Sunday, November 05, 2023

New book Siteseeing Ariel Gordon and Brenda Schmidt. Published by At Bay Press in October. 

Monday, January 24, 2022

The Call of the Red-winged Blackbird: Essays on the Common and Extraordinary by Tim Bowling is truly extraordinary


Late on a Sunday in January, the northwest wind driving snow against my office window here in the hills where few people live and none of them close, it’s strange to picture Tim Bowling mooning about in the wee hours under the moon in the heart of an Edmonton winter, but there he is, a celebrated author of twenty-one books, slipping around in the darkness of self-exile on a lengthy quest to understand the solitude to which he is increasingly drawn. There he is, a picture of success in late mid-life, success so few will attain, so established he can afford to abandon social media completely, taking the common reader along in these personal essays, knowing perhaps the reader will in turn tell everyone on social media how much he dislikes social media. It’s funny when you think about it.  

So here I am to tell the digital world The Call of the Red-winged Blackbird: Essays on the Common and Extraordinary is one incredible work of art. In keeping with the tradition set out by earlier masters of the personal essay form as described by Phillip Lopate, Bowling puts forth the persona of a self-conscious, likeable curmudgeon, a conflicted idler at times self-deprecating, at times adorably clumsy (cue the pool scene), always questioning himself and the world around him, always questioning the truth of each story he tells. All but one of the essays were completed before the pandemic, but none have a before-times feel, each moving back and forth through time and space with unsettling ease.

The sensory detail in these essays is exact and propulsive, acting as memory portals that connect the individual tightly to the rest of us. In “Initiation,” the second of nine short essays in the first part of the book, five-year-old Tim is learning to skate, an experience that “possessed some of the terror of a religious experience undergone by a Christian who genuinely believes in the Old Testament god.” As his twenty-three-year-old brother helps him lace up his skates and little Tim puzzles over his brother’s choice of words, the narrator tells us this earlier version of himself was “a contemplative child, fated to become that loneliest of citizens – an intellectual.” The setting is key. They are on a frozen slough. It’s dark, a darkness freighted and foreshadowing life ahead. Tim falls hard on the ice. When his brother’s friends show up with beer, skates, and sticks, Tim, with innate trust, agrees to sit alone in the cold to watch the scene unfold right to its bloody end.

The essays in Part One, all strong, reflective, and entertaining, in some ways prepare the reader for “The Hermit’s Smoke,” the tremendous narrative meditation on solitude that is Part Two, an essay that would shine alongside the greats in Phillip Lopate’s anthology The Art of the Personal Essay. Running nearly 100 pages, and broken into three sections, “The Hermit’s Smoke” opens in darkness, with twelve-year-old Tim accompanying his father (a salmon fisher), and a doctor to a small silt island on the Fraser River to look in on the hermit Alf Harley who, as it turns out, is dying. An exhilarating deep-dive into a range of hermits and degrees of solitude follows. Bowling gives us stories of well-known literary hermits Thoreau and Montaigne, the famous hermit-criminal Christopher Knight, the explorer-hermit Richard Byrd, the Buddhist hermit Tenzin Palmo, the Trappist monk-scholar-writer-hermit Thomas Merton, and the vanishing poet Weldon Kees. As well, he gives us his memories of the Apollo 11 mission, and looks at the post-Apollo lives of astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins. All the while the quest for meaning and the threat of meaninglessness gains gravity. The word “banal” is planted thirteen times in this essay, planted like moon boots, a troubling reminder of why Bowling has undertaken this inward journey in the first place.

As if that were not enough, all the stories of solitude in “The Hermit’s Smoke” are compared, threaded together, deepened, and advanced with quotes from the works of a wide array of noted thinkers, more than forty in all, such as poet Elizabeth Bishop, philosopher Walter Benjamin, and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson who, for one, is critical of Thoreau’s extremes. These words spin around Bowling’s own extreme night walks under the moon, the winter of life in sight, his vividly rendered past always along. Bowling’s eventual rereading of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, the title character a castaway stranded on an island for twenty-eight years, takes us new places yet. With all these thoughts circling, the tension becomes almost too much to bear. Serious readers of personal essays know how hard it is to keep just a few matters in the air, let alone all this. I kept bracing for the break-up and crash, but to my astonishment the essay lands perfectly. I gasped audibly with surprise and delight for the first time in my reading life.   


The Call of the Red-winged Blackbird: Essays on the Common and Extraordinary

Tim Bowling

Publisher: Wolsak and Wynn

Released: February 2022

Review of Advance Reading Copy. 

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Here we are

...going through quite the time. This is one of the neighbours practicing physical distancing.

He's not into chairs or he's really into chairs: I can't tell which. But chairs can be rebuilt, right? Knock on wood.

So here we are. I want to thank Understorey Magazine for the space they've created for stories coming out of this time and for publishing a poem by me. You can read it here

Wednesday, January 01, 2020

Happy New Year

On New Year's Eve we saw this owl sunning out of the wind deep in the tangle of a coulee draw. By the way it kept looking down, I'm guessing a cottontail did not see 2020.

I thought about the owl as the day went on and the sun set on the steep slope of my doings. Branches, trippers, knee-deep snow, deer trails vanishing in near impenetrable bush, a pulling of coyote fur stuck to the hawthorn. What to make of this many-textured mess? 

With an hour and a half left in the decade I started tapping out a poem, turning again to the sonnet form, a kind of coulee itself. This is what I wrote:     

Who would end a decade writing a poem
about writing a poem about writing
for years with no real clue about what poems
do when poets aren't looking? They're staying
home I suppose, playing bored. Games ha ha
See what I did there? says the poem before
I can shut it up. There should be some law
against this kind of time wasting. Hardcore
poets don't let poems win, do they? Maybe
try harder, says the poem. Be more patient
and stop with the clunky rhymes! 2020
calls for a visionary approach. Slant
the pen a little more and tell the folks
the owl too doesn't think much of this joke.

It's not great by any means, but the journey was. It felt good to push through to the end.  

Saturday, December 21, 2019

A Reading of Rail

Miranda Pearson
McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2019

A one-word book title, the word both noun and verb and rich with various meanings, essentially waves a passing language lover down. Such titling of collections of poetry is not uncommon; indeed, it has become a poetic form in itself, a shaping form perhaps already aptly named and in the midst of being explored by academics for all I know. For those deeply steeped in the reading of poetry for the joy of experiencing a universe of thought, a title like Rail surely is the dark matter, a form whose mysteries we yearn to uncover. Looking through The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms to see if the one-word book title is included (it isn’t), I encountered again these words by Mark Strand: “A poem is a place where the conditions of beyondness and withinness are made palpable, where to imagine is to feel what it is like to be.” Rail, abounding with mystery, is this most exquisite place.

Coming to this work, my curiosity was further piqued by Miranda Pearson’s percipient review in Event magazine of my work, which identified philosophical frameworks and lineage. I too like to follow a writer’s thinking around, or try. Pearson’s work in Rail nods to and grows around the likes of ee cummings, John Bunyan, Mother Goose, William Shakespeare, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, and so on, down a wide-ranging page of Notes, the allusions and quotes elegant and integral to the poems.

A Dickinsonian dash opens Pearson's six-stanza poem “Bowl,” and the shaping of a bowl on a pottery wheel begins, and so begins a feminist contemplation of politics, work, gender, and art, its circular depth and reach rising with each line, until in the fifth stanza the essence of hope is realized:

Clay forgives
but has its own soft memory
and when you handle it, it lives.

But what does it mean to be contained?  Pearson leaves us with this:

It cannot be false.
The finished bowl a nest
for the thing with feathers.
The italicized words are by Emily Dickinson.

Not one thing feels false in Rail. The sensual texture is extraordinary throughout. In the long poem “Alaskan Cruise,” the shaping experience of place and time is considered (“The wake converged like train tracks — dazzling / as death. You’re the vanishing point”) and reshaped considerably by the workings of memory (“Never think of this place as static, / says the guide, through static“).

In “The Hunter,” a familiar sight in many a closet here turns into an arresting image: 

A row of dusty handbags looks abashed and lopsided,
as if they all had strokes.

Three poems later in “Stroke,” the speaker’s “Mum” is without speech, trying to play Scrabble and struggling with words. “Put the letters away in their soft bag” goes the final line of the last three-line stanza of this six-stanza poem, the “soft” hearkening back to the clay, the bowl, the unnamed hope.

Grounded and resonant, Rail is as political as it is personal, as old world as it is new, its subtlety enviable and stirring. In “Marine Drive” Pearson says it best: “A beautiful shape is its own consolation.”

Monday, December 16, 2019

Seasoned Greetings

This holiday season has me rattled.
Short on doe. What can you get for two bucks?
Let’s face it. I’m tired of the battles
with bonehead after bonehead. Feeling stuck

in the dark, out in the cold, a cliché
away from a trophy, I see no point
in bleating, really. Politics betray
certain hungers, opposing standpoints

and everyone thinks they are right. I’m right
fed up with the focus on image too,
the clickbait, stink, hate, artificial light
dilating pupils left and right. Eschew

might be my favourite word. I’m not mean
by myself, after all. Thanks. I feel seen.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Who says you can’t

...have it?

Both jays.

Questions I ask myself:

1. Are those eight words enough?

2. Should a line break occur

3. after Who

4. says?

5. Do both

6. ways work

7. against what is

8. intended?

Question for you:

1. Are you wondering

2. what is with

3. this broken-

4. up approach

5. to posing

6. quest-

7. ions

8. ?