The Good Bacteria

by Sharon Thesen
96 pages,
ISBN: 0887847463


by Tim Bowling
96 pages,
ISBN: 1554470161

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Giddy Vertigo
by Bryan Sentes

Bowling and Thesen both anchor their latest volumes on Canada's Pacific coast. Bowling's thirty-four poems might be taken to be yet another rewriting of Wordsworth's Prelude, relating as it does the narrative of his childhood and youth at the mouth of the Fraser River from his present-life perspective as a father in Edmonton. Thesen's collection is looser, four sequences framing twenty-nine poems. However similar the matter of the two poets, their manners seem vigorously opposed. Bowling's poems¨with their marked rhythm, baroque figuration, and high seriousness¨bring to mind Hardy (mentioned by name in the poem "Fishing, Art, Memory"), the early Robert Lowell, Geoffrey Hill, or Seamus Heaney. Thesen's poems¨more conversational and ludic¨extend the West Coast Line of postmodern poetics that flowered around Tish and the now-defunct David Thompson University Centre, a Projective-Serial poetry rooted in the work of Pound, Williams, H.D., Charles Olson, and Robert Duncan, and cultured on-site by Robin Blaser and Warren Tallman. That being said, a sustained scrutiny of these two collections begins to dissolve what at first seems a striking contrast.
Scrupulously composed, Bowling's poetry demands to be closely read. Though not as rare as it appears on first reading, plain speech is about as frequent as Arctic char in a salmon haul, though the spoken tongue of the fishery's tight-lipped tendermen (i.e crewmen on a salmon packing boat) does flash out, especially in those poems recounting the poet's experience "gutting for tuition". Most of the time, Bowling¨and, consequently, his reader¨is at pains to catch significance in a net woven of those two old strands of linguistic art, trope and scheme. Line after line knots similes and metaphors; rarely is anything just what it is, but is like or is something else. The effect is at times epigrammatic, "Joy . . . as cold as pain/ when it's gone," at others strikingly visual, as when the late afternoon sun "sags, a doorstep pumpkin". Often, the tropes register an association, "poplars along the dyke" that hover "like the aging, unmarried / daughters of a melancholic exile / who longed for the ballads and lochs", or serve to link the elements of a poem, as when "hunters emerge like tramps" and, later in the same poem, "tramps throw off the dogs / like winter coats". In "Autobiography", one of two poems concerning poetry explicitly, Bowling's combination of concrete and abstract approaches a Metaphysical density (Henry Vaughan being the addressee of one of Fathom's last poems):

I'm rain now and I'm blurring
the letters in the stone and the pulp
until the tenderness of yesterday
can't be read.

In passages like this one, Bowling's deft thematic knots threaten to snarl. Each poem, and the book as a whole, is so complex in its articulation of multiple themes that develop each other and comment on the poetry itself that the reader, whose rigor would have to equal Bowling's artistry, is dizzied by the exertion. Little wonder two of his previous collections, The Memory Orchard (2004) and The Witness Ghost (2003) have been nominated for the Governor General's Award for Poetry.

Thesen's poems leave the impression of being more aleatory and serendipitous, engaged in a meditative poetic focussed on discovery, both for the poet and the reader. Here, the drama of meaning is staged outside the self, its intentions and obsessions. Indeed, in the aptly titled "Hey I Think That's Me" the poet finds her own life depicted in another's autobiography, confirming Whitman's affirmation that we all live "the same life with the rest, the same old laughing, gnawing, sleeping." The process at the heart of this poetics is expressed by the speaker of "How to Stay Sane", who remarks that she'd "like to go for a walk . . . untoward anything". On such walks, similarities appear, like in the collection's title sequence, wherein the poet remarks "small round islands crammed with tall trees, / toupees of underwater giants". What adds more spring to Thesen's poetic step than any well-worn trope is rime: "a simile, a smile," "a moot or moat", a "mist she must / breathe".
Such playfulness might appear too high-spirited (especially to someone who, unlike the poet, is not "a bit of a connoisseur of psychoanalysis"), but the dance of Thesen's intellect moves to major chords, too: global "calamity / . . . really spelled c-l-i-m-a-t-e" and personal doom, with a hairdresser's banalities prompting the poet to think of "skull / skyll, schooner, or boat of the soul" that she'll "inhabit some day, shorn and bare, aghast under the coffin lid". This intimation of mortality inspires a regret not unlike that expressed by Hardy in his "Faintheart in a Railway Train". Thesen, more light-heartedly, wishes she had "bought those brown Prada shoes / with the green and red leaves appliquTd" seen "in the window at the casino / in Melbourne beside the River Yarra". The elegiac sequences "A Holy Experiment" and "Willow Tree" resolutely explore loss and mourning with as much graceful wit as mature gravity. Thesen's poetry is haunted equally by the noisy ghosts of mass culture and those more venerable spirits of the literary tradition. Like Homer and Dante, Callimachus and Propertius, she is inspired as much by the contemporary Zeitgeist¨James Bond, 9/11, Mars Bars¨as the ancestral manes: Coleridge, Beckett, and Frost alongside Anubis and Artemis, Venus and Mars. Such a disarmingly casual modernity has as much in common with Catullus as Frank O'Hara.
Bowling's and Thesen's respective poetries might be termed closed and open. Bowling's book is a clearly and solidly crafted aesthetic universe, where, in the poet's carefully measured expression of his introspections (memories and reflections) the reader beholds what Charles Olson following Keats called the Egotistical Sublime. The reader need study and interpret the poet's rococo elaboration of his themes. Bowling's volume, by virtue of its breathtaking artifice, leaves one with that equally sublime experience of being transcended by an aesthetic object whose every particular attests to its place in an overwhelmingly complex, harmonious totality. Thesen's writing need not be so much dug into as its surface worked over, tracing themes and variation, constellating understanding never forgetful of the willfulness that constitutes it. In this regard, Bowling's verse endeavors to enclose and preserve meaning in a highly-wrought literary structure, where Thesen's poetry presents a linguistic world¨the German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer reminds us "Every language is a world"¨where the reader contemplates with the poet what lies out in the open. The more acute one's attention, the greater one's giddy vertigo over the infinite richness of this meditation. One might say that Bowling needs to be read intensively and Thesen extensively.
Ironically (or predictably), the logic of their opposition betrays their fundamental similarities. In very conventional terms, Bowling's and Thesen's poetry share features of setting, theme, and structure. More interestingly, though, is how their respective manners turn on precisely what both prima facie disavow. Bowling's labours to discover, reveal, and present are betrayed by his dazzling means. Thus, his manner draws attention away from the matter he so strenuously works to communicate; the medium overwhelms the message. On the other hand, Thesen's easy-going casual language gives way, with analytic scrutiny, to the dark, tangled complexities beneath the ordinary and everyday. That is to say, despite the very different impressions they leave, Bowling's and Thesen's respective poetic manners are equally self-conscious and profound, at least as far as the reader is sensitive and reflective. ˛

Bryan Sentes's most recent book is Ladonian Magnitudes (DC Books, 2006). He lives in Montreal.

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