Method in Bowering's Allophanes

by Don Precosky

Until then I had thought each book spoke of the things, human or divine, that lie outside books. Now I realized that not infrequently books speak of books: it was as if they spoke among themselves.

Umberto Eco,
The Name of the Rose1

George Bowering's Allophanes2 is a poem in which "books speak of books." They speak "among themselves" as Bowering piles allusions upon puns upon parody upon numerous other tricks with words. The poem has no "theme" or narrative line. Like an illustration, its composition is its message. It does not contain a message: it is one. In the opening section of Allophanes Bowering describes "Dr. Babel" as he

about the word's form, striking
its prepared strings
            endlessly, a pleasure
      moving rings outward thru
                  the universe. (p. 205)

The poem seeks to recreate this "pleasure" and to show these "moving rings" and by so doing illustrate important beliefs which Bowering holds about language and literature.

     In The Long Poem Anthology Bowering sets out to explain Allophanes through the meaning of the title, but of course the explanation, like the poem itself, is a bit of a teaser. He tells us little, but instead challenges us to dig into the poem. He speaks of "voices" coming into his study to tell him things and says that "astute readers will recognize some of them."3 How can we recognize voices unless we have heard them before? Where have we heard them? In other books, of course. The poem is filled with literary allusions. Bowering's explanation is an invitation to a game of track down the allusion.

     Elsewhere he has written of language's autonomy from the poet. The poet, he says,

must not fancy himself so much as to abrogate a power over language, language their elder & better. Like children again, they know enough to be seen & not heard, to let language, which knows so much more than they do, speak. Language, in this case English, is not spoken. It speaks.4

The 'hunt the allusion' game seems, on the whole, pretty simple to play. The reader quickly finds references to Kerouac, Sophocles, Yeats, Pope, Descartes, bp nichol, Poe, Auden, the Bible, Eliot, Emerson, and many others. But the object of the poem is not merely for the reader to win the game by tracking down all of the references. The game is a part of the poem's function as illustration. Faced with so many references, echoes, allusions and other voices, the reader concludes something about the nature of literature. Namely that "books speak of books."

     The title of the poem, according to Bowering, means "all appearances" and "the scientific usage of the term attends the shifting colours of mineral formations, such as stalactites, lights in a cave" (Long Poem Anthology, p. 330). He adds that "the word could also be translated as those things which are other than what they at first appear to be, all taken together" (p. 330). Things are not what they appear to be. It is another challenge to the reader. Find out what he "really" means, not what appears on the "surface." The idea of "appearance" is a factor in the very first line of the poem: "The snowball appears in Hell." But in this poem there is only "appearance." The meaning is well hidden on the surface. The surface is like the "shifting colours of mineral formation . . . lights in a cave." Once again, the poem functions as an illustration of Bowering's theories about language. There is no "hidden" meaning to art (or life) — only a series of changes. Language and literature are both constant reconstructions and regroupings, like pieces of glass in a kaleidoscope. The snowball in Hell image is a mixture of transcience and permanence — what things appear to be versus what they become. The many allusions in the poem play a similar function. The allusion is an example of permanence, but the wordplay usually included in the allusion shows the plasticity of language.

     Bowering provides yet another series of examples of books speaking among themselves. This third, "deep", game also provides a metaphor for the poetic process. Bowering has, running through his poem, a synthetic Hermetic text. Like Donne, Jonson, and Yeats, among others, he employs language, symbols, and references drawn from alchemy.

     He does not believe in the great mysteries any more than Donne or Jonson did. Indeed, he works against the alchemical tradition in that his sly references do not point to a deeper, "hidden" message accessible only to initiates. This game is a joke, played upon those academic readers who go past the more obvious allusions and keep on digging for a buried significance. In a recent article in Line, Bowering has praised this kind of subterfuge as practiced by Robert Kroetsch in Badlands: "Kroetsch has a chronology (time order) at the front of his book. . . . The chronology is a guileful bit of irony, an aid to the historically mindful, but as an ordering principle only a system the writer can hate."5 Once again the significance lies in the surface of the poem and in the repeated example of how "Myths communicate / with each other, & men / seldom find out" (p. 206).

     The derivation of Allophanes suggests the changes which occur in the melting and bubbling in the alchemist's pot. Alchemy sought to control "all forms" through which matter passes and to direct the changes in form to create gold. The alchemical process whereby the baser metals were transfigured into gold was known as the "Great Work." The writer is an alchemist of language trying to harness its kaleidescopic properties and to transmute them within his own "Great Work".

     One important aspect of the Hermetic tradition is its use of secrecy and deliberate obscurity to hide its lore from the uninitiated. John Read in Prelude to Chemistry says that beginning in ancient Egypt alchemical knowledge was "the guarded prerogative of the priests"6 and that later in Europe

anagrams, acrostics, and other enigmas were introduced, and various secret alphabets and ciphers came to be used by alchemists; in some of these, letters and numerals were represented by alchemical and astrological signs. An additional barrier was erected in the shape of an extensive structure of pictorial symbolism and allegorical expression. Ideas, processes, even pieces of apparatus, were represented by birds, animals, mythological figures, geometrical designs, and other emblems. (p. 91)

In Allophanes Bowering speaks of the necessity of obscurity

Among earth, sky, mortals, divinities,
the obscure lies necessary to the luminous,
to make seeking take place of the random, random,
passive, the mental, lose it Bubby,
spirits rejoice! (p. 208)

Obscurity makes us seek clarity and helps us to put off the "random, passive, the mental." Telling is not as effective as hiding.

     We must return to the title and Bowering's explanation of it to find an important example of deliberate obscurity and a link with alchemy. In Donne's "Ecclogue, 1613. December 26"7 the main character, a courtier named Allophanes, employs alchemical references in chiding "Idios", another courtier, for absenting himself from the court and the King's improving influence:

The earth doth in her inward bowels hold
Stuffe well dispos'd, and which would faine be gold,
But never shall, except it chance to lye,
So upward, that heaven gilt it with his eye;
As, for divine things, faith comes from above,
So, for best civill use, all tinctures move
From higher powers; from God religion springs,
Wisdome, and honour from the use of Kings.     (pp. 108-109)

Donne compares the King to the sun which, according to alchemical tradition, was capable of transmuting base metals into gold with its rays.8 Bowering also ascribes to the sun powers associated with alchemy. "Al Rose" (referred to elsewhere in the poem as "Al 'Chemical' Rose"), Bowering writes

speaks seventy languages fluently,
sings in seventy languages,
his words fall into the sun, athanor too    (p. 227)

The athanor was the charcoal-burning furnace which supplied the heat for the alchemist's work. There are two other references to the athanor in the poem plus other references to the purification of the language by fire.

     A number of the more obscure passages in Allophanes can also be tied in to alchemy. Alchemical writers often disguised their descriptions of their work by giving metals the names of mythological deities so that "chemical changes could then be referred to in mythological fashion."9 Read (p. 240) cites the example of Venus running to the slain Adonis and reddening the white roses with her blood as an alchemist's way of describing the change in colour from white to red of materials during the Great Work. Bowering, in a similar vein, writes of

Hermes & Aphrodite
face to face
coupling again
on the far side
of the moon (p. 213)

According to Asimov (p. 240), Hermes is mercury, Venus is copper, and the moon is silver.

     The alchemists had other obscure ways of describing their secrets. The "peacock" was one of the series of colour changes that the alchemist's potion went through (Read, p. 146). Again, Bowering writes

Everytime the peacock raises the mirror breaks,
                     in 'numberless' pieces & the world
                     must be re-distilled     (p. 221)

There are other things which tie the poem in with alchemy: diagrams (especially the incomplete baseball diamond surrounded by the four elements [p. 22]); allusions to Empedocles, originator of the idea of four elements, Oedipus, whose story was seen as an alchemical allegory (Read, pp. 241-243), and Thoth ("Thoth was the great giver" p. 224) whom the ancient Greeks identified with Hermes, founder of alchemy (Asimov, p. 16).

     Again, I must reiterate that Allophanes is not a true Hermetic document; it is not an obscure chemical recipe. It uses its alchemical references as a further illustration of the voices of books talking to us without our realizing it.

     Not all of the "voices" in Bowering's poem come from books. Some of them come from the "real" world. They are hostile voices which do not understand or accept the poem as it is unfolding. There are three important, albeit brief, interruptions by such hostile voices. In each case the voice is pushing a way of looking at poetry which Bowering rejects. The first intruder would have him be a confessional or lyric poet — "Aw poet, just tell us how you / felt about something" (p. 211) — using his emotions as his subject. Bowering, like a good night club comic, silences this heckler

You dont [sic] want the untying
that frees the mind?
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
There is safety in derision,

The avant-garde poet is used to this sort of sniping. The second intrusion comes only a few pages later. Immediately after Bowering disparages story telling as a function of poetry ("Aw narrative / is a telling blow" [p. 213]), a voice jumps in to demand just such a poem

Tell the story of men,
their progress on Earth,
a cancer on her body    (p. 213)

Tell us a story of epic proportions with grand themes. Bowering mocks this approach, first by saying that the demand is "depressing" and then by producing two snippets — one describing a three-year-old girl, the other Maud Gonne as an old woman — which reduce the story to two undeniable facts: we start out young and end up old (p. 214). The third voice pops up much later in the poem:

Aw busker,
what dance is this
you tap before us?    (p. 232)

Once again the voice is impatient and hostile and would back the poet into a corner, defining him down to a narrow function entertainer.

     This time Bowering has a more constructive and definite reply, for instead of returning hostility with hostility he answers

            Only, again 'only'
            the true beginning of
            language is poetry.      (p. 232)

This and a similar statement earlier in the poem ("Have a seat on my language, / & here we go." [p. 209]) lay bare the purpose of Bowering's poem and his view of what poetry is. It also sounds pretty scant — which explains the game playing — the spot the allusion hidden in the pun and the gratuitous Hermetic references. Stated baldly, the idea of poetry which Bowering espouses is not very gripping. But, recast as an illustration, done to us (as it were), it is another matter. The flow of the words, the rush of the images, the sensation that the great books are speaking to, and through, us makes us realize that "we are engaged. / Language rings us" (p. 242). The moment of discovery is an exciting one.


  1. Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose. Trans. William Weaver (San Diego: Harcourt, Brace, and Jovanovich, 1983), P. 286.[back]

  2. George Bowering, Allophanes, in Michael Ondaatje ed. The Long Poem Anthology (Toronto: The Coach House Press, 1979), pp. 203-243. All quotations from this poem are from the Ondaatje edition.[back]

  3. George Bowering, "Look into your Ear & Write: Allophanes," in The Long Poem Anthology, p. 330.[back]

  4. George Bowering, "Introduction: Unexpected Objects," The Canadian Contemporary Canadian Poem Anthology (Toronto: The Coach House Press, 1984), p. 2.[back]

  5. George Bowering, "A Great Northward Darkness: The Attack on History in Recent Canadian Fiction," Line, No. 5 (Spring 1985), 53.[back]

  6. John Read, Prelude to Chemistry (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1966), p. 87.[back]

  7. John Donne, "Ecclogue, 1613. December 26," in John Hayward ed. John Donne: Complete Poetry and Selected Poems (London: The Nonesuch Press, 1962), pp. 107-110.[back]

  8. Edgar Hill Duncan, "Donne's Alchemical Figures," ELH, 9 (1942), 266-267.[back]

  9. Isaac Asimov, A Short History of Chemistry (Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Books, 1965), p. 16 [back]