Sometimes I think these essay-reviews should be called “Inside the Mind of a Reviewer” as my aim is to present less of a finished, fixed notion of the books at hand than to show the process of thought that unfolds as I read and re-assess the texts I want to say something at least half-meaningful about. In this light, initial expectations are on my brain at the moment in terms of how much they shape so much of the early impact a book can have on us. Which is why absurdly gushing blurbs often just do the text at hand a disservice.
Fortunately, Kerry-Lee Powell’s gracefully designed inheritance (Biblioasis, 2014) is spared those kind of encomiums, at least on the book jacket itself, but it did arrive to me already heralded as a book (I discerned, according to the promo copy/interview I had seen) that dealt pretty exclusively with the wrenching experience of her father’s post WW 2 shipwreck, stress disorder and eventual suicide. Thus, I was anticipating more of an emotional sojourn into the minutiae of loss akin to Sharon Olds’ work perhaps or even, though it operates more on the level of the lingual dislocations produced by trauma, Brecken Hancock’s Broom Broom.
Therefore, on my first read, I felt let down and somewhat confused. As if I were being teased by the well-wrought darkness of such pieces as The Emperor, The Encounter, Malefic and Ghost Lake (ahhhh “wistful flotillas”) but then lifted, before I even had a chance to sputter with the salt, into much of the seemingly lighter second section with its gendered gothicisms: Inhuman’s “teenage suck marks”, blowing the rich boys, Russian Brides, The Girls who work at the Makeup Counter, and Bernadette, the “Queen of all underthings.” Initially, wanting another more consistently overt delving into the tragic paternal narrative, I couldn’t even fathom why they were in the book at all. By the second read, even though I still feel that Part Two contains Powell’s weaker pieces, I knew. I simply had to revisit the title – “inheritance” – and widen my perspective on the range of facets she is illuming relating to the detrital knick-knacks our forebears bequeath us, whether is it their own memories or the way their psychological patterns affect us spectrally so that we find ourselves on generational repeat, mostly against our wills.
This grouping of lyrics is taut with the poise and hush of a child who has been forced to maneuvre around a damaged parent and it is in such slightness and quietness that the honesty of the entrance resides. Even in poems that could be at first dismissed as silly twists on Mother Goose & Plath like To My Creditors, the pang sings bitterly, especially at the close: “two brinks of despair/ one portent of disaster/And, O, the moon you asked for,” loneliness swollen into that perfectly placed O before the echo of asking that inhabits disaster. The final few poems in this stirring tribute to the tangibilities of being haunted by the sufferings of another who impacts on one to the core are the strongest: Hensol, Mirror Lake, Tantum Ergo, The Answers, leaving me with the hope that in her second book, Powell will plunge ever deeper into this charged material if she desires, her formal, musical capacities promising further braveries.
Circa Nineteen Hundred and Grief (Gaspereau Press, 2014) Tim Bowling’s stunningly crafted 12th collection, also revolves around the somewhat beleaguered father, as do other of his books, as a sigil also for loss but of a more typical sort, the paternal figure a vector for recollections of a vanished but still memoried childhood, an eroded fishing industry, and meditations on being a mid-life parent oneself. That this material remains so powerful despite its familiarity is a testament to me of two things, if a certain subject matter genuinely selects one then the obsession often runs along an endlessly yielding vein and two, the craft of poetry leaps far beyond its narrative scope; Bowling’s syntactical ear & eye are nearly impeccable and it is this, not the stories, per se, that keep the reader relentlessly engaged.
Beginning the opening poem, Childhood, with the starkly truthful insight, “I want it back,” a startling admission from a man in our patriarchal and progress-propelled culture, immediately anchored my attention, as does the way he addresses his listener directly. The anaphoric chant of nostalgia in For my Sons (“my ship is set to the compass of ten years old/my rainstorms are falling in the barometer of ten years old”), the wondrous line, “scaring the past of the past away” in Old Town, dawn breaking from a chest, “the infinite eyesight of the estuary,” the spiderweb rusting in the necessary personification of Bowling’s wholly emotionally imbued environments (almost ecologies, certainly far beyond mere landscapes), are all potent punctums in a consistently exquisite collection. Like Thornton, Heighton and even D.H Lawrence, no perhaps most like the latter, Bowling takes risks with his images and metaphors, tempting them to fail, which they only do occasionally (the clicking of mouse traps compared to the “child Hitler buckling his snap shoes” in Dread, for instance, a lunge that both exaggerates and dismisses). And Bowling’s cadences are so accurate that when he sounds slightly off one pauses, wondering why and whether the slight stumble is deliberate (likely) as with the last line in the gorgeous villanelle, My Father Walked to Work and his Work was on the Water. I hear “where the salmon, rung by SILVER rung” while he has the spondaic “where the salmon, SILVER rung by rung,” a choice that emphasizes the climbing perhaps at the expense of a lovely balance of consonance.
At any rate, that Bowling hooks me at the aural level all poetry should inhabit is what is most beautiful to me.