The touchstone word or sound or both. How it can propel a whole text, an entire word-verse. I think of finding “trobairitz” and how suddenly I was able to comprehend my metal realm from a female perspective through this medieval concept. For Bowling, it is the term”Tenderman,” a being and echo he first introduced in his 2011 collection and who returns here as the problematized, archaic, always-relevant, resonant archetypal working man of the waterways, a self who straddles the worlds of resource culture and the troubled masculinities and economies of our contemporary society, one that denies where it obtains its materials and meals, and even its contradictions, from. I recall loving the first Tenderman poems and this collection called The Dark Set is also stirring and thought-evoking, though possibly a tad cheekier and more pop reference-droppy.
As many of the lines are long, many had to be randomly broken, which, to my mind, mucks with the visual potency of the collection. In this case, the form needed either to be re-configured or the format lengthened. This was the main bugaboo for me (one I am thinking about in relation to my next book Riven: Fraser River poems, which also features long lines – what do we do when the material emerges this way in an organic sense but the standardized text cannot accommodate the work’s vision?) Despite this slight hurdle, the lyrics in this sequel are continually wrenching, slyly-winking, steeped in homages to both literary predecessors and the trajectories of the submerged working men of the Fraser River. Every piece contains an address to the Tenderman whom Bowling associates himself with, detaches himself from, seeks tremulous and essential connections between. The symbolic and tangible figure is excavated, questioned and adored through the aegis of subject matter from Prince Rupert to his son’s Magic: The Gathering playing card, from Michael Caine to Pliny to The Incredible Hulk to selfies. As a father, Bowling must particularly problematize the typical gaze of the blue-collar worker, especially in a piece like “Interview with a Teenage Daughter” where her “creep-radar” may also be trained on the tenderman who, as an earlier poem notes, would also “steal a bird’s nest.” The book is rife with closures, of systems, constructs, the last cannery in Steveston, a modus of being that was possibly simpler but also not, as it frequently went unquestioned in terms of its racism, sexism and environmental plunderings.
Yet, there is value to working with your hands, in the elements. How to reconcile these opposing tensions? Can we? “Open Mic on the Government Wharf” even features the river itself giving voice to the realities of now, uttering the blunt introduction: “my name’s the Fraser River. I was born in the mountains east/of here. Everyone is killing me.” The titular piece that nearly ends the book is the one now ringing in my blood though. With a tone and cadence reminiscent of Robinson Jeffers, Bowling enacts an elegy to the Tenderman and his era, crooning, “I miss you, and it – /the whole Ferris wheel of blood and brine and light,/the way our sweat dried on our skin as the glossy film dried on the fish/we caught and hucked onto the packer’s deck…Even the river knows we’ve reached the end….Tenderman, cold friend, are you there? Were we ever there?” A fierce and wry interrogation of our origin’s core in all its avoidances, and its aching move towards acceptance.