RE­VIEW HE SPEAKS VOL­UMES: A BI­OG­RA­PHY OF GE­ORGE BOWERING

The Georgia Straight - - Books - By Re­becca Wigod. Talon­books, 316 pp, soft­cover by

dEVEN BE­FORE Ge­orge Bowering was ap­pointed Canada’s first par­lia­men­tary poet lau­re­ate, he was al­ready the West Coast poet most widely known in the coun­try as a whole. Yet he is not just a poet, though that is his pri­mary field of en­deav­our. He has also writ­ten avant-garde fic­tion and quirky works of his­tory and bi­og­ra­phy—in fact, all sorts of things. An ap­pen­dix in Re­becca Wigod’s per­fectly crafted work He Speaks Vol­umes: A Bi­og­ra­phy of Ge­orge Bowering lists more than 150 books he has pub­lished be­tween 1967 and to­day. She is a tire­less re­searcher, a fine writer of prose, and a skilled ex­plainer of Bowering’s work, his life, and his sin­gu­lar per­son­al­ity. The last of these was no doubt the most dif­fi­cult to elu­ci­date.

She writes that “he’s more com­plex than many peo­ple re­al­ize. He’s an in­tel­lec­tual, though he doesn’t al­ways give that im­pres­sion.” He has had a deep, life­long ob­ses­sion with base­ball and prefers the cui­sine of cheap din­ers, and has of­ten been crit­i­cized for ad­vo­cat­ing U.s.–style writ­ing and in­deed U.S. au­thors, for de­spite his Cana­dian pa­tri­o­tism his man­ner skews to­wards Amer­ica. He’s a rad­i­cal left­ist who ad­mired Richard Nixon and John Diefen­baker.

He’s also a bit of a mad­cap. He has writ­ten un­der many made-up names and fre­quently changes his date of birth and likes to switch the places in B.C. where he claims to have grown up (all of them in the In­te­rior). His friend Mar­garet At­wood has said, af­fec­tion­ately, that he hides his real self be­hind a goofy act, giv­ing “a ge­nial imi­ta­tion of a man act­ing like a nin­com­poop”.

He was a ru­ral boy, “a kid of the sage­brush and rat­tlesnake coun­try”, who in 1953 found a short stay in Vic­to­ria “in­trigu­ingly for­eign [be­cause it was] on a forested is­land”. When he en­rolled at UBC “Van­cou­ver’s rain was an af­front to a young man who had known the arid­ity of the Okana­gan.” In 1958 he be­gan keep­ing a di­ary that was also “a record of his achieve­ments and con­nec­tions” as well as the minu­tiae of daily ex­is­tence. “He strove for a look by em­u­lat­ing James Dean, slouch­ing around with a cig­a­rette hang­ing out of his bot­tom lip, sun­glasses hid­ing his eyes.”

He be­came more fa­mil­iar with the rest of the coun­try, the way writ­ers and aca­demics of­ten do, by leapfrog­ging from one univer­sity to an­other. At Cal­gary he taught mod­ern fic­tion to 700 engi­neer­ing stu­dents! He be­came a sta­ple fig­ure at SFU. At other times he was on the fac­ul­ties of what were then called Sir Ge­orge Wil­liams Univer­sity in Mon­treal and the Univer­sity of West­ern On­tario in London. Wher­ever he was, he made him­self a lead­ing part of the lo­cal scene.

He’s 84 now and has en­dured se­ri­ous health con­cerns. One of the many virtues of Wigod’s fine bi­og­ra­phy is that she ac­cu­rately picks and presents what most read­ers would agree are some of Bowering’s most im­por­tant books, such as Burn­ing Wa­ter, Ker­ris­dale Ele­gies, The Gangs of Kos­mos, and Rocky Moun­tain Foot.

Ge­orge Fether­ling

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