Saturday, September 28, 2013

7th Challenge - 2st review - George Bowering

Not entirely sure how this happened, but I have taken a bit of a detour (putting Proust on hold) back into Canadian poetry.  I've gotten into the works of George Stanley (an American who migrated to Vancouver in 1971)* and George Bowering, who is one of the best-known Vancouver literary figures.  I was familiar with Bowering through his Selected Poems 1961-92, i.e. even before I moved here, though I wasn't aware of how much he had written post-1992.  Now that I have been clued in, I have Blondes on Bikes on hold at the library.  I even read Bowering's Burning Water, but that was ages ago.  I'll try to reread it before I leave the region for good. Today I will be reviewing a fairly massive volume called My Darling Nellie Grey (and will review some of the Stanley books, most likely in Oct.).

It is hard to really review My Darling Nellie Grey, as it is actually 12 books in one (and initially all 12 were published as stand-alone chapbooks, so one way of looking at it is that you get an amazing bargain by getting them all in one place in this volume).  As Bowering approached his 70th birthday, he decided he needed a challenge to keep him writing.**  Eventually he settled on the idea of writing a poem each day for a year, but above and beyond that, he would set different rules for each month and he also self-consciously would repeat ideas/themes/words between the poems for each month. 

For example, for February, he concentrated on short poems of short lines, apparently keeping them all to two stanzas of 4 or 5 lines each. March was a whole series of poems that begin "I remember" and then generally continue on with some memories of his parents and his childhood.

April is dedicated to sonnets (or "sonnets" in the Ted Berrigan sense of 14 lines of free verse) with large sections coming from found sources, particularly sources that indirectly attack U.S. policy -- or show Americans at their most stupid and racist.  Here I guess I am guess a hypocrite.  I think most people would consider me anti-American (or certainly anti-Red State) but I have a bit of a problem stomaching it from outsiders.  So I wasn't too keen on this month, and I liked the Sept. sequence "Fulgencio" even less where Bowering rants about U.S. policy towards Cuba and particularly how we supported Fulgencio Batista long after he showed his true colours.  I wasn't quite sure he was going to go there, but indeed in the last poem of the sequence, Bowering basically declares Cuba a socialist paradise.  It was very hard after that point to take him seriously.  I think one can be anti-capitalist without actually considering Cuba a particularly good place to live, but that is (perhaps) a theme for another post. I'll just say I wasn't too crazy about these two months and leave it at that.

June was kind of interesting as he pulled questions out of reasonably famous poems by other poems, then riffed a response.  I think my favourite was from an Emily Dickinson poem: "For what are Stars but Asterisks / To point a human life?"  Bowering continues: "Many are huge balls of burning gas / that care for no person / except Ralph Waldo Emerson, who thinks / the universe the externization of the soul ..."  I do think Bowering loses a few points for not randomly capitalizing nouns such as Universe and Soul.  For a quick segue from art to science (and perhaps back), many people are aware of They Might Be Giants' song Why Does the Sun Shine; that is still pretty good, but they returned to the topic with a more scientifically accurate song (and a better hook in my opinion).

Interestingly, Bowering leaves out one of the most famous poetic questions of all time, i.e. Shakespeare's Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?  He makes up for it by titling the July chapbook: Shall I Compare.  As far as I can tell, all the poems are three stanzas long, each stanza is three lines long, and each line is three words.  They are all love poems to a woman he was courting, whom, he mentions in the introduction, he married mid-way through July.

August is dedicated to poems that start from a specific painting and either describe the painting in detail or use some aspect of the painting to venture into different topics.  This would probably work better as an illustrated chapbook (perhaps it was) or a blog where one can provide a thumbnail so the readers have some idea what is being referenced.

October has a funny premise where Bowering finds oddball headlines in the paper (generally ones with double meanings) and then deliberately confuses matters.  For instance, "Mountie Probed in Sex Assault Case": "A taste, said the presiding magistrate / of your own medicine."  I didn't like these as much as I had hoped or imagined.  It is certainly possible that simply knowing he was working through some rough shit (his step-daughter died in a car crash early in the month) colours my impression of the poems, or perhaps the poems become objectively darker than when the series started.  Still, I certainly sympathize with Bowering and have some understanding of how keeping "creative" can be helpful in dark times.

Bowering visited Lorine Niedecker's writing cabin and, for November, was inspired to write short poems in a small autograph book (or like a visitor's log at a museum) following the same themes that Niedecker mined. These seem to all be five line poems and are reproduced in hand-writing (presumably Bowering's).  Finally, December brings us to a series of travel poems, set in various cities that Bowering has visited.  I liked a few of these.

By far, my favourite month of poems was May, which also revolved around the theme of travel.  He seemed to be retracing a vacation in Europe (in 1966, long before the introduction of the Euro).  He more or less flies from Calgary to Germany (Dusseldorf), then heads westward to France and England.    Then they head southeast to Italy, Greece and apparently Turkey.  I don't think (at the moment) I will single out any specific poems, but the grouping as a whole works pretty well.  The chapbook was published as Montenegro, 1966.  For me, these are the poems that I could see returning to again and again to the point it might actually be better to track that chapbook down rather than buying My Darling Nellie Grey, though honestly I would only pick it up if I stumbled across it in some (very upscale) used book store; however, it turns out it was an ultra limited edition (40 copies!), so that's pretty unlikely.  Taken in its entirety, My Darling Nellie Grey is solid collection, but one that only spoke to me sporadically.

Anyway, here is one other review of MDNG where the reviewer was a bit more taken by the collection as as a whole, and here's a curious tag-team review.  And with that, I think I will check out for now -- and perhaps take a nap (it has been a very exhausting week!).

* I've also been reading a bit of Ken Norris, another American who moved up (though to Montreal this time) but then he moved on to Asia for a large part of his career.  Not sure he is Canadian "enough" to count, though I guess he became a Canadian citizen in 1985.  I enjoyed some of the poems in his fairly recent collection Going Home (2007), but I'll wait until I read Hotel Montreal to see if there is enough Canadian content to review his work.  There really wasn't in Going Home.

** It does kind of made me feel worse about myself, since I couldn't get around to writing my 40 sestinas in a reasonable timeframe.  Well, I have been pretty busy, but it is not an abandoned project by any means.

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