How I Wrote Certain of My Books. George Bowering; $19.95 paper 978-1-894469-55-5, 168 pp., Mansfield Press
In my early days as review editor at Quill & Quire, I received an e-mail from George Bowering complaining about the number of typos that had found their way into the magazine. In particular, he singled out a reference to “Columbia” as referring to the South American country. (The fact that a TTC subway ad for the sitcom Modern Family on CITY-TV made the same mistake some years later remains cold comfort.) While being suitably embarrassed about my lack of due diligence and attention to detail, I would be lying if I didn’t confess to being a bit chuffed that George Bowering not only read the magazine I help edit, but took the time to write to me expressing his disappointment. Behind the chastisement was a very real and abiding concern for language that is everywhere in the author’s published work.
It is easy to forget that when Bowering burst onto the scene in the 1960s, CanLit as we know it today did not exist. It was largely due to the efforts of the TISH collective – Bowering, along with fellow poets Frank Davey, Daphne Marlatt, and Fred Wah, among others – and figures such as House of Anansi Press founders Dennis Lee and David Godfrey that Canadians began to take their national literature seriously.
Bowering has always been one of the most outspoken, irascible, and determinedly experimental writers in the Canadian literary pantheon. In his book, The Only Poetry that Matters: Reading the Kootenay School of Writing, Clint Burnham claims the TISH poets “contested” the avant garde tradition of Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Jack Spicer, and Robert Duncan, but this throwaway description discredits the very real influence these poets – especially Olson and Spicer – had on Bowering’s developing aesthetic. (To be fair, it is possible, if not probable, that Burnham means “contested” in the sense of “competed with” rather than “disputed.”)
Bowering refers to both Olson and Spicer in discussing A Short Sad Book, his 1977 text that ABC Bookworld says “has been categorized as a novel only for lack of a better definition.” Along with Robert Kroetsch, Bowering is one of the Canadian writers most frequently associated with the term “postmodernism” (although Bowering has always cleaved more closely to the literary avant garde than Kroetsch ever did). Although he claims to have been writing under the influence of Gertrude Stein (who, “of all the great Modernist writers … was the one who seemed kind of postmodern”), Bowering credits Olson with introducing him to the word, meaning something “post-historical, or rather something like his ‘Special View of History.’ As Olson was a kind of lapsed Catholic, he probably first heard it as it was used by the Church around the turn of the twentieth century.” As for Spicer, in addition to pointing out allusions to his work in A Short Sad Book, Bowering also credits him as “an important source for the efforts of the book to foreground everything, thus obviating perspective, making there here.”
These are the kinds of observations one finds throughout How I Wrote Certain of My Books, a mostly congenial, chatty consideration of more than twenty-five works from the author’s impressive output. The title is cribbed from Raymond Roussel, “patron saint of the Surrealists, the nouveau roman people and especially the OuLiPo crowd”; the borrowing testifies to Bowering’s habit of incorporating lines and allusions from the work of others into his poetry and prose writing, a habit that aligns him (perhaps unexpectedly) with such au courant apologists for collage and literary appropriation as David Shields and Jonathan Lethem. The gloss on Oulipian writing also attests to Bowering’s fascination with this literary movement, inaugurated by French writer Raymond Queneau and carried on through the work of Georges Perec and Italo Calvino right down to such contemporary Canadian practitioners as Christian Bök and André Alexis. Bowering repeatedly attests to writing books based on externally imposed “constraints,” mirroring the Oulipians and anticipating the impetus behind the Lars von Trier/Jørgen Leth film The Five Obstructions:
I had to set up a constraint that was not complicated but that was strict. Well, when I was a kid my favourite number was 3. When I was a young man it was 9. Now it is 27. So Shall I Compare is a love poem to Jean Baird, and it is interested in numbers. It enumerates her attractive parts, starting with her hair and heading for her toes. Each day there is a little poem made of twenty-seven words. Each has three step-down stanzas, and each step is made of three words. 3 x 3 = 27. Go thee forth and multiply, I heard the guy say. It adds up, I say, to a loving male gaze.
The alphabet is a favourite source for Bowering’s constraints, as becomes clear in his discussion of “Irritable Reaching,” a twenty-six page work that focuses each page on an acrostic poem dedicated to a different Canadian artist. “To make this a little more difficult, I decided that each poem would be composed of two stanzas, because the subjects’ names were in two pieces – well, except for the poem about novelist C.J. Newman. Okay, that was pretty difficult.” In addition, the poems had to make use of end rhyme and metre, “a couple of the oldest constraints I know.” Bowering’s joy in all of this is infectious; other Canadian scribes could do worse than read How I Wrote Certain of My Books and take note of how frequently the author employs the word “fun” to describe his writing.
One emerges from a reading of Bowering’s book with the overwhelming sense of having been for a moment in the company of a prodigious talent who has written voluminously, but also with a kind of sadness that the author is not better known by the general public in 2011, and that, despite having twice won the Governor General’s Literary Award, his work is not more readily available. The relative lack of interest in Bowering’s work cannot entirely be explained by its experimental nature: the author is approachable enough when he wants to be, and in the chapter on his feminist neo-Western Caprice, he displays a sensibility that spans both high and popular culture. (Bowering, it should be noted, was experimenting with the clichés and tropes of the Western genre decades before Patrick DeWitt gained acclaim and award recognition for writing The Sisters Brothers.)
Perhaps his provocatively anti-American tendencies are partially to blame; how it must have rankled in some quarters when in 2002 Bowering was named Canada’s inaugural Parliamentary Poet Laureate. Or perhaps it is the impression he conveys, implicitly in some cases, more directly in others, that he is smarter than the rest of us, and that he knows it. “Oh it was fun writing this sequence,” he says at one point (and note the return of that significant “f” word), “and embedding little secrets for the Romantics teachers to find. My daughter’s name was and is Thea. Section VII, which dopily adumbrates Shelley’s ‘Queen Mab,’ claims that ‘I & Thea’ took a ride in the faerie’s car. If you get it, I apologize.” It’s little wonder those who don’t get it might feel condescended to; after five decades in the trenches of a national literature he helped to create and nurture, Bowering has arguably earned the right to a bit of this haughty tone.
From Difficult Loves
Italo Calvino’s 1951 story “The Adventure of the Bather” follows a woman named Isotta Barbarino, who suffers “an unfortunate mishap” while swimming. In the opening paragraph of the story, Signora Isotta, having swum far from shore, realizes that it is time to come in from the water, but that she has somehow managed to lose the bottom half of her two-piece bathing suit: “At some twist of her hip, some buttons must have popped, and the bottom part, reduced to a shapeless rag, had slipped down her leg.” Out of this embarrassing and frankly comical situation, Calvino constructs a parable about loneliness, isolation, and existential unease.
Back on land prior to the incident, Signora Isotta dons her two piece suit for the first time and realizes that it makes her “feel a bit ill-at-ease” in the company of the other people on the beach. Once she is in the water, however, she feels free and unencumbered, “like being naked.” Alone with the “intimacy” of the water, where she is able to feel “a part of that peaceful sea,” Signora Isotta is at ease, troubled only by her continued awareness of the figures on the beach. Whereas being in the sea is like being naked, while in her bathing suit on shore, Signora Isotta feels naked and exposed to the potentially erroneous judgment of her fellow beach-goers:
It was not unreasonable: her future beach acquaintances would perhaps form an idea of her that they would have to some extent modify later: not so much an opinion about her behaviour, since at the seaside all the women dressed like this, but a belief, for example, that she was athletic, or fashionable, whereas she was really a very simple, domestic person.
The unease and distrust that Signora Isotta feels toward her fellow bathers becomes magnified by her humiliation and mortification at the prospect of having to walk out of the water in an actual state of undress. When she looks to the shore after realizing her predicament, the bathers are described in language that renders them almost inhuman: beach umbrellas cast black shadows “in which the bodies became flat,” the “teeming of the bathers spilled into the sea,” and a “horde of children was roiling” behind a line of safety ropes. Signora Isotta observes this maelstrom and thinks, “Just off that beach, she was naked.”
Several times swimmers pass her but we are told that she “distrusted these men and evaded them.” She perceives “the front of preordained male insinuations” that “extended to all men,” and even suspects, in a paranoid way, that some of the men had been fantasizing about a woman losing her bathing suit and hoping that they might be around to witness the event.
Signora Isotta’s discomfort is not specific to her current situation; it becomes clear by way of her stream-of-consciousness ruminations that her fear of physical – and by extension, psychic – exposure extends even to her husband. She thinks of the times she has been alone with him, and the way in which “she had always surrounded her being naked with and air of complicity, of irony, part embarrassed and part feline, as if she were temporarily putting on joyous but outrageous disguises.” She accepts her body with “reluctance,” and must use metaphor and irony to distance herself from the physical reality of her corporeal existence. She thinks that perhaps her life really exists only when she is clothed, and that “her nakedness hardly belong[s] to her.”
As the story progresses, the day drags on and gradually darkens; Signora Isotta takes refuge clinging to a nearby buoy and watches from afar as the other bathers exit the rapidly cooling water. She recalls “the marvelous weariness of those returns” to shore, and ponders the camaraderie of friends who call from one to another, “We’ll meet on shore!” or “Let’s see who gets there first!” These friendly shouts fill her mind “with a boundless envy.”
Although she initially assumes that there is no one who could breach the “preordained male insinuations” and allow them to rescue her from her embarrassment, she is eventually approached by a boat containing a man and a boy, who offer her a skirt and delicately avert their eyes while she climbs aboard and dresses herself. Her relief at having found her longed-for “savior” is tinged with irony, however, once she realizes what the two were doing in the water:
They started the motor, and seated at the prow in a green skirt with orange flowers, she saw on the bottom of the boat a mask for underwater fishing and she knew how the pair had learned her secret. The boy, swimming below the surface with mask and harpoon, had seen her and had alerted the man, who had also dived in to see. They had motioned her to wait for them, without being understood, and had sped to the port to procure a dress from some fisherman’s wife.
Surprisingly, Signora Isotta is not made uncomfortable by the prospect of the two having witnessed her nakedness. On the contrary, we are told, “since someone had perforce to see her, she was glad it had been these two, and also glad that they had felt curiosity and pleasure.” Her sense of calm seems to indicate a subtle shift in her existential anxiety; her discomfort has not entirely vanished, but has diminished sufficiently that she is able to observe the man bent over the motor of his boat, his “brick-red back divided by the knobs of the spine, on which the hard, salty skin rippled as if moved by a sigh.”