|Jan/Feb 2006 Book Reviews|
The Memory Orchard
Brick Books (2005) 96 pages
The term "elegiac" has been used, on more than one occasion, to describe the poetry of Tim Bowling, and it is not inapt applied to his most recent volume The Memory Orchard. As both title and term would indicate, these poems are largely about remembering. As they would imply, the tone is generally reflective and slightly melancholy.
Happily, this description does not say enough. Portions are sufficiently well written to deserve comment at length. A poet who can describe a heron as follows, is more than normally capable:
on a driftwood stump,
a blue heron stands like a pageboy
grown shabby in a court
where the ruling family
is so secure
they never have to issue orders.
This is a delightful and uniquely precise simile, the clear result of a more than passing familiarity with the subject "heron" and the genre "poetry." It is by no means the only such image in the volume.
Neither is it alone within its own poem. Bowling likes to carefully plant his images, like so many seeds, in his opening stanzas, in order that they may return to bloom unexpected gardens at the end of the poem. When successful, the effect is one of unusually comprehensive closure. When not, the poem in question can seem contrived, written by the numbers. In "For Your Birthday," in which this Heron appears, a half dozen are strewn throughout the first 40-or-so lines only to be revisited in the last 16, with a final flourish that saves the poem from simple sentimentality.
Where there is memory there is death, of course, and the need to come to terms with it. In the beginning of the poem "The String" the poet remembers tying a string around his wrist, as a young boy, and letting it hang out his bedroom window as he slept. In the early morning, his best friend would tug on it in order to wake him so they could go fishing together. By the end of the poem, an older fisherman, to whom the world looks a bit dingier, kneels not to clean a fish but to pray:
...the soul be taken from us
with the ease of being
on the wrist, that doesn't say
"It's time," or even "Come,"
but, soundless as the dawn
removes the stars...
But in this instance the poet is perhaps unwisely drawn onward by the possibilities of extended metaphor:
...as a boy
pulls what he loves and what he kills
towards him, grinning...
There is no ease in the death the hooked fish suffers, and, while the image that closes the poem needs this transition in order to work, it is nonetheless a false note:
...leads us to the light impress
of what we were, all we are,
a faint passage along a muddy bank
through the fraying edges of the day
into the taut horizon and the grave-grass snarl.
The reader may be forgiven if Death as a boy grinning as he pulls one, barbed hook in mouth, on shore to die of suffocation or worse, leaves him or her unreceptive to the beauty of these closing lines.
There are more than a few such exceptional passages that are mitigated by Bowling's insistence that they fit neatly into a larger metaphor that does not quite come off and more than a few poems that carry excess baggage in order to fulfill his ideal of closure. "Rain on a Sunday Afternoon," for one of the more egregious examples, continues for some 20 extraneous lines. On a dozy, bookish Sunday afternoon, the poet hears the young girl next door practicing her piano. Had it ended with,
is suddenly older than ourselves,
the book penned by one who's dead,
the song composed by one who's gone,
and the rain the same rain[.]
it would be an excellent poem, one of the better in the volume. But he is clearly pleased with another image he has thought to include for its own sake. The fact that he hasn't achieved his desired degree of closure beguiles him into thinking he has better reasons than self-indulgence and he perseveres even though it destroys the understated quality which is the strength of the poem to that point.
Because of this continual struggle to make all of the poems big enough to fit the poet's method (impressive as it is, in its place), and the resulting tendency to over-state his case at times, the better poems in this volume are, ironically enough, those which are a complete departure from his signature style. The poet-having-a-bad-day poem, "Message to the World," describes an immediately recognizable feeling in direct language:
Tomorrow, perhaps, I'll begin again
the terrifying life of heart and muscle
For today, however, it's all just too much. The poem "Dead Man in the Badlands" tries only to capture the stark simplicity of death in an arid landscape:
men have a knack
for going places that aren't death
until there is nowhere else for them
There is no particular concern for return or closure and the result is a poem that stands out as refreshingly direct and unencumbered.
In fine, Tim Bowling is to be commended for attempting more than a poet generally does, in The Memory Orchard, and for succeeding to the extent that he does. His demand for a high degree of overt closure in nearly every poem, however, can be cloying and leads him, at times, into indiscretions that a poet of his caliber is generally expected to avoid.