Reviewed by Matt Robinson
To crack the stark, near black-and-white sparseness of wintering tree limbs that is the cover of Tim Bowling’s The Memory Orchard (Brick Books, 2004), to turn the pages and read through the poems that comprise the collection, is to act much as the speaker in the poem “Mannequins” does. As readers, we’ll find ourselves stepping “lightly / through the long-smashed panes / of streetfront glass” into an “eternal dusk, the ring / of a mortal register echoing / like a stone dropped / farther and farther down / a well” until all we can hear “is what memory hears,” as it’s “measured out” in “supple, cadenced tones” (“Mannequins” 22).
All this is to say, essentially (as has always been the case), that Bowling does memory well here throughout; the man is a master of what might be best characterized as an elegiac tone.
So fans and admirers of Bowling’s earlier poetry will not be disappointed with this book. Its movement through and around the subject matter – in this case, primarily memory and a kind of nostalgia for an adolescent past – is measured and elegant. Bowling’s near–signature elevated tone and precisely engineered diction, employed throughout these free verse pieces in the relation of lush rustic, domestic, and coming of age imagery, are also here in spades. And the slight tension created between subject matter and execution is what helps to move these poems forward. It’s what completes their complex architecture.
Seemingly small, but powerful, decisions about vocabulary as well as the overall scansion and sweep of a line are evident throughout the book. So in describing some typically destructive teenaged hi-jinx we’re presented not simply with a harsh prosaic look at the moment, but instead with the following, near-baroque evocation of the contradictions of adolescent life, replete with an attendant sense of foreboding:
Sated with garbage and guts
the gulls on the roof-peak
saw me lick the scent of black-
berry from her bronzing shoulder
and gawked as, storm-browed,
I pelted stray cats with rocks.
When weren’t they there,
those brine-eyed judges
in their robes of ash, turning
into the wind to watch me puke
my first cheap bottle, stretching
their necks toward the time
I helped the mind-blank
and shivering old neighbour home.
And how many pitiable bullheads
gaped in terror at my intention
to destroy, or dew-fleshed salmon
saw my hand-tombs scrape across
their vision of the infinite and clear?
(“Does the World Remember Us?” 29)
Indeed, what further energizes the poems that work best here is that very injection of what we might discern is a sense of impending doom. There is something dark lingering just beyond the edge of these recollections Bowling is presenting us with, something that shades what initially seems a straightforward sketch of nostalgia for a time long-since passed. It’s as if, just like the children in “Grade One,” we can feel that over the course of our reading “Something was ticking down all around us / but it couldn’t be the hour. We didn’t know hours” (69).
This tension and the way in which it energizes and enflames the best of these poems more than makes up for the few ways in which the collection comes up short. So while the repeated references to specific images (blackberries and salmon come to mind) might have been more carefully held in check — as they become intrusive at a certain point and a reader starts to wonder if they have a more powerful symbolic role in the overall construction of the collection — the rest of the language more than makes up for this minor complaint.
This collection is, at its core, a leisurely journey through and around the disparate elements of memory, of its relationships with people and place and time, albeit one with an edge. There is, at the core of these poems, a very real concern with a winding exploration of the potential pitfalls that can scatter themselves across the seemingly benign territory of nostalgia.
And having traveled our way through each of these poems, having toured each of the sections the book has to offer, having visited the language and image that Bowling has skillfully guided us through, as readers we’re left feeling and thinking, as we set the collection down on the side table and reach for a warm sip of coffee or tea, as if we’ve been transported somewhere by Bowling, as if we’ve “boarded a train / that would take us to knowledge of the clock-face / looming over our clasped hands and clear brows” (“Grade One” 69).
matt robinson works in Residential Life at UNB. A Poetry Editor at The Fiddlehead, his poetry has received numerous awards. His most recent collection is no cage contains a stare that well (ECW, 2005) a volume of hockey poems. Previous collections include tracery & interplay (Frog Hollow, 2004), how we play at it: a list (ECW, 2002), and A Ruckus of Awkward Stacking (Insomniac, 2000).