Kevin Irie - Issue 106

Low Water Slack by Tim Bowling (Nightwood Editions, 1995, 79 pages, $9.95).

Tim Bowling's first book, Low Water Slack, is a rare find. Accomplished, assured, and stocked with memorable imagery, it trumpets the presence of a huge new talent. The biographical note on the back cover gives us the personal history: first prize in the 1994 National Poetry Contest, raised in Ladner, British Columbia, worked as a deckhand of a Fraser River gillnetter each summer. But his background also describes the book's subject matter - the salmon, the water, the boats and the people who work them, where "the salmon are a moving crop."

Bowling has the talent to combine the personal, the political, and the philosophical within his poems, gliding from one to the other as gracefully as those salmon that dart through his poems. And salmon are very much the living centre of this collection. Like Ted Hughes, Bowling sees them as regal, heraldic. He describes a dying salmon as:

 ... scales like bloodied coin
 a glove of chain-mail
 after a Crusades slaughter
 the living hand still inside

              (The Last Sockeye)

Part of Bowling's gift is his ability to recognize the inherent majesty of the natural and yet to also celebrate the lives of those who earn their living by the catch. This dichotomy surfaces inthe poem, "Sunset: LadnerHarbour":

 I can see the crabs twitching like
 severed hands as the boat moves past
 me on the dyke. I know the man behind
 the wheel. Yet it seems impossible to
 wave. Who would I be waving at, the
 man I am or the hundred prisoned selves
 I can't become?

It is those "prisoned selves" that Bowling also explores in poems on adolescence, his parents, the past and future. "The Tinsmith," is a tribute to John Sullivan Deas, a free mulatto from the States who eventually owned and ran a B.C. cannery in the 1870's. "West Coast Winter: 1942," is inspired by the inland deportation of Japanese-Canadians during World War Two. On a more personal note, Bowling writes of lonely widows who depend on fishermen bringing them home catch to eat, of neighbours who have died young, of his own love. Yet, no matter what the subject matter, Bowling gives each the same skilful degree of attention and insight, of compassion and perspective. It is that Whitmanesque empathy that allows Bowling to accurately write:

 I have been that profile,
 the slow pace on hardwood floors ...I am
 one step from the black graves flowing
 by, one beat from the broken glass

                       ("Canoe Pass")

After reading this collection, it is apparent that Bowling has claimed coastal British Columbia as his own poetic landscape in much the same way that another impressive British Columbia poet, Harold Rhenisch, has claimed the orchards of the interior.

Low Water Slack is a generous first book of poems, and, at age 3 1, Bowling has the prospect of more fine work to come. Often, first books are regarded as tentative, or promising. With Tim Bowling, there is no need to wait: Low Water Slack is promise fulfilled, talent celebrated.