Curious George

About the simple things

Some have called George Bowering a “rear-view mirror guy,” but he’s no such thing. He is looking everywhere, at the world and his pieces of it, with his head slanted and the corners of his mouth raised. Bowering is the grinning boy who turns life over and takes it apart to see if the centre is cork, like a baseball. He’s the guy who treasures the earth — the largest object he’s ever touched — with all the cities and coasts and the room in Rome where Keats died. He’s the man who places memories of his beloved ballpark on a shelf alongside the complete poems of Samuel Beckett. And the one whose “crooked fingers” stroke his father’s dusty felt skullcap. He’s the poet who breaks down in tears at the haunting beauty of Donatello’s Penitent Magdalene (and doesn’t dare try to describe it). He’s the husband whose wife, Jean, makes sure he doesn’t exist on a diet of meat loaf alone, and the father who draws faces on bananas. He’s the writer — past, present, and ceaselessly forward — who for eighty-five years has relished the startling and wonderful jumble we call existence. George Bowering picks up the objects of his life and releases them in a shower of shapes and colours, just like the buttons his grandmother kept in a big glass bowl.

Soft Zipper is not Bowering’s first memoir but rather his sixth, possibly his seventh (out of over a hundred books). But don’t call him prolific, at least not to his face. “All my life I have disapproved of myself for being so idle, for fiddling around when I could be writing,” he laments on his website. But a writer’s life is what he has made, and along the way he’s gained honours and awards, his figurative pockets stuffed with laurels.

Bowering is a collector of objects, people, spaces, and the deceptive significance of everyday accessories — like the comb in his actual pocket. Soft Zipper is, as Lisa Robertson calls it in her introduction, “a fragmented anti-memoir which organizes a lifetime of vignettes and recollections around a resolutely objective, rather than subjective point of view.” Readers will not learn how it felt for young George to write his first poem at his mother’s kitchen table, but we do know that he once ate eleven roast potatoes (the best kind) on a visit back to Oliver, British Columbia. And isn’t that little glimpse into his life, and his mother’s love, its own form of intimacy?

Robertson, a former student of Bowering’s, speaks fondly of his vernacular prose, its “light, cajoling, self-ironical” tone. It was in his classroom, as a rapt undergraduate straining to see which texts were pinned under the professor’s arm, that she first encountered Gertrude Stein, whose 1914 collection, Tender Buttons, informs so much of the present book. Like Stein, Bowering delivers his findings in a kind of “continuous present,” with moments moving freely through him, as he struggles with the remote control or looks to an old camera from his RCAF days, his collection of frog figurines, or the bashed tuba with a sound more interesting for its wounds. To the past he goes, and back again. Now on to the next: his favourite cane.

Bowering understands that some stories are so small and precious that they must be cupped carefully in the hands. (Not like the cane, whose handle has broken off a few too many times.) With the bard’s sensorium, he defers to touch, which is not a sentimental act but one filled with wonder and unknowing — he has no idea, for instance, why the words he used to habitually doodle were “yes” and “chicken.” In an interview, the writer Judith Fitzgerald once asked him what makes a poet a poet. Bowering answered with a list of nine qualities, the first of which was “insatiable curiosity about the facts.” And of course facts must be poked and prodded, and occasionally played with. Just ask Willy, his buddy and faithful second, who boasted, “I guarantee to eat any sandwich you make.” Bowering whipped up sardines and Scotch mints.

Other men of words join these perambulations: the likes of Percy Bysshe Shelley, Charles Olson, Roland Barthes, George Oppen, Warren Tallman — whose stained mahogany table now serves as Bowering’s desk. They gaze down from pictures in his study, provide epigraphs, or offer general bolstering, quite literally in Tallman’s case. These “big writer figures,” a term Bowering would never use for himself, guide him in pursuit of sentences that are “clear but mysterious at the same time.” On occasion, Bowering’s syntax dances into abstraction and meta-textualism —“if this writing is a memoir rather than a fiction”— as if to give his sandwich of words a bit of extra crunch.

Like the best memoirs, Soft Zipper offers a slice of a mind. And like the best, Bowering does not fall under the spell of his own mythology. He is an object among many, each one doing “their own doings,” as Olson would have wanted. Sly and playful, forever on the lookout for the beauty of a line, the groaning delight of a pun, or the wisdom of sentences that remain as fresh today as they were sixty, a hundred, or hundreds of years ago, Bowering is present and writing. Lives are made up of words, and these are very good ones.