This book turned up in the mail much sooner than I expected, so I might as well review George Bowering's Vermeer's Light. This is a very generous collection for a stand-alone collection, i.e. not a "best of" or collected poems. There are well over 100 poems in the book, which comes in at 170 pages of poems, along with an essay. The poems were written between 1996 and 2006, with one major exception "Grandfather," which I will return to in a bit. As Bowering relates in the Preface, these poems were written during a time of great upheaval in his life. His wife passed away, after a fairly long (3 year) struggle with cancer on top of the multiple sclerosis she had been dealing with. Then in 2001 he retired (he was on the faculty of SFU) and shortly thereafter he was named Poet Laureat of Canada, so he traveled quite a bit and gave readings and led workshops and wrote. Then he moved to Ontario for a couple of years and took up with a new sweetheart (the one he married midway through the writing of My Darling Nellie Grey). He convinced her to move back with him to Vancouver in 2004. Quite a few of the poems reflect these events, though not all are autobiographical.
There are 6 poetry sequences: Sitting in Vancouver; A, You're Adorable; Fragment, Trieste, Dec. 1981; Imaginary Poems for AMB; Six Little Poems in Alphabetical Order; and West Side Haiku, as well as a couple of multi-part poems: "The PGI Golf Tourney..." and "Lost in the Library". The rest of the poems are essentially stand-alone poems, though "Q & A" reads like a series of very, very short poems. For the most part, these longer poems and sequences are the more interesting to me, and that's what I will focus on in this review.
I liked the idea of Sitting in Vancouver a bit more than the execution. Bowering lists various places he has been, many of them related to his late wife's condition -- the multiple sclerosis clinic, Vancouver Hospital, UBC Hospital and YVR. These are basically observational poems. He makes comments about the other people in these places and curiously enough generally does not dwell on why he is at all these hospitals (classic avoidance of course). So there is a morbid air to them, even though illness and death are generally not addressed head on. I think of the bunch, the most interesting is the one where he is sitting in the SFU Cafeteria. Now I haven't been there, but I have been at the SFU library and student centre, and they are bleak places that feel stuck in the middle of nowhere. I'm pretty sure the SFU Cafeteria is no different, and that seems to put Bowering in a bad mood: "Can't believe all the fat boys, / fat girls / lined up for burgers / fries and Coke." He compares his lot to other more famous poets and seems to feel that they wouldn't be stuck out at SFU like he is: "Allen wouldn't be here, Atwood / she wouldn't be here." Maybe there is just a touch of pride that he will put up with this situation, but in general, he seems pretty discontent. On the whole this series of poems comes across as a bit of downer.
The next long sequence, however, is my favourite of the bunch: A, You're Adorable. This was published in 1998, and Bowering claims that the publisher didn't know for a while that he was the author (he used the pen name Ellen Field). I admire Bowering for submitting work under different names, and I think he had to up his game. I half wonder if he stopped around 2006, since I thought a lot of his work in Teeth was subpar and probably only was published because it carried his name. Anyway, this is a series of poems, each starting with a different letter of the alphabet and being very playful about it. Often the letter is repeated and must be read on multiple lines to make the following words make sense, like "almost Defenceless, nearly / footloose, loving every De- / tail since." or "Enuff of questions, / how about if 'E gives us (you and me) / nothing but answers from now / on / paper, or something."
These are really quite different from many of his other poems, though the occasional repetition of words is something he consciously did in some of the sequences in My Darling Nellie Grey. These poems are short and often a lot of fun. I think they benefit from being read out loud, and I'll do more of that over the next week or so. While he didn't explicitly say so, I think he probably was dedicating them to A(ngela) his wife, who was struggling with various illnesses by that point.
Imaginary Poems for AMB were written shortly after the death of his wife, Angela. They are suffused with grief and other emotions. The one that stuck out the most for me began: "I wonder if you send me / my dreams of you--- / Did I do something that day / to deserve your visit---" and later he wonders "If I write poems for your ear / am I talking to myself---". Even the most fervent agnostic ponders these questions in the face of the death of close ones, though the hard core atheists recognize this for that wishful thinking that is the root of so many religions.
For me, the collection is front-loaded with the best work coming in these three sequences, though A, You're Adorable is worth the price of admission, as they say. "Q & A" and "Ask a Stupid Question" are the precursors to the "Shall I Compare Thee" section of My Darling Nellie Grey. "Ask a Stupid Question" adopts the voice of a cynical (NYC?) cab driver who answers poetic questions such as "If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind" with the sardonic retort "I'd guess about three months." The poem ends appropriately enough: "Jesus, Lady, don't you know anything?"
As I mentioned, the collection ends with the essay "Rewriting My Grandfather" where Bowering explains the genesis of the poem "Grandfather," then reworks it 8 or so times. This is really an interesting exercise in watching a poet at work, at least one who is into Oulipian games. Some of the reworked poems are better than others, as one might imagine. It was a nice bonus to a solid poetry collection, and I was glad I was able to pick Vermeer's Light up relatively inexpensively.