This is how George Bowering’s 1991 poem “Death” begins:
I’m going to write a poem about life & death, I said,
but mostly about death. But you are always doing that, said D,
your last poem was about death. The poem before that one was
about death. In fact if you looked at all your writing, especially
the poems, you would find pretty near nothing but death. A lot
of the time you seem to be laughing about it, but that doesn’t
fool anyone. (Urban Snow 23)
Twenty years later in his latest collection, Teeth, he’s still writing poems about death, aging, the slow dying of our planet, and the missed opportunities of a now long distant boyhood, so I guess it’s nothing to worry about. Though it does worry me that he has received such little recognition from the ecopoetry/ecocriticism writers. His “Summer Solstice” (1976) and Kerrisdale Elegies (1984) are two of the most powerful works anywhere of ecopoetry, and written – according to Wikipedia – much before that necessarily death-concerned category was invented.
Being still one who reads poetry mostly for what I can learn about writing poetry, I was attracted most to the unexpected forms in this book – especially to the several poems Bowering has constructed here out of lists of
The anaesthetic wore off. There were twenty nurses in my
room, all reading newspapers.
The anaesthetic wore off. My left leg had been removed
and replaced by a Radio Flyer wagon.
The anaesthetic wore off. I heard two doctors arguing.
“You’re his family doctor. You pull the plug!” “No, you
were the surgeon. You pull it!” (20)
There are four of these poems here: “When the Anaesthetic Wore Off,” “I Stepped out of the Shower,” “I Opened the Venetian Blind,” “When the Fumes Cleared, the Women,” each one titled by its repeated clause or sentence fragment.
Overall, the poems collected in Teeth have many of the usual marks of Bowering’s poetry – the play with traditional forms, the invention of new ones, the fascination with his own childhood and teenage years, the references to friends and childhood heroes probably unknown to most contemporary readers, and of course that pre-occupation with mortality. With his clever alterations of phrases from the Anglo-American canon, his 19 imitations of poems by Eugène Guillevic, and various homage-poems acknowledging white male Canadian poets – Louis Dudek, David McFadden, Stuart Ross, Artie Gold, Stan Dragland, Billy Little, George Stanley, Jamie Reid, Dennis Cooley – many of Canada’s postcolonial critics might find this collection uninterestingly colonial, masculinist and Eurocentric. Bowering’s acknowlegement of women here is mostly recollections of his mother and grandmothers, declarations of affection for his partner, and an overall dedication of the book to Phyllis Webb; his bow to multiculturalism and ‘Asiancy’ is to write haiku in the words of Shakespeare, Baudelaire, Valéry, Coleridge, Poe, Vergil, and Keats; his race-writings are poems that recall Satchel Paige, Charlie Parker and Dizzie Gillespie. That is, in this collection, he is extending much the same literary and cultural streams as he has been extending since the founding of TISH in 1961 – and why not? These are streams worth extending, though it seems odd to perhaps have to say that. Bowering himself recognizes that his interests (and physique) might now be slightly unfashionable, here employing “teapot” and “sushi” as slightly ironic cultural markers –
I keep using bookmarks from dead bookstores
addresses now occupied by sushi diners, weak
sun falling tiredly on old popular fiction covers.
Beside them I have a little teapot, or am one
amazed by my belly, ... (33)
The collection’s toothy title poem is about those ubiquitous teeth that chew and devour – and grow one’s belly. It’s another apocalyptic ecopoem, rather more pointed than the 1970s and 80s ones, about humanity and other omnivorous creatures who blithely chew themselves and their planet toward oblivion.
We are, all over this planet, eating, eating,
marrow bones and turnips, faces, legs, trees
piece by piece, faces buried in troughs,
ingesting, eating Shakespeare, human teeth
biting through cooked skin, insects, extended
families of shiny bugs all over that corpse, zip,
it’s gone, a wolf panting after its long crooked
run, blood under its foot, your mother secretly
finishing the stew after dark, the whole skin
of the planet, filled with teeth, and worms in
the dirt, blindly passing through, leaving a trail
of shit for other mouths, we are in the rooms,
eating poor luck sheep, ... (27)
The poem connects with the numerous corpses of the nineteen Guillevic imitations that conclude the collection:
partly corpse. (101).