He Speaks Volumes: A Biography of George Bowering
By Rebecca Wigod. Talonbooks, 316 pp, softcover
Even before George Bowering was appointed Canada’s first parliamentary poet laureate, he was already the West Coast poet most widely known in the country as a whole. Yet he is not just a poet, though that is his primary field of endeavour. He has also written avant-garde fiction and quirky works of history and biography—in fact, all sorts of things. An appendix in Rebecca Wigod’s perfectly crafted work He Speaks Volumes: A Biography of George Bowering lists more than 150 books he has published between 1967 and today. She is a tireless researcher, a fine writer of prose, and a skilled explainer of Bowering’s work, his life, and his singular personality. The last of these was no doubt the most difficult to elucidate.
She writes that “he’s more complex than many people realize. He’s an intellectual, though he doesn’t always give that impression.” He has had a deep, lifelong obsession with baseball and prefers the cuisine of cheap diners, and has often been criticized for advocating U.S.–style writing and indeed U.S. authors, for despite his Canadian patriotism his manner skews towards America. He’s a radical leftist who admired Richard Nixon and John Diefenbaker.
He’s also a bit of a madcap. He has written under many made-up names and frequently changes his date of birth and likes to switch the places in B.C. where he claims to have grown up (all of them in the Interior). His friend Margaret Atwood has said, affectionately, that he hides his real self behind a goofy act, giving “a genial imitation of a man acting like a nincompoop”.
He was a rural boy, “a kid of the sagebrush and rattlesnake country”, who in 1953 found a short stay in Victoria “intriguingly foreign [because it was] on a forested island”. When he enrolled at UBC “Vancouver’s rain was an affront to a young man who had known the aridity of the Okanagan.” In 1958 he began keeping a diary that was also “a record of his achievements and connections” as well as the minutiae of daily existence. “He strove for a look by emulating James Dean, slouching around with a cigarette hanging out of his bottom lip, sunglasses hiding his eyes.”
He became more familiar with the rest of the country, the way writers and academics often do, by leapfrogging from one university to another. At Calgary he taught modern fiction to 700 engineering students! He became a staple figure at SFU. At other times he was on the faculties of what were then called Sir George Williams University in Montreal and the University of Western Ontario in London. Wherever he was, he made himself a leading part of the local scene.
He’s 84 now and has endured serious health concerns. One of the many virtues of Wigod’s fine biography is that she accurately picks and presents what most readers would agree are some of Bowering’s most important books, such as Burning Water, Kerrisdale Elegies, The Gangs of Kosmos, and Rocky Mountain Foot.