Tim Bowling, The Witness Ghost

In a February post this year, I looked at Tim Bowling's memoir The Lost Coast: Salmon, Memory, and the Death of Wild Culture. I liked the book, though not completely. In explaining why, in part I blamed my response to the book I just finished rereading yesterday, saying that "[Bowling's] series of elegiac poems on his father's death, The Witness Ghost, haunts me: it's exactly the kind of poetry I wish I had the energy and commitment and imagination to write, and had he written often thus, it had been vain to blame and useless to praise him. Good stuff, is what I'm saying."

I'm teaching the book this fall, so I hoped it would stand up, and mostly it did. A lot of my great pleasure in this book has to do with my own biography, with my own relationship with my father and grandfather(s), and with my own self-assessment as a desiring but non-completing poet. I see what Tim Bowling has done with similar material, and I'm kind of relieved that I don't need to finish my own work after all - which is all to my shame, obviously, but I'm a small person, and some days I'm okay with that. My own biographical connection is a shaky foundation on which to base book recommendations, though, not to mention course text selection. Still, I think it'll work.

Mind you, my more environmentally motivated students will be displeased with the persistence of nostalgia, with the lack of questions about Bowling's family's (small but systemic) involvement in the salmon fishery's decline, and with the failure to look more broadly at the world. But I don't think Bowling would mind, or he would have written a different book than this one. Come to think of it, he would have a different oeuvre altogether if such complaints would bother him in the least!

His verse works really well for me, though, especially the calm voice, the line breaks, and the clear language. Here are a few lines from "Anniversary," one of the few poems that excerpts well without a detailed backstory about the book, a poem about gardening at his parents' place:
I smear the mosquito on my palm
to wear your blood, the endless cedar
smutch of the possible. But hope is bad science.
A mosquito lives a few hours
and you've been dead a year.
(p. 53)
The poem marks the first anniversary of Heck Bowling's 2001 death, memorably and openly and conflictedly.

I've given this volume to a few people close to me, and while I'm confident they don't appreciate it like I do, I know what it means to me. If it shows up in your mailbox, you'll know what you mean to me as well.


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