Sunday, March 2, 2014

7th Canadian challenge - 9th review - George Bowering's Delayed Mercy

I thought this would sneak under the wire in Feb., but work (and my kids) had other ideas.

Delayed Mercy and Other Poems was a collection that really stood out among Bowering's various collections.  I think it does have quite a bit of internal consistency.  The blurb on the back tries to connect it to Kerrisdale Elegies, but I am not familiar enough that one (though I have read it a while ago) to know if it is a fair comparison.

The largest portion of the book is given over to Delayed Mercy, a large multi-part poem with seven separate sections and different poems in each section.  Then there is a short section of 5 poems from late 1984, simply titled Section Two.  Then there are some poems retrieved from a notebook called Irritable Reaching.  The volume closes out with 7 poems in a section titled The Pope's Pennies.

I wasn't that taken with The Pope's Pennies, and I'll just skip over it here.  Section Two was fairly slight, though I liked the opening of "Thanks, Bob":
Reading Kroetsch's poem
about taking the wrong German
train, I missed
my stop.  On the Toronto

Irritable Reaching was by far the most different from the other parts of the book.  I think I mentioned before that Bowering seems determined to move to different stylistic techniques, most likely to prevent himself from getting bored, or even as technical exercises that he then deems worthy of publication.  Nearly all the poems in I.R. rhyme, but the rhyme schemes start to move away from AABB or ABAB fairly quickly.  (Brain that Vanishes has just one extra line that breaks it away from ABAB.) "Detachment from Self" is ABCABCABC, which is fairly unusual.  My favorite of the bunch is "Ground and Sky" which goes ABCDEF ABCDEF.  I'm not sure if I've ever seen this scheme before.  Years ago I wrote a poem that went ABCDEF FEDCBA (though it might actually have another 2 or 4 paired lines -- I'll have to try to track it down to check), which is also very rare.

Still, there is no question that the heart of the collection is Delayed Mercy.  Virtually all of the poems are dedicated to different poets, primarily from Canada or the States.  It is not clear if these are all poets that Bowering actually knows at least in passing, though it wouldn't be that unlikely if he knew many of them.  However, I doubt he knew Samuel Beckett or even Charles Reznikoff, and these are poems that are responding to their public personas.

One or two of the poems to the poets he clear did know do feel a bit "intrusive," as if Bowering is giving you a peek into some shared backstory (that the other poet might not want to share).  For instance, "Motel Consideration" is from Margaret Atwood.  It opens: 
The one more child you never had.
her face appears outside the window,
but when you go outside
only happy birds chitter in their hundreds.
   You need a fierce cat.

I'm aware that it is common knowledge that Atwood only had one child, and has talked about this a bit in interviews, but it still feels like oversharing someone else's personal history.  Still, poets are notorious for over-sharing (Sharon Olds is one of the more notorious from our era, but the confessional poets of the 50/60s (Lowell, Berryman, Plath, Snodgrass and Sexton) paved that path.

The poem continues with a bit of highway driving, perhaps apropos of a poem about a motel:
      Sitting down, I can travel
nearly as fast as my mind,
but beneath me is the highway
made of a constant formula. It sticks fast
to the surface of the earth ...

Interestingly, the next poem, "Facial Massage," also references "the road":
Years ago she said you just drive all day,
you never go anyplace.  I said the road
is the place.  In those days I was twenty-eight
& profound.

These two poems both seem more American than many of Bowering's other poems, tapping into Kerouac's On the Road, though of course, one could argue that there is just as much of a highway culture in Canada's Prairies and the West (perhaps excepting B.C.). Kimmy Beach's In Cars is about growing up in Alberta and driving around aimlessly.

There are certainly many poems about cars and highways and highway culture throughout the rest of the collection, but there are even more about cats (a missing cat makes a cameo in "Motel Consideration").  I think that Bowering's decision to make these "late night poems" led him to return over and over to the cat theme, as cats, particularly black ones, are so closely linked with night and poetry more generally.  Close to half the poems have a cat in them.

Essentially all the poems in Section V of Delayed Mercy feature a cat that brings its half-eaten kill to the doorstep as an offering to Bowering.  I have to say that these poems don't do as much for me as some of the others, but they are probably the most realistic...

The poems that I liked the most take the cat theme and twist it a bit.

In "After the Dance," riffs on Carroll's Cheshire Cat, then goes in an unexpected direction:
What did you expect, a cat's smile
in the branches?  Cats write
the worst poems in the language. ...

In "Soft Gums," Bowering writes: "Words followed / a few paces behind, like cats interested / but uninclined to show it."

Finally, in "Whey" he writes:
the meaning of life
yourself, deadeye,
look hard
into the flames, those
handsome guys are
cool cats ...

Of course, there is a lot more going on in this collection than just sly references to cats.  The meaning of many of these poems is obscure, but they are fun to read and each time through the collection I pick up on different aspects of the poems (this is similar to Kerrisdale Elegies, which I really ought to reread soon).  I think it should be clear that I found this a strong collection, definitely worth reading if one is interested in Canadian poetry.

I'll just end with a few bits and pieces from the poems in Delayed Mercy that I found particularly interesting or amusing.

From "A Swing in the Rain":
                 You see that creature
waiting in the dull light for the 17 bus?
That is the hope of your age, that is bread
going stale tomorrow.

From "Down Long Black Stems":
                Cities of rain are judgement
on a failed species.  What do you think
that pavement was poured over?

(Could he be thinking of Vancouver?)

Finally, from "A Mask Over the Eyes":
                It is dark,
finally, everywhere, the centre of the outside
is dark, black as a mother's imagination.

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