Review by rob mclennan.
All through 2006, Vancouver writer (and former Parliamentary Poet Laureate) George Bowering made it his goal was to write a chapbook a month, a piece a day, with each monthly project using a different construction (or, as he’s called it before, “baffle”). So far, a number of these works have been produced as small chapbooks by No Press (Calgary), Rubicon Press (Edmonton), Pooka Press (Vancouver), above/ground press (Edmonton/Ottawa) and BookThug (Toronto). The most recent of these is Some Answers, produced by kemeny babineau’s Laurel Reed Books out of Mount Pleasant, Ontario. A lovely little publication (perhaps the nicest production that babineau has done so far), each poem responds in some way to a question taken from another poet, responding directly to quotes taken from poems by Thomas Grey, Christina G. Rossetti, William Blake, William Wordsworth, D.H. Lawrence, Alexander Pope, Louis Dudek, Robert Creeley, Percy Bysshe Shelley, H.D., Sylvia Plath, Phyllis Webb, Sappho, William Carlos Williams, Robert Kroetsch and others, writing one a day for thirty days.
“what groans so pathetically
in this room where I am alone?”
Not I, but the wind,
the tree rubbing against the roof,
the anxious heart only human
after all, no matter the muse,
no matter your wedding
with the world; the dark fills
the corners of the room, your own
breath whispers the end, the end,
what else was the cosmos made for,
and how long did you think it would last?
This isn’t even close to the first of Bowering’s collections to read as a “response” work; even his book Curious (1976), when he was writing poems for other poets, or more recent prose poems for fiction writers could be said to all be “responding” in a particular way to the authors he writes about. Here, Bowering takes the idea a step further, and responds directly to a particular question posed by each author in one of their pieces. I find it intriguing that so many of the authors are older, more “classic” authors, as Bowering almost reverts back to lists of pre-contemporaries instead of adding to or updating his list; it’s almost as though he hasn’t updated his list of contemporary authors (most of whom are friends) that he’s been working from/riffing off since the 1980s, since his Seventy-One Poems for People (1985) or Delayed Mercy (1987). Part of the entertainment of this small collection is seeing the echoes that come in from previous of a number of his works, and some of the questioning wisdom even reminds one of his more recent Governor General’s Award shortlisted title, His Life: A Poem (2000).
One that reads as particularly interesting is the second-last poem, titled “Robert Kroetsch,” that references an early work by Kroetsch himself (which itself, references Bowering’s 1986 poetry collection Kerrisdale Elegies, published by Coach House Press). Originally published in the collection Advice To My Friends (Toronto ON: General Publishing, 1985), Robert Kroetsch’s poem now lives in The Completed Field Notes (Edmonton AB: University of Alberta Press, 2002).
18. Four Questions for George Bowering
Michelin Green Guide: “The University [of Bologna], founded in 11C, had 10,000 students in 13C. At that time the professors were often women and a solemn chronicler reports that one of them, Novella d’Andrea, was so beautiful in face and body that she had to give her lectures from behind a curtain to avoid distracting her pupils.”
You who wrote Kerrisdale Elegies,
Does the body teach us nothing?
What is it that we seek to learn
instead of beauty?
What do they mean, “distracting her pupils”?
I too once lectured in Bologna.
It was February, the room was cold,
I was more than adequately dressed.
No one put up a curtain.
What would happen if, just as you
slid into home plate,
the pitcher threw the catcher
You can tell that this is (obviously) a play between old friends. Listen and hear how Bowering turns the question back around, in his own poem:
Robert Kroetsch“Does the body teach us nothing?”Dear Bob:1. That’s for me to know and you to find out.2. Wouldn’t you like to know?3. If I told you, we’d both know.4. If I knew, I wouldn’t tell you.5. Don’t ask me.6. Ask me no questions, and I’ll tell you no lies.Besides, if you want to learn nothing,where else would you go?
Born in Ottawa, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city. The author of over a dozen books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, he is spending the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta.