George Bowering, His Life Toronto, ECW Press, 2000
I’ve known George Bowering since the late 1960s. For nearly all of this eternity, we have played baseball together, usually on the same teams. As a poet, he’s published a much larger number of books than I have: he has a nose for a poem, and I’ve used my nose for other things, most often good food, wine and clothing, none of which interest George in any profound way. At least in the public face he presents to the world, he is a man who cares primarily about poetry and about baseball, and he likes to write poetry, not talk about it or play it for laughs. He pretends that he plays baseball strictly for laughs, but this isn’t a pose he tries hard to hold.
George is also a man who keeps his interests separated. I can’t remember, for instance, ever talking to George about poetry on the baseball field. He’ll talk about everything but what his nose is currently sniffing out, and he’s usually got his nose close to the next poem, even while he’s playing baseball. Since George has a very large nose, and I don’t make the slightest effort to keep the different parts of life separated, I’ve responded by making jokes about his nose and about the one part of his other instrumentation that has been chronically and visibly—and to him, somewhat shamefully—less prominent than mine: his baseball batting average.
He has shortcomings as a ballplayer, in other words. But there is more to George than shows up on the stat sheets. There is, actually, very little about this man that is precisely what it seems. This is because he is always disguised, in part and whole, usually as something less remarkable than he is. Among the things he disguises most skillfully are his will, and his astonishing resourcefulness. I’d like to relate a baseball story about him that reveals something about that whole, elusive man.
Now, the discrepancy between his hitting skills and mine have always been a straight-up "nyah-nyah" kind of thing, so to amuse myself and others I’ve developed a repertoire of jokes about George’s nose that I can reel out for a very long time—like the reason he has trouble with pop flies (when he moves his head back to find the ball, his nose flips up to cover his eyes), or the nose jokes I memorized from Cyranno De Bergerac which I used to recite during games after he made an error or a base-running gaffe—most games, now that I think about it. Yet merely making merry with George’s nose here would obscure my affection for him almost as much as his nose does his view of a baseball field. Suffice it to say that I never stand next to him in the dugout for fear of being knocked down when he turns his head, and that I have nursed him through many baseball-incurred injuries, almost all of them to his nose. The most serious of these was a rather fortuitous broken nose caused by a ground ball. The grounder would have hit a normally-probosed man squarely between the eyes, and George, who was wearing a pair of ancient eye-glasses with glass lenses when it happened, might have lost an eye had his nose intervened to protect him.
But the story I want to tell you about him is not a joke even though it is a baseball story. George is a good man, a fun ballplayer and a fine poet with an intelligence that won’t be captured by merely making jokes about the physical burden life planted between his eyes. He is not a simple or easy man to understand, and he is a still-harder one to know intimately because he almost never speaks or writes personally, least of all in his poems.
As a way of explaining the complexity of George’s character, I want to tell a story about why he plays baseball, and how he has gone about playing the game. He isn’t motivated simply by the ridiculous hope of someday, somehow, matching my batting average.George plays because he has a passionate love for baseball. Yet the methods by which he has played all these years reveals his character in a way any superlative attestation to his passion can’t. I have no assurance that the facts of the story I am about to relate—the ones to which I am not a direct witness—are accurate. George never confirms autobiographical facts.
As a child, according to the story, George contracted Scarlet or Rheumatic fever. I’m not sure which it was, but it was a case severe enough to weaken his heart. He was told by his family physician never to engage in physically stressful activities. But George wanted to play baseball. And George is not a fool, not then, not now. If a weakened heart put him at risk, then he would make some adjustments. The result was a slightly peculiar and certainly distinctive style of play.
The only body muscle George has exercised strenuously and consistently during the years I’ve played with him is his tongue. George never shuts up at a ball game, whether he is on the field, in the dugout, at bat or up in the stands braying at whatever unfortunate professional player has come to his attention. In his own games, George runs the bases oddly, and very, very, slowly. He resembles, as one teammate described it, a duck with its feet nailed to a board. His throws—he was originally a shortstop—are 80 percent positioning and quick release and 20 percent arm action. At the plate, he is balance and economy—and a lot of weak grounders to the infield. I’ve never seen him fall down swinging at a pitched ball the way good hitters so often do—no mean feat given the sheer physical volume of his nose. Never mind that his hits rarely stray more than a few metres onto the outfield grass. To him, placement of the ball is more important, and not straining his body. He does not run out triples or home runs as life has frequently forced me to do. He hits singles and from there moves from base to base with measured economy and a tangible reluctance that to the uninitiated, seems merely to be slowness afoot.
Each of the things I’ve described above have the same purpose: to avoid excessive physical extension and exertion. Whatever the truth about his heart-damaging childhood fever, George Bowering has a style of play governed by physical restraint and fueled by judgment rather than fury or unrestrained effort—or excessive certainty. I have deep respect for how far this approach has taken him on the baseball field, and how long it has permitted him to remain there.
My description of his style of play on a baseball field happens to be a fair approximation of his approach to poetry, and I think the resemblance is not accidental. George has been determined to play on both these fields well, and he has found ways to write poems that are worthy of our admiration and our close attention. There, it is George’s nature to be uninterested in the comparative volume and quality of his own talent. Whether this is because in poetry there is no wise-ass making jokes about his nose, I can’t say. I can say that he focuses on the field of the poem, on the play of words, and on the action above and beyond it as well as any poet in this country. With poetry, where he really does have talent and thus can operate from skill rather than cunning and will and the physical challenges life has imposed, it has kept him from envy.
But because life doesn’t always accept our partitionings of it, it is the mix of those different traits have kept him on the baseball diamond well after most players would have quit or broken down physically. He could still hit a baseball when I last played with him even though his speed running to first base had dropped below the threshold of perceptible movement. But the quality of his verse, judging from His Life, published recently, continues to turn over new ground while offering employment to his astounding range of skills.
I’m writing this because it occurred to me recently that it is George’s skills as a poet that have made him the most fun of any ballplayer I’ve played with or against. But it is equally true that his skills as a ballplayer: endurance, the absolute refusal of flamboyance or uncontrolled motion, are the same ones that have made him so fine a poet.