The poems in What is Long Past Occurs in Full Light: New Poetry, Marilyn Bowering’s most recent poetry collection, wrap with care around the tender pairings of presence and absence, the present and the past. In each of the book’s three parts—“Missing,” “Woof –at the Door – Woof,” and “The Writers’ Museum”—Bowering meditates on a present marked by past relationships, events, and impressions, all the while shifting the contours ever so slightly under the full light of her recollecting.
The book begins with “Night Heat,” a three-part poem that grounds seemingly everyday events in a gravity of language. Consider the proximity described in the gorgeous lines “… your body so beautifully planed and scarred / I have to stay to count its blessings, …” (2) juxtaposed against the shadow of absence: “I think the rain woke me: / no letter from you, …” (3) and, “I hear your voice in the night because you are far away. …” (4) The play between presence and absence that so marks this poem sets the stage for memoir—and indeed, Bowering goes on to relate the sensory and complicated contexts of lived experience. In “All Harm Played into the Earth,” she writes about a place she can only recall through fragmented memories and associated adult gossip, a transitory place. She writes: “I cannot return to the grasslands with their giant insect derricks / as I first saw them. That place is overgrown with wild strawberries / and weeds, the rigs rusted and mute. …, (9) and “Then the grasslands continued their journey, / the car stopping to change a tyre, the passengers needing / a drink. …” (9) This folding over of time/place, so cued to connections and to the essential moments that signify a turn, both intensifies and illuminates the life journey at the heart of this collection.
In section two, “Woof–at the Door–Woof,” we came to know the gentle border collie Tessa, the family’s longtime canine companion. Reflecting on their long relationship and the emptiness that settles in after her death, Bowering writes: “Is it you, your presence pooled in the house / like water? / Is it the trees in the moonlight, and the footfalls apparent / in their
shadows? / Is it the sea at the foot of the road, at ease / in deep shelter? / I want it to be you, …” (52) These lovely poems, so tinged with loss, honour a beloved familiar whose calm affirming presence is deeply missed.
What is Long Past Occurs in Full Light is filled with images that lay out a lifetime linked to places, time, and the people—and animals—who shared each hard or cherished moment. In this sense, it is a very personal book, and lines like “I lay down on the moss, / and listened to all they had to say—/ because nothing could ever extinguish / the art of this green Earth, / as long as I did.” (90) arrive as gifts that draw us into the writerly process at the heart of Bowering’s work. In the final poem, “Basho,” we too are encouraged to attend, reflect, and allow imagination to take us to a place where we might better understand and know ourselves, our world. She writes: “I am with Plato. Nothing less than truth is what’s required. / I am with Basho, ‘Seek not to follow in the footsteps of the wise; / seek what they sought’ … (103)
Marilyn Bowering is a Canadian poet, novelist, playwright and teacher whose work has been awarded the National Magazine Award for Poetry, the Malahat Review Long Poem Prize, the Pat Lowther Award for Poetry, and the Ethel Wilson Prize. For further insight into her writing process, read her essay “Out of the Shadows” in Prairie Fire’s Winter 2020-2021 issue (41.4).
What is Long Past Occurs in Full Light: New Poetry
by Marilyn Bowering
Illustrations by Ken Laidlaw
Mother Tongue Publishing Limited, 2019, 130 p.p., $21.00
Jody Baltessen is a Winnipeg poet/archivist and writer. Her work is forthcoming in Pangyrus and Hamilton Arts and Letters (HA&L), has appeared in Poetry Pause (League of Canadian Poets), Prairie Fire, and The New Quarterly (TNQ), and has been shortlisted for the Gwendolyn MacEwen/Exile Poetry Prize.