Bowering Découpage

Eva-Marie Kröller, George Bowering: Bright Circles of Colour. Vancouver: Talonbooks, 1992. 142pp. Index and Bibliography.

George Bowering has been a part of Canada's literary scene for over thirty years and has in that time gravitated from a largely self-imposed marginality to something akin to a secure place in the Canadian mainstream.  If I seem to hesitate in identifying him as part of the nation's literary establishment, it is because he has published over forty volumes of poetry, prose, and criticism, but has not yet been the subject of any full-length study, usually part of the process of canonization.  Other avant-garde writers of his generation, the "Sheila Watson canon" (Bowering's term, CS 55) including Leonard Cohen, Michael Ondaatje, b.p. nichol, and Robert Kroetsch, for example, have fared much better.  This is not to say that Bowering has suffered indifference from the critics; indeed, Roy Miki's splendidly annotated bibliography is a hefty tome.  Early in his career, Bowering was a favorite target of militant nationalist critics, mostly from central Canada, who accused him of being a fifth columnist for American poetics (if such a phrase is appropriate for the Olson-inspired poetics which initially seemed to have more currency in Canada than in the United States, and which in any case had already infected eastern writers like Souster and Avison, apparently without any dangerous side-effects).  Later in his career, and particularly after he received the Governor General's award in 1970 (a feared protest by nationalists did not materialize), his work became the subject of numerous articles.  Today, it is scarcely possible to read any account of Canadian post-modernism in which his name does not figure prominently.  But, aside from Robin Blaser's introductory essay to Particular Accidents: Selected Poems (Talon books, 1980), there has been no notable critical effort to give readers a comprehensive overview of Bowering's accomplishment.

     Any reader familiar with Bowering's career could offer one or two semi-plausible reasons why scholars might be reluctant to engage in a full-length, developmental study of it.  First of all, there is the matter of his self-confessed deracination, which might be overlooked had he not seemed so flippant about it in his early years.  What Canadianist could feel comfortable with a subject who had mocked Canada's Centennial Celebrations and its new flag, had slammed the Happy Gang and our national sport in favor of baseball, who exuberantly confessed in A Short Sad Book that he had wanted to grow up American?   (One suspects matters might have been different had Bowering written of his deracination in the anguished manner of a Dennis Lee in "Cadence, Country, Silence" — that would have made him one of "us.")  Furthermore, where in the scene of Canadian literature would one place a subject who repeatedly stated his objections to classification by nation and who, moreover (and with apparent malice aforethought), consistently trashed the notion of a cohesive national mythology?   Even if these questions of context could be resolved or skirted, other questions would remain.  What is one to make of Bowering's confession to Caroline Bayard and Jack David that "I still publish lyric poems under a pseudonym because I'm not a lyric poet anymore" (84)?  How can one take seriously his concern for those writing from the margins when he perpetrates a literary hoax and gets himself included in Pier Giorgio Di Cicco's Roman Candles: An Anthology of Poems by Seventeen Italo-Canadian Poets? How is one to get a fix on a poet who seems to reinvent himself for each interview, who has supplied interviewers with a variety of dates and places for his birth?  These and a host of other issues could be raised as reasons for putting off a full-length study of his work, but should they?

     Even admitting that Bowering is a fast-moving target, that he is a mischievous interviewee, and that what he reveals about himself on any given occasion is more mask than man (Bowering is both a proper noun and a verb), it seems to me that there is no valid reason for not tackling the work of a comprehensive assessment other than that he is still alive and, given his nature, likely to mock any effort to pin him down by shifting his ground.   On the other hand, he has been fairly straightforward about his readings, his friendships with other artists, his literary concerns; and we do have his books.   From these, surely, a beginning is both possible and overdue.  Eva-Marie Kröller's George Bowering: Bright Circles of Colour makes such a beginning, insofar as it casts some light on the artistic communities in Vancouver, London, and Montreal during the years when Bowering resided in those places.  Kröller's study also contains occasional moments of fresh insight into Bowering's writings but it is nothing like a comprehensive overview.  I wish I could be more positive about this volume, but for me it does not always work; other readers may find it a more illuminating experience.

     Kröller's point of departure is the fact that Bowering has always counted painters among his closest friends, Brian Fisher and the late Roy Kiyooka of Vancouver and the late Greg Curnoe of London among the most prominent.  Her book, Kröller informs us in her Introduction, "will be an exploration of selected works by Bowering and their interdependencies with the visual arts, the collage foremost among them" (11).  On the strength of Kröller's excellent study of collage technique and the relation of image to text in "Roy Kiyooka's The Fontainebleau Dream Machine: A Reading" (Canadian Literature Summer-Fall 1987), I felt very encouraged by what I was about to read.   Almost immediately, however, she concedes that where Bowering's contacts with Kiyooka and Curnoe are well documented, his responses to Jack Chambers, Brian Fisher, and Guido Molinari are more or less conjectural, and their works will be explored for the "illuminating parallels" they have with Bowering's practice.  Moreover, in the sections dealing with the Burning Water trilogy, her touchstones will not be the aforementioned painters, but historical photography and the theorizing of art critic John Berger.  This is a somewhat dismaying admission of confused aims and I turned to the Acknowledgments to discover that, indeed, the present study was not conceived of as a unified whole but was com posed, in part, of "adapted versions of essays previously published in the University of Toronto Quarterly and Open Letter" (but not cited in the bibliography), as well as new material tested in a 1989 graduate seminar.  Successive readings of her text confirm my impression that this book is less about any clearly demonstrable impact these artists had on Bowering's writing than about Kröller's responses to Bowering's writing when viewed through artistic filters provided by the artists, not to Bowering but to Kröller herself.  While some of the connections Kröller makes are admittedly interesting, the illumination they provide can deceive the unwary; in the study of artistic production as in biology, superficial resemblances are no proof of kinship.

     "A Community of Correspondences: TISH," Kröller's first chapter, is less a commentary on Bowering's involvement with that little magazine than a short history of the Vancouver arts scene in the 'sixties, with particular attention to "correspondence art," Sam Perry's Sound Gallery, various art shows, including the 1965 Festival of the Contemporary Arts featuring McLuhan's "The Medium is the Message," and the internationalist "scene with no scene" that Philip Leider had reported on for ARTSCANADA in 1967.  The ostensible purpose here is to provide an ambience in which to discuss TISH and Bowering's early work.  Unfortunately, many of these happenings took place after Bowering had left TISH for Calgary in 1963, returning to Vancouver only for occasional visits.  More important, Bowering's own reflections on those years clearly indicate that his community was not so much the larger Vancouver scene as it was the coterie of like-minded writers at TISH who provided "a kind of introduction to the commitment to the larger community of language and of poetry" (Bayard and David 84).  Kröller 's discussion of the founding of TISH and the first editorial period (1961-1963) is actually only a few paragraphs in length and in any case does not say anything that is not in sharper focus in CH Gervais's The Writing Life (1976).  What new information this chapter contains about Bowering ranges from the curious — Bowering briefly corresponded with Ferdinand Marcos as "athlete to athlete"(16) — to the banal — at Sam Perry's Sound Gallery Bowering enjoyed "weird music . . . and wild colour projections on the wall" (17).  All in all, the chapter seems to me excessively digressive and too little focused on the book's ostensible subject.  Beyond the mention of the letter to Marcos, we are given no information on the extent of Bowering's involvement in correspondence art, nor even the names of any of his correspondents; at no point are we offered evidence that Bowering's interest in the visual arts went anything beyond the occasional visit to exhibitions; finally, his interest in jazz is mentioned, but almost as an afterthought and without critical relation to his writing practice.

     "Cubist Collage: The Man in Yellow Boots" is at first glance a more unified and focused chapter dealing with an aspect of Bowering's career not frequently commented on: his association with Margaret Randall and Sergio Mondragon of the Mexican poetry journal El Corno Emplumado, and his collaboration with Roy Kiyooka in the production of The Man in Yellow Boots (1965).  Kröller's discussion begins with a consideration of the volume's front and back covers, which invite the reader "to encircle and explore the book as if it were a cubist sculpture" (29), and proceeds to an analysis of the verse in terms of its employment of figures of speech as well as of the techniques of montage and collage.  The Man in Yellow Boots includes twelve collages by Kiyooka, and their presence, besides interrupting the poetic sequence, "also sharpens the reader's perception for certain visual and structural qualities of Bowering's work which may have escaped him so far" (36; my emphasis).   While this aspect of Kröller's discussion is quite interesting, I find her last assertion troubling because it too easily elides the distinction between Bowering's and Kiyooka's decision to collaborate "in isolation from one another" in a cubist enterprise and Kröller 's own enterprise in discovering analogous strategies in the verbal and visual projects (35).  (This last phrase, by the way, is neither Bowering's nor Kiyooka's, nor yet that of any critic of their work.  It is borrowed from Anna Kisselgoff's "A Dance Revolutionary on Broadway"; Kröller has a bad habit of appropriating other people's terms, but more of this later).  Part of the problem may derive from Kröller's perception of The Man in Yellow Boots as a "book".  In actuality, the volume is a special edition of El Corno Emplumado, which devoted its fourth issue each year to the presentation of works by a single writer.  As its aim was to introduce Bowering to a larger audience in "both Americas," ([3]) one would expect it to publish poems in a wide variety of styles and expressing a representative range of concerns.  Moreover, in addition to providing a Spanish translation following each poem, the volume includes editorial notes, a number of letters from Bowering to the editors, Kiyooka's collages, and some advertisements.  With photographs on the front and back covers that seem to respond to each other, all of these factors contribute to the journal's collage-like construction, but there are limits to how far one can push the case for deliberate and conscious heterogeneity.

     Kröller 's readings of the poems themselves in terms of their employment of simile, punning, rime, and the implied metaphors of the flower and the dance is generally sensitive and well-contex tualized with respect to Bowering's involvement with the writings of Olson, Williams, Ginsberg, and others.  Her commentary on Kiyooka's collages in the context of neo-Dadaist political satire is also perceptive and illuminating.  This, I think, is Kröller 's forte; not only does she have an impressive command of the history of art movements, but she also has great skill in 'reading' individual works, in rendering the visual into the verbal, and in seeing the visual text in its context.  Having said this, however, I must confess to an uneasy feeling of occasionally being manipulated.  Let me explain.  Kröller 's discussion of the poems is sandwiched between her opening remarks on the book's Cubist design and her closing remarks on Kiyooka's Cubist forms; in between, only one poem, "Her Act was a Bomb," is specifically related to her Cubist thesis, and this only insofar as she sees it as "imitat[ing] filmic montage, in which the mundane and the momentous mutually devalue and elevate each other" (35).  I find this strategy disconcerting for a number of reasons.  First of all, we are offered no evidence that Bowering conceived of the volume as a consciously Cubist enterprise, or that he exercised any real control over the design of the volume.  Indeed, his letters to the editors suggest otherwise.  On August 22, 1964, he writes: "I was wondering if it wd be okay for me to send you more poems than are publishable & let you help a lot in the selection of them, I am a poor judge in the selection of my own poems" (MYB 97).  A follow-up letter of September 23 reads, in part: "I might also send you a batch of titles fr which yous can eventually choose.  One title I like is THE MAN WITH THE YELLOW BOOTS, but I wd have to make up a title poem . . . .  THE BATTERED SOUSAPHONE is a thing that has personal meaning, but cd be a title" (MYB 97-98).  Secondly, I have difficulty in reconciling this suggestion of Mondragon's and Randall's editorial autonomy and Kiyooka's and Bowering's collaboration "in isolation from one another" (36), suggesting a largely chance (Dadaist) procedure, with the more delib erately constructivist approaches I associate with Cubism.1   Although this chapter offers some interesting perspectives on Bowering's work, I am left wondering just how much Bowering actually shared in Cubist concerns with the nature of representation.

     The case is somewhat clearer in "Newspaper Collage: Rocky Mountain Foot," although here too I take issue with Kröller 's methodology.  This third chapter effectively begins with a quotation from "The Painted Window: Notes on Post-Realist Fiction," first published in University of Windsor Review and later included in The Mask in Place (1982): "If [the reader] lives in the city, as most contemporary readers do, he is living in a collage . . . a laundromat will be flankt by a Greek restaurant & a Chinese curio shoppe.  Where unlike things are stuck together they create a new reality.  With the reader's help" (41).  As Bowering's concern in this essay is almost exclusively with post-realist narrative — he alludes to Hawkes, Barthelme, Sukenick, and Cortazar, among others — it is not immediately apparent how what Bowering has to say about collage apropos of these novelists is applicable to his own poetry in general and Rocky Mountain Foot specifically.  The connection is made through an allusion to the Bayard/David interview of 1976, when Bowering was asked about the collage-like structure of the volume.  In his reply, according to Kröller, "Bowering describes the collage as a way to avoid the subjectivism of the lyric" (42).  But 'collage' is Bayard's term, not Bowering's; his reply, I think, is slightly evasive: "That's when I'm dissatisfied with the lyric poem as a mode . . . .  I don't know what the model might have been but I had a sense that the way to do that [i.e. get away from the personalism of the lyric] was to inject or meet what you were writing with the other, . . . that there will be something like a collaboration, perhaps" (98).  Bowering does not claim the collage as his model, and his endorsement of the analogy is only implied.  The closest Bowering will come to an explicit endorsement of the collage model will be a few years later when he observes, with regard to Henry James and representational art, "libly the first decade of the twentieth century western art had insisted that it be looked upon as paint and collage materials, not as window-like reference to the real world" (MP 114).  On the other hand, he will also observe, "[p]oetry always had that distinction from prose, that one should be reminded continuously of its construction" (MP 114).  In another instance, in his review of Joe Rosenblatt's Virgins and Vampires, his mention of collage is even less enthusiastic: "I am reminded of Wallace Stevens' reason for not liking surrealism.  He said that he thought poetry should step toward the unknown, while surrealism is a collage or shuffling of the familiar" (CS 570).  While it can be argued, then, that all twentieth-century art can be viewed through the perspective of collage, Bowering's avoidance of specifically endorsing it as a poetic procedure must seriously qualify Kröller's contention that, in Rocky Mountain Foot, "Bowering translated the collage into its literary equivalent, namely a juxtaposition of heterogenous texts" (41).  The point I am trying to establish is not that Bowering's volumes should not be compared to collages; Shirley Neuman, for example, describes Rocky Mountain Foot as a "discursive collage" (67), and I have no difficulty with her usage whatsoever.  But Kröller's implication is that Bowering started with a theory of art that he translated into a theory of writing; this is clearly misleading.  The trouble is that Kröller tries too hard to make Bowering's practice fit her theory and ends up putting words in his mouth.

     In advancing her thesis in this chapter, Kröller herself frequently adopts the collage-building procedures of disintegration, fragmentation and reintegration to create the impression that Bowering's work is part of the evolution of a clearly evident and traceable theory of art in this century.  A particularly troublesome instance of this is her discussion of Rocky Mountain Foot in relation to its possible models.  Comparing Bowering to Robert Duncan, Kröller observes: "like Duncan, he generally refused, from Rocky Mountain Foot onwards, to 'write the perfect lyric,' but instead felt he 'must corrupt the linear melody for the strategy of the collage, bring up the maticunity with elements recalcitrant and untamed, and bring in contemporary horrors' (Weatherhead 174)" (42).  The construction here suggests that Kröller is citing Weatherhead on Duncan and Bowering; in fact, the quotations come from A.K. Weatherhead's "Robert Duncan and the Lyric" which does not mention Bowering.  Similar instances of opportunistic juxtaposition that border on misattribution follow.  For example, in her attempt to establish Williams' Paterson as the model for Rocky Mountain Foot, Kröller describes Williams' strategy of incorporating excerpts from local histories, biographies, newspapers and the like into his text as an enactment of "the major principles of dadaist collage and ready mades" (43).  This, a debateable assertion if we consider that the typical dadaist collage is composed entirely of found material and has no 'text' as such, is succeeded by the following observation: "The traditional seperation between 'high' and 'low' art, between documentary, scientific, and poetic discourses is effectively questioned, a procedure for which Bowering, through Olson and Whitehead, claims to have found a model in quantum physics" (43).  Next comes a quotation on coordinate systems and an attribution, to "(Perry 207)."  The Perry in question is Samuel Perry and the source "Maximus of Gloucester from Dogtown: Charles Olson Personal Locus," as reprinted in TISH 1-19.  It is Perry, and not Bowering, who makes reference to Whitehead and quantum physics.  Perry's article does not mention Bowering.  The argument continues: "Rocky Mountain Foot re-enacts a specific form of collage, the newspaper (Bollard), whose design Williams considered particularly symptomatic of modernist — and American — discourse, for a poem should contain 'the same materials as newsprint, the same dregs' (Williams 295)" (43).  Here, again, the reader could be forgiven for assuming that Bollard had made a connection between Bowering's text and the form of the newspaper.  Actually, Bollard's article is entitled "The 'Newspaper Landscape' of Williams' Paterson;" he, too, for gets to mention Bowering.

     The danger of any literary theory is that it can flatten any work of art into a paradigm of itself.  This danger is magnified when the work of art is manoeuvred into position by what might be called critical sleight-of-hand.  We are asked to accept that what may be claimed as valid in one case is equally valid in another, quite different case.  But is it true, for example, that Rocky Mountain Foot, subtitled "a lyric, a memoir" and composed of approximately eighty-one discreet and titled lyrics is modelled on Paterson, a long poem in five books?  Bowering's regard for Williams is a matter of record, but I suspect very, very few readers will find any appreciable resemblance between these two works.  Consider, for a moment, the matter of the intercalcated texts.  In Paterson the quotations, many of them quite lengthy, are incorporated into the body of the poetic narrative — an inclusive gesture perfectly in keeping with Williams' view of the poet's role as vates and historian.  In Rocky Mountain Foot matters are otherwise.  In all but three instances, the appropriated texts are very short — at most a sentence or two — and they are never incorporated into Bowering's verse.  Sometimes they precede the poem, forming an inspirational epigraph of sorts, as do these lines preceding "forecast:" ". . . . watching the water freeze in the medicine glass at a patient's bedside during a blizzard" (RMF 58).  Some times they are on a facing page, as in the case of Frank W. Anderson's comments on the Frank Slide, opposite Bowering's "the crumbling wall" (RMF 44-5).  Most frequently, they are at the bottom of the page and are often in dissonant relationship to what precedes them.  Such is the case with "Premier Manning said: 'The public press as we know it constantly slants the news"' (71), which follows "the calgary eye-opener," Bowering's paeon to Calgary's most (in)famous publisher.  In most such cases of irony, the quotation does not so much interrogate the poem as draw attention to its own intellectual/moral bankruptcy in comparison to the expansiveness of the meditation which precedes it.  A striking example of this follows "the plain," a Birneyesque meditation on oil rigs, urban sprawl, and other blights on a landscape its citizens like to think of as God's country: "William Tomyn, M.L.A.: 'In the classroom any teacher who deliberately conspires to destroy faith in God, our creator, is an intellectual leper' " (RMF 35).  These quotations are set off from the poems; they are in a different typeface; and they are clearly not accorded the same authority as that commanded by the lyric voice.  Although they do, as Kröller maintains, interrupt the lyric voice, they constitute no significant challenge to it.

     In offering this corrective reading, I am not, let me repeat, trying to invalidate Kröller's basic premise that Bowering was influenced by collage theory.  Atwood's The Journals of Susanna Moodie (1970), Ondaatje's Collected Works of Billy the Kid (1970), Victor Coleman's America (1972), and Gerry Gilbert's Skies (1973) are just a few of many contemporaneous texts demanding to be approached as collage-like constructions, and Bowering's text may very well have led the way.  But Kröller's methodology, and in particular her presentation of an argument which is really a pastiche of critical insights into other poets, leaves the case unproven.  In its original format, Rocky Mountain Foot looks less like a newspaper collage, with its juxtaposition of "headlines and stories of vastly different content and origin" than a poetic essay with footnotes provided by someone who has clearly misunderstood the argument (43).  In strategy and form, Rocky Mountain Foot seems to me at some distance from Paterson; McLuhan's Gutenberg Galaxy (1962) might be a more immediately obvious forerunner.

     There are two further ramifications to Kröller's insistence on reading Rocky Mountain Foot as Dadaist collage.  The first encourages us to regard design and packaging elements over which Bowering had no control (or very little) as an integral part of Bowering's poetry and as providing a legitimate interpretive context for it.  The second encourages us to read the poetry in terms of the first.  Thus, Kröller draws attention to the "ironical dissonance" between the poems and the cover jacket's promotional text stressing the volume's regionalist qualities.  However real such dissonance might be, it can hardly be accounted as part of Bowering's vision.  My second point becomes evident when we examine Kröller's comments on the cover jacket.  In her words, "this blurb hardly prepares the reader for the often sharply satirical poems in which Alberta is described as 'the community / of God, the commonality / of the slipt disc' ("geopolitic")" (41).  If we accept as legitimate the existence of an "ironical dissonance," we are almost impelled to accept the idea that Bowering's view of Alberta was mainly cynical.  This, I submit, ignores the context of the volume's composition, and misidentifies the targets of its occasional satire.

     While Bowering was at the University of Calgary, Ernest Man ning's Social Credit Party was in power in Edmonton, holding all but three seats.  The movie Tom Jones was to be released in Alberta theatres, but only after "certain deletions" were to be made by the province's chief censor, Colonel P.J.A. Flemming, "to make it acceptable to reasonable minds" ("Tom Jones and the Alberta Amusements Act," Edge 2, x).  In February, 1964, all Social Credit MLAs and their wives were officially invited to an uncensored viewing of the film; Opposition MLA's were not invited.   This occasioned cries of 'Hypocrisy' and a vigorous debate on the legitimacy of censorship, with the sharpest attacks coming from Edge: An Independent Periodical, edited by Henry Beissel at the University of Alberta.2   There can be no doubt that Bowering both followed the controversy and contributed to it through Edge.  The Spring, 1964 issue of the periodical contains an editorial, "Tom Jones and the Amusements Act," articles, "Sense and Censorship" and "Toward an Erotic Future," and satire, "Tourist Guide to Canadian Law," all largely in response to the controversy.  The Autumn, 1964 issue con tinues the offensive with two articles, "Sociological and Ethical Dimensions of Alberta," and "The Bible and Social Credit."  More over, the issue contains two pieces of satire, "Tourist Guide to Canadian Nationalism" and, by George Bowering, "Some Farsighted Suggestions about Military Reform."   Bowering would continue to publish in Edge until Autumn, 1966; his most memorable contribution in the present context is his satirical attack on censorship, "colonel fleming et jules et jim," later included in Rocky Mountain Foot.  The volume does contain satire, then, but it is not nearly as pervasive as Kröller's quotation from "geopolitic" suggests.  Of the volume's eighty-one poems, a dozen might be regarded as satiric and only half that number as "sharply satiric" (81).  Their target is not all Albertans but the fundamentalist Bible-thumpers and their sanctimonious minions in the Legislature.  Such irony as may be apparent in other poems is quite muted, directed less specifically at Albertans than at Western technological culture in general; tonally, they are more reminiscent of Birney's "the mammoth corridors" than of Dada.

     In "Newspaper Collage: Rocky Mountain Foot," Kröller's argument seems to me to go off the rails for the reasons already cited.  In spite of this, her readings of many of the poems, especially those with biographical elements, are astute with respect to both style and the continuity of themes in other volumes.  What I find most curious about this chapter, however, is the decision to focus on Rocky Mountain Foot rather than George, Vancouver, which is much more obviously indebted to Williams' Paterson and Olson's Maximus.  Written in London, Ontario, in 1967, George, Vancouver was published in a limited edition by Weed/Flower Press in 1970 with a cover, a navigational chart of Cook's Inlet, that is an obvious imitation of the cover of the 1960 Jargon/Corinth edition of The Maximus Poems.  Kröller, however, seems unaware of the existence of this edition and relies on the text (sans the visual markers pointing directly to Olson) as reprinted in The Catch (1976).  For this reason, perhaps, she confines her remarks on the volume's form to the observation that it employs "a similar collage technique as Rocky Mountain Foot" (50).  As originally published, the two volumes resemble each other hardly at all.

     The difficiencies of Kröller 's methodology in the first three chapters of Bright Circles of Colour are not equally evident in each of the four remaining chapters, but they are symptomatic of the volume's short-comings.  Too frequently the reader is asked to make an almost surreal leap into a site of understanding generated by the juxtaposition of texts, or texts and contexts, with only circumstantial evidence to justify the initial assemblage.  In "Bowering and the London Scene," on the other hand, Kröller goes to some lengths to differentiate between Bowering's concept of region and the region alist ethos of Reaney, Curnoe, Chambers, and others associated with the London renascence in the 1960s.  She then details with some care Bowering's friendships with Curnoe and Chambers, and their subsequent collaborations.  Her documentation of these friendships and their impact on Bowering is for me the most engaging and least contentious part of Kröller's study.  Most readers will probably share my enthusiasm for Kröller 's analysis of A Short Sad Book in terms of Curnoe's and Bowering's shared concerns with cultural mythology and iconography, and for her analysis of Autobiology in terms of the autobiographical concerns that Chambers' paintings awakened in Bowering.  Even so, it is important to appreciate that many aspects of the London scene documented by Kröller took place some time before Bowering's arrival at the University of Western Ontario in 1966, and most of his responses to that scene came well after he had left London for Montreal in 1967.  One of his most well-known responses, "Reaney's Region," was not written until 1983, long after he had returned to the West.  Conversely, many of Curnoe's works discussed in this chapter were executed many years after the London scene of the 1960s was a spent force.  While there can be no doubt, then, of the powerful impact Curnoe and Chambers made on Bowering, Kröller's habit of discussing events and publications in an achronological manner can be both confusing and misleading.  The careers of these three artists were in some ways parallel and sometimes intersected, but, given the years involved, they also diverged.  Perhaps too much ought not to be made of Bowering's connection to the London scene, especially if we note that he regarded the writing he did in London as "just hopeless" (54).

     The care exhibited in documenting Bowering's relationships with London artists is unfortunately not exercised in the fifth chapter, "Montreal, Guido Molinari and the Kerrisdale Elegies."   Not one shred of evidence is offered to suggest Bowering's familiarity with Molinari's work, or even his awareness of the artist's existence.  Nor do any of the poems of Bowering's Montreal period, collected in The Concrete Island: Montreal Poems 1967-71, reflect any of the theoretical or formal concerns that Kröller attributes to Molinari.  Thus, the analogies which Kröller draws between Molinari's work and Kerrisdale Elegies, published a decade and a half after Bowering had left Montreal, seem to me fortuitous at best, inane at worst.  There are some fresh insights, as for example the discussion of Bowering's development as an elegist or his development in the use of the tree metaphor.  But, as in previous chapters, there is too much opportunistic exploration of what might be perceived as parallel concerns — Molinari was interested in Piaget's theory of children's art, there is a child in Kerrisdale Elegies, ergo . . . — but with considerably less justification.  Curnoe's name, does at least show up in Bowering's work.  Molinari's, to my knowledge, does not.  Nor does Piaget's.  Kröller 's observation, then, that "[t]hroughout the Elegies, the lines are opened up by large white spaces which, together with the black print form energy vectors crossing, and transcending, the page" (80), and that these are an instance of Piaget's "interactionist" space, seems to me decidedly wrong-headed, especially since she has already quoted Bowering on this very matter, to whit:

I first wrote [the Kerrisdale Elegies] in long lines like Rilke's, and the rhythm was all wrong: it was sounding too much like a translation.  So I just rewrote it with a different page.  Originally I wrote them in exam booklets — long, long lines written really small.  But now I've got all the white space caused by editing it. (77)

This does not seem to justify Kröller's assertion that the poems "insist . . . on the ethical component of space" (77), nor her later speculations vis-ŕ-vis Piaget, Molinari, and vectors.

     Ironically, Kerrisdale Elegies does offer at least one opportunity to discuss poetry in relation to painting, but it is an opportunity missed (and sadly because it involves an area where Kröller has some expertise).  Bowering's suite is both modelled on, and written against, Rilke's Duino Elegies, the fifth of which has as its controlling metaphor Picasso's "Les Saltambiques."  What significance can or should we attribute to Bowering's replacement of Rilke's meta phorical, Cubist acrobats with a baseball game as his controlling matrix?  Has Bowering lost his interest in, or rejected, the Cubism that Kröller claims underpins The Man in Yellow Boots?  The answer to this I suggest, is more germane to understanding Bowering's art than the observation that "Kerrisdale Elegies is a poem of almost 150 pages, while Molinari's Quantificateur series (first shown in 1959) contains paintings measuring a width of twenty-one feet; others are close to ten feet high" (77).

     I have mixed reactions to Kröller 's penultimate chapter, "The Burning Water Trilogy."   The first third of the chapter, "Postmodernism, Colony, Nation: The Melvillean Texts of Bowering and Beaulieu," is a revised version of an essay first published in University of Ottawa Quarterly in 1984 (which, again, is not cited in the bibliography).  In this section, Kröller offers a comparative reading of Burning Water, Melville's Moby Dick, and Victor-Levy Beaulieu's texts, principally Voyageries, focusing on their use of visual allusions and treatment of image making as critiques of the language of imperialism.  Although Bowering's novel receives less attention than those of Melville and Beaulieu, the analysis does at least proceed in terms of issues generated by the texts themselves, and not in terms of extra-literary paradigms.  This section of Kröller's study will appeal especially to readers of post-colonial theory, provided they have sufficiently mastered Beaulieu's considerable oeuvre to follow the argument.   "Trieste and Burning Water" this chapter's second section, is for me one of the least satisfying pieces in the entire study; indeed, I find it to be mostly an overly-long digression of dubious import.  It begins with a five-page history of Trieste from the Middle Ages to the present and includes, among other things, census figures for 1719 and 1910, information on its role as a port and centre of commerce, and the story of Trieste's Greek and Jewish nouveaux riches.  Of more immediate relevance is its connection to such modernist writers as Mann, Joyce, Saba, Rilke and Svevo, and such post-modernists as Berger and Daniele del Giudice.  Kröller's ostensible purpose for this encyclopedic entry is to establish Trieste as "an especially complex quotation among numerous others from literary sources (Shakespeare, Coleridge, Melville, Thackeray.  Rilke, Berger) and documentary ones (Vancouver's and Menzies' log-books)" (103).  This strikes me as critical overkill, an attempt to establish a far more elaborate metaphor than Bowering actually makes use of.  It is a truism, of course, that the more a reader knows about a particular place, the more resonant will be its evocation in a work of fiction.  As Bowering's novel alludes to Berger's G and to one of Rilke's Duino Elegies, some discussion of Trieste's role in their works can be justified.  But why spend almost a page and a half dis cussing its resonances in Saba, Svevo, and especially del Giudice, whose Lo Stadio di Wimbledon (1984) did not appear until four years after Burning Water?  And, if Trieste's history is vital to our appreciation of the novel, what of San José where the narrator also spends time, at the National Museum of Costa Rica?   What of Monterey and Nootka?

     "Caprice," the final section of "The Burning Water Trilogy" — the trilogy was incomplete at Kröller's time of writing — is as lucid and straightforward as the earlier sections are obscurantist and convoluted.  The difference is in Kröller 's restraint: critical theory here is an aid to interpretation rather than a pigeonhole into which the work is stuffed.  Her critical touchstones are Ways of Seeing and About Looking, Berger's explorations of the historical and ideological determinants of perception.  Starting with the puns in Caprice on "riding" and "writing," and proceeding to other puns and (mis) readings, Kröller analyses the novel as "an allegory of writing and reading" (104).  She then expands the discussion to a consideration of the art of photography and its relation to fictional representation.  A key figure here is Henri Cartier-Bresson, whose snapshots Bowering credits with having "changed the way we look at the world, & the way we think about it" (qtd in Kröller 110).  Just as the French photographer's snapshots challenge the fixed poses of early photography, Bowering's post-realist aesthetic challenges the fixity of official history and "undermines the humanist/realist time/space construct" on which it is built (111).

     In her concluding chapter, "The Making of a Literary Reputation," Kröller's essential aperçu is that "Bowering has persistently subjected his literary and personal reputation to the same deconstruction as his work"(112).  In addition to biographical matters, Kröller deals with the critical reception of his works and the lyric, symphonic, and fictional/critical phases into which Bowering has divided his own career.  This is a valuable summation, but once again there is the irksome insistence on coercing the reader into viewing Bowering's life and works through the collage paradigm.  While not too much ought to be made of Kröller's reference to "the collage of literary genres with which he has experimented over the years" (112), I found myself bristling when I came upon the following: "To Bowering, his life too has embodied 'the impossible ideal [of the collage]: the loss of both subjectivity and objectivity in the ceaseless flow of entities' (Kuspit 47)" (112; Kröller 's square brack ets).  Once again, we have the attribution to Bowering of a sentiment expressed by another critic in a completely different context.  Donald Kuspit's essay, "Collage: the Organizing Principle of Art in the Age of the Relativity of Art," appears in Katherine Hoffman's volume, Collage: Critical Views (1989) and, needles to say, Kuspit has no opinion whatsoever about Bowering's life.  Nevertheless, his name will be invoked at the end of the chapter to bludgeon the reader twice more: "If Bowering, then, has taken pains to practise, in his life and work, the 'indeterminate yet insistent flow' of the collage (Kuspit 47), he also falls prey to its inherent paradox: it is made up of disparate fragments which together form a new and unexpected configuration, but each of which also contains powerful elements of its traditional origins:" (122).  The words following the colon, the book's final words, are also Kuspit's, ironically appropriate, perhaps, for a study which appropriates other people's words and ideas so freely.

     For some readers, George Bowering's work has elicited reactions that run the gamut from apoplexy to bafflement.  For others, his iconoclasm, his constant reinvention of himself and his art, are the very embodiment of the postmodern sensibility his did so much to promote on our literary scene.  Neither set of readers is particularly well served by George Bowering: Bright Circles of Colour.  Although Kröller's book offers moments of genuine illumination, its suspect methodology, arbitrary comparisons, helter-skelter organization, and overly-long digressions are likely to frustrate, if not infuriate, all but the most determined of readers.  Bowering's work merits comparison with the finest cultural expression of his contemporaries whatever their mode of expression.  When, however, the attempt to demonstrate similarities overlooks obvious differences, it is well to remember Olson's dictum — don't tell us what a thing is like, tell us what it is.


  1. In The Cubist Epoch (1971), Douglas Cooper argues that "the major effort of Braque and Picasso [generally regarded as the originators of the Cubist collage] went into solving the strictly pictorial problems arising out of their intention to find a wholly new and precise way of recreating tangible reality on canvas" (62). [back]

  2. Edge published nine volumes from Autumn 1963 to Summer 1969, and featured articles, satire, poetry, short stories, art, and book reviews.  It was a constant goad to the Social Credit government.  In his farewell editorial in Edge 9, Beissel wrote: "Our very first issue so stung the Alberta Govemment that one of its Cabinet Ministers declared in the legislative that 'Edge is poppy cock' which 'pollutes the minds of the young' and which is edited by 'nuts and screwballs' who should 'go back where they came from' " (1-2).  Bowering was a contributor from Fall 1966 to Fall 1968, and may have played some role in Margaret Randall's appearance in it in issues in 1966 and 1967.  It frequently featured poetry from Quebec and around the world; its last issue featured the Vietnamese poets Trinh Cong Son and Le Duc Tho. [back]

Works Cited

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_____. About Looking. New York: Pantheon, 1980.

Blaser, Robin. Introduction. Particular Accidents: Selected Poems. Vancouver:
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_____. Caprice. Markham: Penguin, 1987.

______. The Catch. Toronto: McClelland, 1976.

_____. The Concrete Island: Montreal Poems 1967-71. Montreal: Véhicule, 1977.

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_____. George, Vancouver. Toronto: Weed/Flower, 1970.

_____. Kerrisdale Elegies. Toronto: Coach House, 1984.

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_____. The Mask in Place: Essays on Fiction in North America. Winnipeg:
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_____. Rocky Mountain Foot: A Lyric, A Memoir. Toronto: McClelland, 1968.

_____. A Short Sad Book: A Novel. Vancouver: Talonbooks, 1977.

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Davey, Frank, ed. TISH No. 1-19. Vancouver: Talonbooks, 1975.

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Hoffman, Katherine, ed. Collage: Critical Views. Ann Arbor: UMI, 1989.

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     Bowering and Beaulieu." University of Toronto Quarterly 54.2 (1984): 53-61.

_____."Roy Kiyooka's The Fontainebleau Dream Machine: A Reading." Canadian
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Leider, Philip."Vancouver: Scene with no Scene." ARTSCANADA 109.110

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Ondaatje, Michael. The Collected Works of Billy the Kid. Toronto: Anansi, 1970.

Perry, Samuel."Maximus of Gloucester from Dogtown: Charles Olson Personal Locus." TISH No. 1-19. Ed. Frank Davey. Vancouver: Talonbooks, 1977.204-10.

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Williams, William Carlos. Paterson. 1958. Rev. ed. New York: New Directions,

J.M. Zezulka