Reading Bowering Fearfully
This piece is 1,920 words or about five printed pages long.
The best poetry is written in fear . . . When it has a good reader, the best poetry is read in fear.
— George Bowering, Errata (36)
To call George Bowering’s poetics — indeed, his very conception of poetry — ambivalent is to make a dull understatement. It’s that word “ambivalent” that is the problem, spoiled academic brat that it now is (having recently usurped the spotlight from words like “transgress” and “subvert”), but how else can we understand these contradictions: Bowering is fond of experiment and disturbance, long ready to have done with the lyric, but he has also endured legitimation as Canada’s first parliamentary poet laureate. He has written over thirty books of poetry, and yet he admitted to me in interview a decade ago that he has “always been more interested in prose” (17). “Ambivalence” is a bit of critical fence-sitting, then, and the following appreciation of “Do Sink” (1991) represents a modest attempt at a better characterization of Bowering’s misgivings about poetry.
“Do Sink” is both an extended exegesis of Keats’s sonnet which begins, “When I have fears that I may cease to be,” and a fearful meditation on death and — an even harder word which recurs in the poem — pain. Although most of the poem’s fourteen numbered sections begin with Keats’s well-known phrases (not quite the lines, the significance of which distinction I’ll explain in a moment), the sonnet is more than mere structural timber. Certainly, Bowering is borrowing against the cultural capital of Keats, expecting his reader to have some emotional experience with this work and awareness of its fame, but the attempt to commune with “souls of poets” is a conflicted contest, a risk, rather than either an occasion of easy spiritual gratification or an instance of one-upmanship; out-Keatsing Keats and like inanities.
At the time of the composition of “Do Sink,” Bowering was over twice the age Keats was when he died. That is no trivial piece of information when discussing a poet as self-conscious (however comically so) about his image, age, and history — and about how such things are constructed and studied by literary institutions (see Kröller 112-22) — as Bowering. Just as we find ourselves unable to read Keats’s poem without thinking of his premature death, “Do Sink” perversely invites us to anticipate its author’s death, and not simply in the Barthesian sense.
I said above exegesis and not homage. Keats, Bowering observes in Errata, “wrote some great earthly beauty, and did not want to know too much about it” (85). In looking into Keats’s sonnet, Bowering does not overlook the incongruities and non-sequiturs that shape the poem. Entirely illogical egotism, or that Romantic fascination with subjectivity at its most extreme, provides the word “may” in the opening line and de facto title. (If Keats is the James Dean of the English Romantic crowd, this sonnet is his Rebel Without A Cause — Hyperion might be Giant — and “Do Sink” is a drag race, Bowering refusing to chicken as his black sedan flies at the oncoming little bastard, Keats.) If “cease to be” means “die,” then there’s no “may” about it, since everyone, even ambitious poets, does and will die; and if “cease to be” implies, rather, a state of grace or manner of permanence via literary accomplishment or renown, the poem collapses under its own expectations’ weight. “When” this and “when” this “and when” that, “then” I “stand alone” and am in some ways already dead, and to “think” cruelly rhymes with “sink.” Keats was not kidding when he said he always made an awkward bow: this sonnet has all the self-defeating circularity of darkest depression.
Bowering sets to work restructuring the Keats poem as one by William Carlos Williams:
When I have fears that I
may cease to be
open to pain that shines
wet on the side of a gold
fish in my own, I thought,
“To be” is not Keats’s “to be”: the question is
how to be, and in this case it’s being “open to pain” that defines being. This shift is significant for a couple of reasons. First, Bowering is specifying the experience of pain as simultaneously the essence of being (to live is to feel pain) and — perhaps — the point of being (the painless life is not worth living). Second, Keats’s “to be” is intransitive and his poem is notably, even alarmingly lacking in movement: the narrator stands alone, possibly beholding the night, not even managing to trace shadows. Part of the reason that that ultimate word “sink” is so startling is that it represents the most overt action in the sonnet. Bowering, by contrast, opens the line to the transitive, “be / open,” and “Do Sink” propels itself along “too swiftly over rutted prairie roads,” ever fearful of “what brings us to this halt.”
In fact, the comparative basis of action between these poems is revelatory. Keats favours stasis, whether it is palely loitering by the lake, or the conspicuously “stout” Cortez staring at the ocean, or the lovers whose pursuit of each other is forever frozen on a Grecian Urn. The panorama may flap about here and there, just to show off a bit of its natural sublimity, but the perspective is grounded, the “I” immobile. Where Keats is compact and static, however, Bowering is relentlessly, almost everywhere on the move “driving this black sedan / too swiftly over rutted prairie roads” and “under dark prairie clouds.” Instead of the unmoving urn, here is the hurrying hearse.
“I think of my text as a getaway car,” Bowering has admitted, though without explaining precisely what is being escaped, or to where he will go ( Errata 47). Readers become pursuing detectives as much as riders. Funereal driving is seldom this speedy, and there is even a ghost in this poem, hovering within the “family history” which the narrator ought to but cannot forget. She is the “fair / creature of an hour,” not Keats’s addressee but a mother. She has given the narrator his DNA — “D for desire, / N for Never, and A for a beginning / we all have honestly missed” — and her whispering voice
seems to propel this black
vehicle, no star’s reflection on its back,
an almost unseen shark in the gloom,
and in its belly a tiring brain that wants only
some abandoned town you lived in
too young to know its name
and then dead
Woody Allen’s comparison (made in
Annie Hall) of a relationship to a shark — “it has to constantly move forward or it dies” — flickers some useful light here, and Bowering rather casually deconstructs his own poetic engine by recognizing the nightmarish black sedan as a “vehicle” which is “propelled.” He never explicitly puts the words “death” and “drive” side by side but we readers are invited to do so when faced with lines like “ride the vehicle invisible beyond desire” and “the dying business is not tidy, ruts in the road / are direction.” The desires are blurred, brain within belly suggestive of thought (perhaps consciousness itself) framed by or confined within appetite. Another word which is repeated in the poem is “seems.” Images and impressions move by the traveller so quickly, the shark itself “almost unseen,” it is worrying to contemplate what one has truly seen or will not see: “that I / will never see you plain”; “I shall never / look upon thee more clear”; “that eyes may / cease to be upon me, looking only through / what seems to be there.”
Sure, we all know that Bowering is nuts about baseball, but he’s also a poet of the car, and the subject awaits a doctoral candidate. “Do Sink” has its echoes of Creeley (“drive he said, everyone / insane” partially evokes “I Know A Man”)[a] and its “music of the roadside ditches” carries a tune from the Beats and On the Road (“what a driver!” Bowering writes of Neal Cassady in Allophanes ).
Where is the car in this poem going? The question is not particularly relevant, or is too abstract to engender any practical understanding. Partly it’s a metaphysical problem at stake here: wanting to know the destination is not the same as taking the journey. That kind of interpretation (“life is a highway”) has its strengths but I’d like to emphasize an emotional (remembering its inner word “motion”) response, rather than a philosophical one, to Bowering’s dark drive, partly because the latter is the safer approach. The simplicity of “Do Sink,” perhaps not obvious upon first reading but which may be found especially in its limited vocabulary and strategic, rhythmic but seldom soothing repetitions, reveals an awareness of how much potential emotional charge can be released for a reader with just this or that juxtaposition of words like gold, pen, song, mother, black, pain, dark, and never.
There’s a terrifying scene in David Lynch’s film Blue Velvet when laughing-gas-sucking Dennis Hopper and his gang take Kyle MacLachlan for “a ride.” That imposed uncertainty, that not knowing where they’re going, catalyzes our sense of powerlessness to generate an escalating panic. We join MacLachlan’s character in a kind of freefall, in a fear which is blinding compared to the usual shlock formulae served up by the horror genre, where one point follows the next with a depressing sort of logic. The phrase “scared to death,” which Bowering winks at us, is one often uttered unthinkingly, sometimes with laughter.[b] “Do Sink” is not terrifying — at least, not in my view — but it is a poem of fear. Not wanting “to know too much,” Keats stands still and feels awe, but Bowering plunges forward, not content to take the mysteries of the sublime simply as writ. Bowering stands alone at last “in the reputed centre / of the wide world” and knows that fears “themselves will cease to be.”
In the last line, Keats’s pairing of “love and fame” is rhymefully replaced by “song and pain.” “Do Sink” does not give peace or consolation, the way epitaphs and memorials and poems of bereavement generally try to do. Nor does it affirm its own immortality (surpassing gilded monuments and the like). The anxiety never goes away in this poem, the balance stays precarious between being and seeming, life and death; what is remains “relative to what / there is not.” At the poem’s end the car starts up yet again (or tries to), the will to escape persists.
This is how we might understand Bowering’s claim, with which I began, that the best poetry is written and read in fear. Bowering isn’t ambivalent about poetry, he’s rightly fearful of it. We are also afraid, if we are good writers and readers of poetry, because we never really know where the car is headed, where the words might take us, what the poem is driving at.
Bowering, George. Allophanes. George Bowering Selected: Poems 1961-1992. Ed. Roy Miki. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1993. 102-29.
———. “Do Sink.” George Bowering Selected: Poems 1961-1992. Ed. Roy Miki. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1993. 216-25.
———. Errata. Red Deer: Red Deer College P, 1988.
———. “The Travesty Kid Rides Again.” Interview with Tim Conley. Existere 15.3 (1995): 17-21.
Keats, John. “When I Have Fears.” The Norton Anthology of Poetry. 3rd ed., shorter. Ed. Alexander W. Allison et al. 359-60.
Kröller, Eva-Marie. George Bowering: Bright Circles of Colour. Vancouver: Talonbooks, 1992.
[a]. There are other notably kindred ruminations, too: “a line / that grows longer as we walk it” and “how late / we come to realize or not” could easily be mistaken for Creeley lyrics.
[b]. It does or should go without saying that Bowering is a funny poet, but that scene in Blue Velvet is funny, too.
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