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Book Reviews

The Thin Smoke of the Heart

by Tim Bowling

The Wireless Room

by Shane Rhodes

It’s clear from reading Tim Bowling’s third collection, The Thin Smoke of the Heart, that he is a poet of rare talent. His wording is musical. His rhythms are subtle but unfaltering. He turns a phrase as nicely as anyone writing in this country, and his verses slip effortlessly into their forms as though tailor-made for his thoughts. So why am I left dissatisfied with this book? Because I can’t help but think there’s something anachronistic about Bowling’s style, that some of these poems try too hard to sound as if they were written a hundred years ago.

Bowling turns 36 this year, but his poetic voice is artificially antique, like the cracks people paint on new furniture, and sections of the poems often veer inward, in the manner of 19th-century philosophical texts, to explain the exact beauty of his imagery or elaborate on the nature of his wisdom. Take, for example, the poem “Meditation on a Fall Day”: “What binds us firm must pain us to the very quick / when it has gone, love, memory, the familiar joke / told in the comforting tongue. But until gone, / wisdom must contain defiant glee while flesh is warm.”

The combination of these effects creates the air of something utterly portentous. The result seems no more a product of the present day than the poetry of Yeats or Keats. There’s a glimmer of contemporary hope toward the end of the book in the form of a poem entitled “The NHL,” but it is written in rhyming three-line stanzas and is so noticeably lighter than the rest of the book that it can hardly be called emblematic.

Suppose a painter insisted on creating landscapes in the manner of 19th-century painter Homer Watson well into the 21st century. Even with masterful brush work, a keen sense of light and the verisimilitude of fine rendering, such a painter would be considered a hobbyist. Bowling, however, is only one in a growing movement in Canadian poetry, a movement backward, recoiling from the risk of attempting something untested but authentic Like computers that were not Y2K-compliant, too many poets have simply flipped back to the year 1900.

The Wireless Room, on the other hand, is an enjoyably refreshing debut collection of poetry by Albertan Shane Rhodes. Although it may not demonstrate the kind of technical wizardry we see in Bowling’s work, it does show that one can write about the past without living in it. With subject matter ranging from family history to reflections on subatomic particles, Rhodes consistently writes in a vividly natural voice, one that is so effortlessly readable it’s as though his lines appear as thoughts in the mind of the reader.

Rhodes’ unencumbered language can create near-magical effects. The images speak for themselves. He lets the details
stand in place of grandiose pronouncements. No matter what he writes about (a farm, a painted screen, a proton, a clove of garlic) he manages to connect us to a level of more human concern. The mysteries of science become a model for the mysteries of human interaction. In “Meditation on the Neutrino” he writes: “But to swim through your flesh/and see/what has been left/and what has been taken:/the closed-down reactor across the bay/one red shotgun shell in the kelp/crab bodies like unstrung violins/on the Bay of Fundy./With the waves crashing in.”

The poems in this collection are heartfelt, thoughtful, and evocative, displaying real passion tempered by controlled expression. Rhodes has produced an impressive first collection – one that acknowledges the past but lives and breathes in the present.


Reviewer: Paul Vermeersch

Publisher: McGill-Queen’s University Press


Price: $16.95

Page Count: 90 pp

Format: Paper

ISBN: 0-7735-1905-X

Released: Apr.

Issue Date: 2000-4

Categories: Poetry

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Reviewer: Paul Vermeersch

Publisher: NeWest Press


Price: $14.95

Page Count: 112 pp

Format: Paper

ISBN: 1-896300-15-4

Released: Mar.

Issue Date: April 1, 2000

Categories: Poetry