The Poet Laureate Attends the Ball Game
The best poetry is written in fear . . . When it has a good reader, the best poetry is read in fear.
George Bowering, Errata
To know the difference between what’s imagined deeply and what’s only in front of our eyes – in short, the difference between what is art and what by contrast is merely real, you need to know that night and silence does not fall the way the word and the world seem to say it does.
Rather, it gathers: one moment it is still light and then it becomes dusk and gradually the dusk darkens until at a certain moment the dusk is gone and the full dark at last arrives in all its unknowable majesty.
As George Bowering knows, there is no more beautiful or perfect moment in a ball park than that moment on the field when the nine players, spread out in their uniforms like small markings on the illuminated emerald geometry of the field, each in his appointed place, full of grace and attention, become like statues in their presence as the night rolls in.
Within that moment of darkness arrived, within that pregnant pause and hush, one of the few and precious moments in any baseball game, when it is not in the least necessary for the crowd or the players to move at all, not even to speak or to think. Merely to feel, simply to allow the night beyond the illuminated emerald of the field to flow into their souls unhindered, more like a suspiration than a breath. This bubble of light in which we as spectators, hidden in the twilight under the roof of the stadium, half in and half out of the dark, bathe barely knowing, yet somehow set off by its presence from all the immensity of the darkness outside, and all of its suddenly sweet and lasting silence.
For without us, the crowd, there is no ball game. There is no illuminated field, no darkness, no friends, no happy yells, no spirit of uselessness to delight us, no error, no flash of genius, nothing beautiful or eternal, only the noise and swish of the city’s traffic and of ordinary existence grinding on, day and night. For in this perfect moment, all the more holy for the fact that it takes place in the midst of the most secular of events, the crowd is silent, the shouts die down, there is a moment of abstracted quiet, of sacred silence, as the night slips in all outside our lighted space.
Whose magic magpie voice will dare to be the first to break this holy silence?
the poet laureate is heard to squawk
ostensibly to the opposing pitcher,
but more than that to all around him in the park,
“Throw the ball right!”
* * *
George Bowering recently told me that the first time he and I met was in San Francisco in the early 1960s. According to him, he knocked on my door there (wherever I was living then, most likely on Union St. in North Beach) and I opened it, stark naked. I, of course, have no memory whatsoever of this radiant, if minor, moment in literary history. About all I can say is, lucky Bowering, to have seen me then — un jeune homme en fleurs — rather than having to gaze upon my undraped self in its present condition.
Curiously, I have no specific recollection of first meeting Bowering. Rather, he just seems to be there, at some crowded, beer-bottle littered party in Warren and Ellen Tallman’s house on 37th in Vancouver’s Kerrisdale district in the late 1960s, or at a table full of other writers in the Cecil Pub downtown (which had separate entrances for “Men” and “Women and Escorts,” when Vancouver was still quaintly Edwardian), or at the table — his wife Angela is there, too, pregnant — in the dark wood-panelled dining room at 2249 York when we were all living together in beach houses in Vancouver’s Kitsilano neighbourhood. Then, as now, Bowering seems amiable, and is tall, craggy-faced, and frequently has a mustache. He has a folksy façade, slightly shy, cheerily vulgate (not vulgar), but behind the cracker-barrel façade there’s a whole lot more, including a consistently interesting poet and a man who strikes me as possessing a notable store of intellectual courage.
If I don’t have a specific recollection of meeting Bowering, I have a clear memory of reading Bowering. Or rather, I have a memory of reading and publishing Bowering. Here’s how it came about. In the late 1960s, I was part of the staff of an alternative weekly Vancouver newspaper, the Georgia Straight. I persuaded the paper’s editor, Dan McLeod, to let me edit a monthly literary insert called The Georgia Straight Writing Supplement. My co-editor was a brilliant young friend, Dennis Wheeler, who a few years later, far too early, died of leukemia.
A side project that grew out of the Supplement was a series of Georgia Straight Writing Supplement poetry books. My idea was to produce a poetry book by every Vancouver poet I knew, either new poems or a selection of previous work. Part of my idea was that in publishing the books it would force me to seriously read the writers around me, writers who I may not have previously read carefully enough.
I typed the pages of the books on mimeograph stencils, then took them down to the basement of our house where we had a mimeograph machine I’d inherited from Tish magazine (whose last issues I’d edited, a magazine that Bowering had been a founding editor of) and my friend Brian DeBeck ran off the stencils on the machine. Then we took all the pages upstairs to the living room, collated them, stapled the book together, and then we distributed them. A total home-brew operation.
One of the people I asked for a manuscript was George Bowering. Although I have no memory of asking him or receiving it, he gave me a new book he’d just written (1970-71), titled Autobiology. It’s a combination of childhood/growing up memoir and serial prose poem, written somewhat in the experimental style of Gertrude Stein, with simple declarative sentences, repetitions and variations, and sometimes one long wildly meandering sentence held together by “ands.” Autobiology is a book about the terrors and joys of growing up in the late 1930s and 1940s in the towns of British Columbia, mostly in the Okanagan region, places such as Pentiction, Peachland, Oliver.
Autobiology is a beautiful book of short “chapters,” nearly 50 of them, and it’s about eating a raspberry as a child of three with maybe a bug in it, and about teeter-totters, broken noses, fires, picking fruit in the orchard, sperm, saving nickels in a jar, towns, scars on the body, and lots of blood, mostly Bowering’s, but sometimes the blood of a deer or a dog or a chicken. It’s also a book about memory, consciousness and composition — in both senses, composition as writing, and composition as the process of composing or putting together your self. It is a serial prose poem that emphasizes, as Bowering puts it, “the importance of ‘the’ & ‘a’.” It is a book that says, “Growing up is knowing all the evils of the world & failings of all people // will not be corrected before the end of my life.”
Most of the poetry books I published were on sheets of 8 x 11 ordinary paper and just stapled together, pamphlet-like. But with Autobiology, I decided it should be more like a “real book,” so we printed the mimeographed pages on 5 x 8, thick, stiff paper, and sent it off to the bindery to be bound with a glossy cover that had a black and white photograph on the front of Bowering as a three year old sitting with his mother.
The other day, half a lifetime later, I went to the Vancouver Public Library and found Autobiology on a shelf full of Bowering’s books. I took it out and re-read it. It was, as they say in the book trade, in almost “mint condition,” the thick, stiff pages had held up remarkably well and weren’t the least yellowed, the print was still perfectly readable, and there were practically no typos. It read as well as ever.
In Chapter 10, “The Substance,” I found not a typo but a mechanical glitch where the key of the typewriter has not sufficiently impressed one letter in a word, leaving an empty space where the letter should be, and because I remembered that Bowering had emphasized “the importance of ‘the’ & ‘a’,” and because I was still Bowering’s publisher, I picked up my pen and wrote in the letter “a” in the word “all.”
* * *
Vancouver, Dec. 9, 2005