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Remembering Peter Trower

Essay by Jim Christy

In November my old and close friend, Peter Trower, died at Lion’s Gate Hospital in North Vancouver. The obituaries were generous but concentrated on his biography to the exclusion of his remarkable poetry. Given the life that Trower led this might at first seem understandable. If they’d only have gotten it right.

The figure that emerges from the eulogies is a misrepresentation of the man, a reification, some curmudgeonly but lovable uncle who’d get involved in episodes you’d chuckle over years later, shaking your head and saying “Old uncle Pete, he was sure some character!”

To hear some people talk now, those who barely knew him or knew him not at all, you’d think he was a Rabelaisian roisterer swaggering into the pub with a backwoods Daisy Mae on each arm; the bull of the woods standing a round for the house and taking on all comers, the life of the party, any party. The poetry must evidently have come to him unbidden, slipped by fairies under his pillow in haywire camps and skidroad hotel rooms.

In reality, Pete was quiet, and awkward in company. He waited until people approached him before saying a thing. He worked and reworked his verse. Before he was sent to Lion’s Gate Hospital Pete was in a care home suffering from Alzheimer’s. For a few years poet Jamie Reid, until his own death, was a faithful visitor.

Pete had, according to hospital nurses, but two visitors at Lion’s Gate. I’m fortunate to have arrived back in British Columbia in time to see him two days before he passed away. Pete then reminded me by turns of an old baby with his unwrinkled skin, his round, bald head turned gaunt, and of an ancient Buddha, the thin Indian one who had been slipped a handful of anti-depressants. I don’t know if he recognized me or not. When I told Pete I was back in Gibsons, he said, “I’m in Gibsons.”

Fortunately he had the companionship of a poet from England named Stuart Newton. Stuart probably saw Peter every day toward the end. By coincidence I had just two months earlier met Stuart for the first time on a bus in the Yukon. We started talking across the aisle. Also, on that trip was another friend from the Sunshine Coast, Brad Benson. Stuart was pleased to be seeing sites prominent in the works of his all-time favourite poet, Robert Service.
Later Stuart said to us, “My second favourite poet – Well, you’ve probably never heard of him – is named Peter Trower.”

Brad and I allowed as how we had indeed heard of the fellow and in fact were old friends of the great man. Pete and I first met in 1992. I was new to the Sunshine Coast but aware of him by reputation. We immediately recognized each other as kindred spirits after literally recognizing each other with no need for an introduction. The meeting occurred in the most unlikely of places, outside Goody’s Candy Shoppe at the Sunnycrest Mall. “Are you…?” “Yes, and you must be…”
With Pete at the time was Paul Murphy, an NDP advance man and sometime actor. We all became tight friends. Pete telephoned me five times a week for years. Every morning I’d hear that mumbly – growly voice, “Hey, Jimmy, listen…”

The other two days, he would be visiting his lady friend, Yvonne Klan, in North Vancouver, and that would have meant a toll call. Pete was, as everyone who knew him understood, a bit of a tightwad. He was also very conservative. I had an old Pontiac Acadian that I’d decorated with travel mementos and which became quite an attraction. Crowds would gather around it but the ‘Traveling Light’ car embarrassed my friend.

One evening I showed up at Pete’s apartment where he was downing a few with writer John Moore but the booze was running out. Though past tipsy, Pete insisted that he required twelve more Extra Old Stock. John and I wedged him in the Traveling Light car, and I drove us to the liquor store and back. The next day Pete had no memory of the jaunt and was horrified when informed that he’d actually ridden in the thing and had no doubt been seen.

On another occasion his conservatism and thriftiness met head to head but he, after a struggle, reached a compromise. We had run into each other on the ferry from Langdale to Horseshoe Bay. Pete was headed for Yvonne’s place. He asked for a ride assuming I had my day to day car. When I told him I was taking my ‘funny’ car to a show, he began turning this apparent dilemma over in his mind. On the one hand he’d save the bus fare – even though it was senior’s discount day – to Park Royal; on the other, he might be seen in the car by someone that recognized him.
The light bulb came on. “You can drop me two blocks from Park Royal.”

I mention these kinds of things because I want to make it clear that the great poems were written by a flesh and blood human, a complicated one, and not by the wild yet cuddly paragon that he is so often made out to be. That kind of man could never have produced that kind of work.

All that stuff is finally of little importance. If you were his friend you accepted that he was very much like an unruly child. You might remember him throwing the bowl of prunes across the room but it was no big deal, really; you could clean the rug and your shirt, and it’s funny in retrospect.
I have a thousand anecdotes about him.

We were both, by choice, outside the Literary establishment, both the standard one and the much more conservative avant garde; neither of us played the game and cozied up to those in charge. We admired many of the same writers and had insights into each other’s work. Pete was surprised when I told him I suspected Gerald Manley Hopkins was his big influence, even more than Dylan Thomas or Robert Swanson. When I said that, he glanced furtively around the empty room as if a literary critic might be hiding behind the dilapidated couch with a tape recorder.

He only read work by English and American writers. Try as I might, I couldn’t get him to try Dostoevski, Celine or even Knut Hamsun, whom I was sure he’d like. Same thing with Rilke. And he absolutely refused to have anything to do with Li Po or Catullus, Villon or Rimbaud. Pete’s excuse was always, “It’s not right to read them in translation.”

Movies played a big part in our conversations. Pete particularly admired westerns – he called them Dusters. He read show biz biographies and bought super market movie magazines.

It is music that was our strongest connection. Neither of us had ever encountered anyone else whose tastes were so close to his own. We would even discuss the covers of old jazz and R&B albums we had owned in long gone decades, citing precise visual details like the stuffed Nazi officer on the Thelonious Monk album cover and the framed of photo of Jack Kerouac on the stripper’s counter on Tom Waits’ Small Change. Pete is still the only other person I’ve ever met who could recite verbatim the hustler’s prologue to Lou Rawls’ classic “Living Double” (in a great big world of trouble).’

He was hung up on Tom Waits. When I told him I was going to interview Waits on the phone Pete was excited and insisted on being there to talk to “Tommy.” A hundred times he asked me, “Where? When?” I envisioned a disaster and used the home phone of someone Pete didn’t know.

The only things we ever disagreed on, musically, beside foreign singers- he wouldn’t listen to them, not even Edith Piaf or Paolo Conti- were Frankie Laine and Elvis Presley. I liked the latter; Pete didn’t but was obsessed with the former. He made fun of “Blue Moon of Kentucky” and I told him Frankie Lane (Francesco Paolo lo Vecchio) singing “Why Must I Be So Black and Blue” was seriously embarrassing.

The music and tippling sessions were always at his apartment; he rarely visited anyone else other than Yvonne. You had to come to him. He lived in a duplex owned by his brother. You opened the door to the smell of stale beer. On the stairway dozens of empty beer cans and bottles seemed to be climbing the steps on that carpet that could never possibly he cleaned. I was always reminded of the ‘taproom’ owned by two of my uncles in Philadelphia. As a kid I’d play on the floor in the sawdust and study the moves and speech of all the molls and Wise Guys. There were few Mob figures at Pete’s apartment, but there was the same stale beer smell. There weren’t as many females either.

In his washroom there was usually a once white t-shirt gone grey, and yellowing around the neck, that hung over the shower rod to dry.

For a couple of years he rented a room to an old newspaper columnist from Ottawa named Stewart Nutter. Stewart died in that room and it was only then that we discovered he had been a much-decorated fighter pilot in the Second World War. Peter had never completely warmed to Stewart, perhaps because his own father was a pilot during the same era but had been killed when he crashed his plane.

I recall few writers being at his afternoon sessions. Besides Stewart and John Moore, I only remember Joe Ferrone and Al Maclachlan. Greg Potter once came over from the city to interview him.

I recently ran into the painter Maurice Spira, from Roberts Creek, who reminisced about spending one great afternoon at the apartment drinking beer with Pete and painting his portrait. Otherwise his visitors were not connected with the Arts. The steady ones were Marilyn Browning, who was a local actress but worked as supplies manager at the Sechelt hospital and the only regular female visitor; Steve Major, a foundry worker would be there, as well as Paul Murphy.

Of course, I was not there every afternoon for every session. Just twice a week when not travelling.

Few other females appeared. Pete was not at ease with women until he’d had a load on and began proclaiming their beauty and soliciting kisses.

I was back East for a decade during which time Brad Benson, a carpenter and photographer who had been an occasional visitor to the apartment began showing up regularly. Brad told me he went for the stories and because Pete was a real writer, an old-fashioned one who eschewed ‘networking’ and promoting himself.

But Pete was also secretive and had things going on that few knew about. Just a few years ago I met a woman on, but who had several scrapbooks filled with photographs of the two of them as well as love letters he’d written to her.

Before the couch at his place was a low coffee table that held the typewriter. From his place on that filthy piece of furniture that not even the Salvation Army in Tegucigalpa would have considered, Pete had to bend forward to attack his typewriter which really did face the East so he appeared very much the dedicated supplicant writing his sacred verse. I never saw him sit anywhere else. His guests had to make do with crooked often armless hardback chairs that never had all the legs they were supposed to have.

Hopefully some day that room will be reproduced in a museum.

Pete wrote in the early morning and didn’t begin receiving visitors until one in the afternoon by which time he was into his second beer. You had to get him when he’d had the first but before the fourth. He was too nervous and uptight before the second and babbling by the fourth but in between he was the best of company.

He talked a lot about characters he’d met in the woods but never about the woods work itself. Only now and again would he reminisce about the early days in Gibsons and Port Mellon; it was as if he was saving it all for his writing.

He did save it and, of course, we’re the better for it. The logging, the drinking, the hotel rooms, the "sliding back hills," the “slack assed spring" and the “house limned with whispering light”. He swooned over “Shapely Sherry” and loved “gentle Karen” with whom he“toasted the last hurrah of romance/counted the disappearing fantasies/all the west wheeling night.”

Although Pete for the most part scorned what passes for the Literary establishment in Canada, this is not to say he didn’t hunger for its approbation. But those people paid him scant attention unless it was to skewer him with snide comments. I recall a reading of Pete’s where I happened to sit near a Governor General’s Award-winning poet who twisted his face in sarcasm while mimicking Pete’s line about “a girl to walk the weathers with."

The regular writers, the ones who win awards, get big grants and soft teaching gigs attain their exalted positions by not taking chances, by not writing about cocktail waitresses and whistle punks, about Grandaddy Toughs and Whispering Chesters, and certainly by not being so crass as to infuse their work with lyricism and a little rhythm – Pete couldn’t understand these people.
Pete referred to the work of most of his contemporaries as “ethereal bullshit.”

One poet who took some notice of him was Al Purdy, and Pete was immensely proud of Purdy’s introduction to Chainsaws in the Cathedral. In person, however, Purdy condescended to him. But to my mind, Pete was the superior poet. Purdy was obvious and predictable. Also, he has a tin ear while Trower sings.

There is a lot of talk back east, in Southern Ontario poetry circles, especially, of People’s Poetry and who is a genuine People’s Poet. Many names have been put forth for this honour but never Peter Trower’s. I found him to be almost completely unknown back there. Other than Len Gasparini, another kindred soul, not one person knew who he was.

People’s poetry is evidently non-academic, yet presumably must have literary merit. It is thought that people’s poetry must have an overtly political message as if one were required to mention native people and the glory of nature to qualify; Also it helps to sprinkle in lame slogans and hackneyed pronouncements, maybe about shamans, elders and various – any – oppressed peoples and then you’re writing People’s Poetry. First off, this kind of thing is considered leftist – which disqualifies Peter Trower’s work right there.

To my mind the best political poetry, people’s poetry, is great poetry no matter the subject. Once when Kenneth Rexroth was about to begin reading to an audience, he asked “What do you want? Romance or Revolution?” Someone in the crowd called back at him, “What’s the difference?”
To my mind the greatest People’s Poet in America during the early Twentieth Century was Stephen Vincent Benet. His “American Names” with its devastating last line would be successful anywhere among any people.

Nor do they read Kenneth Fearing, a satirist of mid-century American life, each long-line poem a condemnation of it.

I hope the same fate, the one of historic neglect, does not meet the work of my old friend who is the premier people’s poet of the last hundred years in this county. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say he is a better poet than Milton Acorn who otherwise has no peers. Peter’s work is more important because, again, it’s the music.

Ah, he was just so different than the rest of them, and not only his verse. First off, how many poets would show up to read wearing pleated dress trousers?

He was one-of-a-kind and unpredictable. Although I emphasized his stinginess it is also true that during his last years he gave several thousand dollars to a bar maid who told him a sob story.

Ultimately his life and his work come together and to understand one you have to know the other. He is indeed a legend. I once wrote to advise people to keep an eye on him, pay close attention because he wouldn’t be around forever, and you’ll want to be able to say, “I saw Pete Trower.”

I saw Pete Trower.

I knew the guy.

The author of more than thirty books, including poetry, short stories, novels, travel and biography, Jim Christy’s recent publications include the poetry book The Big Thirst (Ekstasis Editions, 2014) and the nonfiction book Rogues, Rascals, and Scalawags Too (Anvil Press, 2015).

This review first appeared in Pacific Rim Review of Books #23