling. "Industrial Poem", for example, begins so bluntly it hardly begins at all. But how disarming its laid-back, jotted-down tone; how large the shadow its vicious story casts into the reader's mind:
That night, Slim Abernathy
pushed the wrong button and wrapped his best
three times around a driveshaft
in directions bones won't bend.
They shut her down and eased him out
broken most ways a man can break
yet he clung to his ruin for twenty-four hours
like a man to a life-raft for his death's sake.
They'd hardly hurried him away from there
as we stood around shockdrunk, incapable of help
when they cranked those expensive wheels up
started rolling out more goddamn pulp.
"Hamburger for lunch tonight, boys!"
joked a foreman to the crew.
I wish he'd smelled our hate but never even
as the red-flecked sheets came through.
If you were around in 1978, you might have come across this poem in Ragged Horizons, the only one of Trower's books published by McClelland & Stewart. Funny to think of him briefly invading the literary center with a major Toronto press. And indeed, this sort of outsider prickliness is precisely what invigorates Trower's vernacular verse-line. His career embodies a conflict that W.J. Keith, in his 1985 Canadian Literature in English, identified as "genteel versus vulgar"-a "creative clash" Keith traces back to Susanna Moodie's Roughing It in the Bush. What this means is that powerful provincial sympathies colour Trower's perspective when it comes to form. Intuitive expertise-rhythm and assonance as natural functions of perception-is a belief central to his poetics. And there's no more absorbing example of this than the off-handedly enjambed, irregularly near-rhymed quatrains that hold together "Industrial Poem". Zach Wells, in his gloss of the poem for Arc, classified it as a dressed-down ballad. I agree. The versification may look frayed, split off from any orderly creative discipline, but it certainly lays bare a balladeer's sense of anomie. It's the sort of voice-rueful, bitter, blazing with raw biases-that can erupt when rules of decorum are turned upside-down. "I write totally from real life. I don't build words from words," said Trower in an interview. And when this firsthand language reaches out to the grim grain of its subject, we get a special perceptual handshake. Trower, as we've seen, has a strong stomach and rarely looks away. This grit extents to ideas as well. The ending, with its dash of gore and appalling humor, is a superb summing-up of Trower's aesthetic dissent, his dismissal of well-bred literary self-importance. Do readers need to be told those "red-flecked sheets" are Trower's own poems? Can the point be any clearer that, unlike poets, men do things that are dangerous and have real consequences, and that, unlike poems, the mistakes they make can't be undone in the next draft? This is surely the nerviest, most unsentimental ars poetica in Canadian letters since Acorn put on his overcoat to type a bitter little poem. "Industrial Poem" is not a dry cough begging the reader's pardon. It's a yawp.
Trower has written about more than just logging camps. East Vancouver factories, beer halls, and flophouses are subjects that also led to jagged, unguarded, detail-generous, electric poems. It's clear that Trower, throughout it all, has stayed with what he knows. His poems are at their best with people very much like himself and experiences very much like his own. Indeed, he has made great play of his direct, commonsensical attitude to poetry. His poems have no estranging, intellectual precisions. There are ideas, yes, but rarely are his moments distanced by rhetoric. Trower likes the rushed-in-upon effect; he likes rashness. Poetry, for him, is a kind of amnesty, a creative gratuity in which the bare-backed riders of sensation and vernacular roam free. This refusal to "correct" himself into a coolness leads to language that gives off considerable emotional heat. But the refusal also means he sometimes seems to lose interest and hurries his lines, which leaves his poems feeling fast-forwarded rather than honed. For this reason it's probably unwise to praise Trower without also confessing that his work is kinked with all sorts of problems. His language is vivid but sometimes psychologically flat; energetic but sometimes too undifferentiated and raw. Many lines are jinxed by bad wording and loose-logic; many endorse the notion that only if your pronouncements are dire enough are you viewing the world accurately. Many struggle to find a stable tone, moving between brisk statements and over-fed lyricism. Trowers can be both bewilderingly creative and bewilderingly inconsistent. There are fascinating poems that simply don't work, where the aggregate of his strategies never finds its shape. His chunky hyphenless word-clusters-Joycean fusions like "endofnowhere"-get tiresome. This also goes for the alliteration that he tends to deploy as an all-purpose anti-boredom device, sprinkling it over poems to give them a quick-fix emphasis, a synthetic pep. His love of the coursely calculated effect sometimes makes him prey to tremblingly earnest moments. The language becomes writerly and sentimental; a too-fluent feelingfulness that amplifies his worst qualities. Stories become lessons; characters become caricatures.
The irony, of course, is that Trower's bad poems draw on the same fireworks as his good ones. What makes one gesture blaze with charisma can make another theatrically fizzle. Trower is indifferent to the difference, and this constructional caprice has allowed him to stay his own man. He has no interest in the fashionable sound-the off-the-wall quirkiness, the odd juxtapositions. Nowhere do we feel today's self-mocking, not-such-a-big-deal approach to poem-making. Clumsy, yes. Heavy-handed, sure. (And why not? After all, "any poet", Randall Jarrell wrote, "has written enough bad poetry to scare away anybody"). But for all his errors in judgement, Trower's relation to his subject rarely feels opportunistic. His fervency is real, and never invented for the sake of a "poem". Unfortunately, his granitic accent, promising less intelligence than it invariably delivers, has made him known as a poet from whom no great difficulties are expected. One thinks of his career as the poetic equivalent of a simple Saxon church, lacking the majesty and scope available to master builders. But what does greatness mean, really? Are we not tired of the Mega-Statement poets, the A+ achievements, the careerist strivings after Big Topics? Distinction-making is a vital part of criticism, but doesn't it behove us to look for ambition where it "shouldn't" exist? For someone who has been on the obscurer reaches of our poetry, Trower's sudden popularity tells us a great about the level of frustration that exists with official taste; readers no longer willing, in Emerson's words, "to accept big words for sterling coin". If Trower holds his place at the centre of a new debate, if he is helping to stoke the first stirrings of an alternative conception of the Canadian canon, it's partly because literary trends have left untouched the singularity of his pose. This would be fine, in so far as it meant he was appreciated as a unique voice (which I think he is), but less fine if it meant that in his stocky, shy stoutheartedness he was branded a regional curiosity (which he isn't). HH & HV furnishes our first serious look at Trower's style and sensibility, so it's no surprise that the cover features hills thickly scrimmed in fog, dark vistas to be delved into. Please do.