Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Sissortail Creative Writing Festival Poets: Paul Bowers

If there ever were a poet of witness, it would be Paul Bowers. Paul resides some 120 miles northwest of Oklahoma City, and 200 miles from East Central University in Ada, where the recent Scissortail Creative Writing Festival was held. I spoke with Paul after his reading last week to compliment him on the obvious craft I heard in his poems, particularly the musicality and extended metaphors employed. He replied that he simply wrote about what he saw out his window. A humble statement, for Bowers's vision is better than most. And his ability to record it in poetry is nothing less than virtuosic.

After reading the entire collection, The Lone, Cautious, Animal Life, I can say that I not only enjoyed its bucolic subject matter, populated with Black Angus, White-faced Herefords, red foxes, squirrels, and egrets--animals I assume live on or near Bowers's ten-acre farm--but also his "cubist birds," a "stone St. Francis," wildebeests, crocodiles, orangutans, and wolves with names like "Akela, Keara, Sakara, and Sabin," caged in a sanctuary in Divide, Colorado. Bowers sees, and let's his readers see, "trumpeter[s] in Hawaiian shirt[s] and khakis," "Southern Baptists and Lutherans and Mennonites," in settings like Rome and Tuscany. People like Emily Dickinson, Bob Dylan, Billy Collins, and the poet's mother with only "six thousand or so" breaths left, roam Bowers's poems, augmenting a vision that extends far beyond the horizon outside the poet's window.

Bowers is such a good writer that his readers can see much of what he sees, as well. In his opening poem, "Black Angus," after telling us "There are more Black Angus / this year than last, / or the year before that. / More than White-faced Herefords / or pale, humped Brahmas, or Longhorns;" this poet says more in the following eight lines than many poets say in 70 pages:

I watch
from my porch in the evenings
and wonder what grass tastes like
when eaten all day and night;

and wonder, even more if the cattle,
who bunch and turn and feed like
the darkest fish in green ocean tides,
know what they are, or what they are not.

This passage, and others like it, caused me quickly to trust Bowers's voice, to believe that he knows exactly what he is and what he is not, confirmed with every poem that follows. The way they are organized--something not immediately apparent--with no divisions in the 80 pages of poems, seems to lay them out like the "round hay bales" he writes of in the poem with the same name.

I have seen hundreds
stretched to the yellow horizon

in summer, like so many adobe ovens
tended by beaded Navajo women.

At first, I wanted Bowers to organize these poems into the 3 standardized sections found in most full-length poetry collections. But after re-reading the book, I realized that these poems are organized (I shouldn't have been surprised) organically. Bowers inserts short poems with more commentary than description or story, between longer poems with more concrete imagery and narrative arc. All are tied together by what his eye sees, his ear hears, and his brain connects to, both outside of and within itself--the life he has lived and the life he has read. And the choices he makes about the order are usually masterful.

For example, after 2 full page-length poems--"Vortex," in which he tells the story of his father's disappearance with the conceit of a storm, "As if, by throwing open the front door / Of our little yellow house, / Leaping from the tongue-and groove-porch, / He dove, body and limb, / Feet first or head first, / I don't know which, Into a passing tornado;"  and "Envy," the observations of a "twelfth-week pup" discovering a world with "vacuum cleaner[s]," "beige, columned lamp[s]," "a statue of St. Francis standing solemnly on a corner table," "a stick," "a discarded grocery store receipt," and a "walnut husk,"--Bowers gives us this short poem:

Who We Are

you and I,
now,
are what is pressed up
through the gauze of bodies:
shapes that come and go, and we
call that a "lifetime" together.
When we hold hands
we find a common source 
in our palms and fingertips.
It is a kind of death
but we are only 
our separate selves
because we call each other
by familiar names that fall in syllables
from parted lips.

Like this one, many of his poems could be considered ars poeticas. Bowers has a knack for keeping one eye on the world of carnality, and the other, if not on the world of spirituality, at least on one of interiority. And who, according to the narrator in "Prints," can tell the difference?

I fill up the trash can
with flowers cut too late
and exercise to be healthy
at my death. Whose breath
is it that fills my lungs?
Whose thoughts are these 
that pile against the shore
with such small fish in tow?

If I have any quibble with The Lone, Cautious, Animal Life, it is that some of its final poems seem to be a bit lightweight for concluding a collection of such depth. Choosing "The Judgment," for example, as the penultimate poem, seems an editorial miscalculation:

The Judgment

The orangutan
raised by two women
who taught him the signs
for ice cream
and hugs
finally saw his own kind
in a zoo, and called them,
with a subtle human disdain,
"Orange dogs."

If we view a collection of poems as one poem, I prefer the book climaxing in the final poem(s), the way Dorianne Laux describes one way a poem distinguishes itself from a story. "In a poem," she says, "there is no denoue-fucking-ment." Although I understand what Bowers is doing by placing "Notations" as the final poem, with the poet "disappear[ing] into the woods" the way Patches, his mother's dog did after she died, and his father's leaving "her bed / in the shed, a quilt of stars and / moons, just as she left it," I wish he had given us a capstone poem like "Who is to Say?" with its "waitress looking over / her shoulder at a clock / ...wondering / whether she can absorb / the final hour of her shift," and in section 3:

I am not a Whitman
leaning over the rail
of a ferry boat
to witness his divine halo,
passing through time
that lightly floats like a boat
in the midst of eternity,

but a Keats
counting the heavy notes
of a bird he cannot even see,
and falling desperately in love
with his own mortality. 

Or perhaps Bowers could have ended with "The Blurb on the Back of Billy Collins' Latest Book" with its final stanza:

Mostly, I live the mundane stanza
of waking at a definite hour,
engage in a rhythmic lurch
that is the exposition of my days,
and hope the last, departing line
is not yet composed.

Even "On a Visit to a Wolf Sanctuary in Divide, Colorado," would more appropriately close out this paean to all sentient life with an admixture of lupine and human ritual, its visitors

...form[ing] a ragged half circle
and send[ing] up a human howl,

to which first one, then two,
then four,
then more wolves

join our voices and suddenly
we are ten thousand years gone,
separated only by a low-burning fire:

we humans on our haunches,
those wolves, their yellow eyes aglow,

just outside
of light
and reach.

But having too many terrific poems from which to choose a final one is a good problem to have. And not ending on a poem or poems that this reviewer thinks the right one(s) is a minor issue in a major work of poetry.

The Lone, Cautious, Animal Life gives readers poem after poem that not only tells but shows with spot-on imagery and a unique metaphorical sense "what the world is like." For writers of poetry, it sets a high bar for what a poem should be like--higher than most of us will ever be able to reach.








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