Tim Bowling’s newest collection, Fathom, is grounded in the human and physical landscape of the Fraser River’s salmon fishing industry. Haunting and melancholy, Bowling’s poetry is an homage to the power of memory with a razor awareness of the everpresent nature of death.
From the very start of this collection, Bowling’s poems are tinged with sadness. As a man reflecting on his boyhood, he is now able to put a name to what was, as a child, a weighty emotion without title:
What is dripping off those oars?
Only time, only the measure of where
and who we’ve been.
I catch it on the boy’s tongue
I cradle it as the man’s spit
I swallow for the rest of my life
the grit at the curbs of origin.(“Chisholm & Georgia” 14)
Throughout the book, there is the sense that growing up amongst death in all its myriad forms, death that, as part of the fishing industry, is an accepted part of daily living, marks youth in understated ways. Looking back both in praise of the past and in melancholy, Bowling’s images of boyhood are visibly tinted with mortality:
But old friends, enemies, brothers
of the first flesh
whose uncracked voices only the gulls
still use, crying over
the empty wharves
and bloody entrails
of the past,
remember – we were sleek once,
we were running together,
toward this age,
against our death,
and the tears of the children we had been
were breaking for the last time through our skin.(“Gym Class” 26-7)
Early on in the collection, Bowling introduces the character of the tenderman. In a lifestyle and an industry awash with daily death, the tenderman is both executioner and ferryman. There is something underworldly about him, a figure caught somewhere between a mortal man and Charon. During a catch too large for one tenderman to keep tally, Bowling recollects being asked to play second:
Once I was asked to be tenderman.
The count of the dead too high for one.
The packer saw the fragile moth
flutter back of the look of youth.
The count of the dead too high for one.(“A Little Song of Carnage” 36)
Bowling seamlessly walks the line between ever-present awareness of death and its threat to overwhelm. Each event is carefully weighed, considered, and placed like a pearl on a string. In the same sense, life in the fishing community, like death, differs only in the manner in which it occurs:
But it’s not necessary
to look at anyone’s past
to see your life. What’s between
the blossom and the rot
is variation, and we’ve been there
enough to know the sameness.(“Going to Work” 40)
The past, too, is never more than a hair’s breadth away, shared or singular, never more than a drop away from overflowing. In this community, as in so many others, there is the perpetual threat of drowning:
And speaking of the rain
it’s raining in the past
and the river’s rising –
will the dykes hold?
Of course they won’t.
When they break, what wood
will you cling to? I’ll opt
for the carefully planed plank
of my mother’s minor outrage
or the skiff-bottom where a man’s steps
step on each other repeatedly
in those weary Arthur Murray moves of work.(“Today” 87)
This collection sings of the ordinary things that make up everyday life, that become the cumulative baggage carried by a community, a family, one boy. It is peopled with the characters and events that anchor memory; those folk and those incidents that, for whatever arcane reason, slip in around the edges and snare themselves into the weave of our recall. But even as memory itself roughens a little and begins to loosen, we take it on faith that those bright bits we remember of the past have some inherent grain of truth:
What gets written
on the card we send ourselves
must be truth
because who would send
the image of a heron
to a land of herons
just to lie about this life?
I must have sent it to myself
as if my self still lived there
clutching the roots of the crab tree
waltzing in the dog-haired bilge.
I must have written on the back:
I love my life more than you’re able to know.
Waiting till you’re here.