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The Alchemy of Happiness

by Marilyn Bowering

Alchemy. The word conjures images of medieval laboratories, of quasi-magical transformations, and, perhaps most importantly, of failure. For despite their many important contributions to modern science, the medieval alchemists ultimately failed in their primary goal: to transform base metals into gold. As if in response to this historical fact, poet Marilyn Bowering focuses less on the end results of her own poetical experiments in her 13th book of poetry, The Alchemy of Happiness, and more on their transformative potential.

Transformation – from death to something beyond death, from absence to presence, from grief to happiness – forms the connecting thread throughout this lengthy collection of poems. And in almost every example, the catalyst that enables these transformations is desire: “desire is a harmony/with loss,/and the unseen, like imagined sea or snow,/sustains a dream/so real we may find it.” This is most evident in the poems that navigate the complex identities of mother and child, and what happens to those identities when they are reconfigured through death: “Every child loses its mother, I suppose,/the lamp lit from birth goes out,/the child knows the dark.”

With this collection, Marilyn Bowering marks 30 years of publishing poetry in Canada. It is not surprising then, that compared with earlier collections of her work, The Alchemy of Happiness meditates more on the various ends of life than on its beginnings. Many of these poems navigate the territory of absence, grief, and loss, whether these transformations occur through death, madness, or simply the inexorable passage of time. As a result, the collection can appear rather bleak, seeming to render the “happiness” of the title as unattainable as that mythical alchemical gold.

But this collection is not haunted by death. It is instead haunted by life, a fact that is represented, most tellingly, in the ghosts that seem unwilling to disappear simply into absence, silence, and the past tense. As Bowering writes in the final “Calendar” section of the book: “My friends die in September./They talk of grammatical structures,/and then they begin to sew new clothes.”