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“Right Over the Plate” with the Two Georges

Review by Colin James Sanders

Some End
George Bowering
West Broadway
George Stanley
A flip book, New Star Books, 2018

Broadly configured, the poets George Stanley (born San Francisco, 1937) and George Bowering (Penticton, B.C., 1935) are in danger of becoming venerable. Their blood-lines are well-known: between them, they have been inspired and influenced by the poetry of Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, John Wieners, Le Roi Jones (Amira Baraka), Jack Spicer, Robert Duncan, Robin Blaser, Josephine Miles, Helen Adams, in addition to Allen Ginsberg, Michael McClure, and other alternative and counter-cultural, largely non-academic, poets anthologized, along with others, in Don Allen’s (1960) The New American Poetry – all this by way of introduction to the new flip book they have jointly published with New Star Books.

By way of context, Stanley moved to Vancouver in 1971, and following a relationship break up, went to live with George and Angela Bowering and others, on York Street in Khatsahlano. Bowering has reflected, “I could never have predicted such a long friendship when I knew George only as one of the poetry gods from San Francisco, but one who, inexplicably, wound up living in north-central BC. And one whose work I have admired and adored for the past quarter-century. ‘Love and poetry,’ was George’s inscription on the flyleaf of my copy of Gentle Northern Summer. Love and poetry, George.”

Bowering attended UBC in the early 1960s and was a co-founder and editor of the poetry journal TISH. Other cofounders included poets Fred Wah, Jamie Reid, David Dawson and Frank Davey. Pauline Bunting has noted that others active in the group,” though not officially editors, included Lionel Kearns, Daphne Buckle [Marlatt], Gladys Hindmarch, and Robert Hogg.”i

Stanley, born into an Irish Catholic family, describes himself now as “a Catholic atheist.” His old friend Jamie Reid (they first met in 1964 at Gino and Carlo’s bar in North Beach, San Francisco) wrote in his poem, “Message to and from”: “George has a kind of taut Jesuit calm / that cover up his in-dwelling human kindness, his desire / to find a place he is in…”,ii while Bowering has written, “His parents knew how to be Irish, giving one son to the Church & letting the / other become a poet…” As an intimate of the San Francisco circle gathered around Jack Spicer that attended his seminal Poetry as Magic Workshop, Stanley’s friends and acquaintances included Robin Blaser, Robert Duncan, Ebbe Borregaard, Joanne Kyger, Richard Brautigan, Ron Loewinsohn, and Stan Persky, whom Stanley met in 1958, was to become a close friend.iii At the Berkeley Poetry Conference in 1965 Stanley read from his work, alongside Robin Blaser and Richard Duerden.

Such is the milieu within which both Bowering and Stanley cultivated their imaginative poetic minds. Their friendship goes back several decades and they have made an inestimable contribution to a unique and novel Pacific Coast poetic community, inspiring many through their writing, teaching, and mentorship of another generation of writers, especially Vancouver poets.

On April 21, 2015 while walking his Bernese mountain dog to return books to Vancouver’s West Point Grey Library, Bowering suffered a cardiac arrest. “Imagine that,” he writes in this new book, “ – my last words / might have been spoken to the dog, she / who saved my life, it has been said…” (“Taking off from an old WCW Poem”). Taken by ambulance to Vancouver General Hospital, Bowering remained in a coma for two weeks. The opening poems of this new collection gathers compositions written upon his recovery. In “If I Should”, Bowering recalls, “When I woke she wanted to know whether my / memory was still here, / was I in there, was I / an I?”

Thankfully, the “I” was intact “in there” and Bowering returned to the craft and art he has excelled at, and for which he has received significant public recognition. Bowering has been the recipient of two Governor General Awards (for both poetry and prose), the Griffin Poetry Prize, and is a member of the Order of Canada, and the Order of British Columbia. In these new poems, Bowering’s remembering ranges widely. There is humour, pathos, recollections of literary influences, and remembering friends lost to death.

In an elegy for Jamie Read, “Inside Ours”, Bowering reflects:

I’ve already thought of four things I wanted to tell him, but he
fell from our lives last week.
Fell from so many lives we will walk like holes through each
other’s environment…

Bowering moves on, recalling, earlier, formative days:

When we were assigning poet roles among us he became
another Rimbaud minus the sacred.
Jamie Rimbaud ran away from home and joined the insurgents
in the Paris Commune and national television…
I wanted to stand on the street and deliver that message, but
You are outside our galaxy’s skin now.
Outside our galaxy’s skin and inside mine.

Similarly, recalling F.R. Scott, the great poet, political and social activist, and Leonard Cohen’s former tutor in Montreal, and to whom Bowering once introduced Robert Creeley and Allen Ginsberg, in “Attired” Bowering writes:

Look at her in those blue jeans, watch
her long legs walking up that gentle slope –
that’s time passing by. F.R Scott used to do that,
I know him now, though he stood stiff, his
posture learned during a previous ka-ching!
of centuries… Scott, born in 1899, lived with
One eye, bit a cigarette holder, knew more about time
Than you’ll ever know.

In a comment on poetics, on writing, Bowering adds “I always said poems weren’t / supposed to get you anywhere but the end of the poem.”

Stan Persky has recalled of Bowering in the early days of the 1960s Canadian poetry wars, parochialism and Vancouver versus Toronto, “…at a time in Canada when it was fashionable among writers to display an anti-American literary nationalism, [George] had the courage not to go along with it. Instead, he insisted that the New American Poetry (of Olson, Jack Spicer, Creeley and others) was preferable to a lot of academic Canadian verse, no matter how loyal that verse was. That is, poetry didn’t have nationality, it only had reality, or it didn’t”.iv

The 1963 Vancouver Poetry Conference, organized and facilitated by Warren and Ellen Tallman and Robert Creeley, then teaching at UBC, was responsible for bringing together poets associated variously with Olson’s Black Mountain College, the Beats (Ginsberg, Phillip Whalen) and the Berkeley Renaissance (Robert Duncan). The only female Canadian poet represented at the conference was Margaret Avison, and, in his new work, Bowering includes a poem, “The Weight”, in her honour:

bpNichol worked in the basement of the U. of T. library, the weight
of all those volumes above him, with Margaret Avison beside him.
She carried all those books happily inside her spirit, a poet from the
word go, a vision by Barrie’s ear.
She was famous in Boston and Tokyo and unknown in her icy home
town by the lake.

He goes on to observe that, “In 1963, at University of British Columbia, she sat with all the hip / U.S. poets who’d read her in Origin, Look that up…”, and ultimately praises “her Blakean soul”.

Stanley’s West Broadway poems, as always, are engaging and clearly articulated. His new work may be seen as continuing a longstanding tradition of writing a serial poem, and in particular, this collection appears to continue and complement earlier texts, particularly his Vancouver: A Poem. In writing of the commonplace daily occurrences on Vancouver’s West Broadway corridor, imaginatively the street becomes a river: “This river runs both ways / there are no bridges, only crosswalks / monitored by traffic lights.

One could use Vancouver and the poetry in West Broadway to trace demolition and demise of architectural landmarks, urban geographies, and the loss of particular bars, restaurants, and bookstores, now gone (Stanley once worked for Duthie Books), lost to development and the gentrification of once affordable neighborhoods. The poet sees how “out my window / the building across Balaclava Kidsbooks used to occupy / will come down soon. The City changes / faster than the heart. We’re reading / our next books”.

In the section “My Room”, comprising five poems, Stanley wonders:

Did I dream this room?
A refuge for my soul,
a cell of rainbow light,
where I can bask at sundown
in negligent regret
for the passing of desire…

Then he meditates upon his isolation and solitary existence, “…the daytimer with doctors’ appointments / neatly penciled in…”, amid

The fragrance of an altered world,
the sense of a perfected sensibility,
are supplanted by the reek of smoke and coffee grounds,
and all around, faint but sharp in the room,
the smell of one man alone.

In the section entitled “Writing Old Age”, Stanley ventures into a dialogue of sorts pondering aging and writing:

Writing answers the question: Sure, Old Age, writing will
come to an end, this piece of writing we’re engaged in now
will come to an end, but that’s never what’s on my mind.
When I’m Writing, my sense is always one of beginning. I’m
on my way somewhere, somewhere I’ve never been, or have
even imagined. I’m beginning even if what I’m writing has
already begun.

And in what seems to this reviewer an echo of Jack Spicer, he writes,

What do you care about then, Writing?
I care about, I wait for, a true line.
A true line. To hear it in language, bypassing thinking…

Inevitably, what the two Georges are renowned for is their shared enthusiasm for baseball.v Bowering recalls, “…in the year 2010 my wife Jean and I attended four season’s home openers with him [Stanley] - in Seattle, Victoria, Maui and Vancouver.” Reflexively, in “Remonstrance on Behalf of Thoughts”, Stanley recalls: “Now from the adjacent bedroom there enters an old man, / wearing just glasses (and, oddly enough, a Vancouver / Canadians baseball cap”.

In an essay on the late John Ashbery, literary critic Helen Vendler asks, “Earlier decades were supported by knowledge attained from elders – but how many poems or paintings do we have telling us what it is like to live into our seventies or eighties?”vi Bowering and Stanley’s late work is testament to what living at this point may be like, and, for many of us in poetry, they remain elders conveying knowledge and the wisdom deriving from experience.

All in, this is a wonderful literary collaboration that captures the late thoughts and experiences of two friends approaching the ninth inning, ninth decade, of their interconnected lives. What cover artist could be more appropriate than Vancouver’s own Jack Shadbolt with his brilliant, illuminating 1995 image with its fitting title of Encounter — offering readers’ one image for each cover of this unique flip book.

Colin James Sanders writes frequently for PRRB on contemporary North American poets and poetics.


i. Pauline Bunnting. “TISH: The Problem of Margins”. In Writing in our Time: Canada’s Radical Poetries in English (1957-2003). P. Bunting and Susan Rudy eds. Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier U.P. 2005, 49.
ii. Jamie Reid. A Temporary Stranger: Homages, Poems, Recollections. Vancouver, Anvil. 2017, 190.
iii. Persky’s cover for first issue of his journal Open Space (1964), was a drawing of George Stanley by Bill Brodecky. Persky’s Open Space/Dariel Press also published Stanley’s Beyond Love , 1968.
iv. Stan Persky. The Short Version; An ABC Book. Vancouver, New Star Books. 2005, 217.
v. For an informative description of Bowering’s love of baseball see Tom Hawthorn in The Capilano Review: 3.24 (2014); also The Capilano Review: The George Stanley Issue, pp. 125-128, for a brief memoir regarding Stanley, by Bowering, and “…ten of the things we do at the ball game.”
vi. Helen Vendler. The Ocean, the Bird and the Scholar: Essays on Poets & Poetry. Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press, 2015.

This review first appeared in Pacific Rim Review of Books #24