Courtesy of Festival of Readers
As a poet, writer, biographer, and historian, George Bowering functions as something of a Canadian national icon, if not a small industry. He has written over 90 works, many bestselling, and was the first Parliamentary Poet Laureate of Canada. He has won the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction (1980) and Poetry (2000). In 1993, he became an Officer of the Order of Canada, and in 2004 received the Order of British Columbia. Bowering, a former resident of Port Colborne, came to St. Catharines to headline the brand new Festival of Readers literary festival. He delivered a free presentation that was open to the public at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre on October 13th. Bowering sent us this excerpt from his forthcoming talk.
— Gregory Betts
French Fog in Vancouver
By George Bowering
Apollinaire’s Swiss friend, Frédéric Louis Sauser, lost his right arm in World War I, and became the great left-handed French poet Blaise Cendrars. He would be an inveterate traveller and writer of poems composed or set in foreign parts. His friend Apollinaire received shrapnel wounds to the head during that same war and died from the great flu epidemic two days before the Armistice, hence never travelled to the Vancouver of his poem.
It is not likely that Cendrars travelled to the Vancouver of his poem, either. The poet who claimed to have been born in Paris lived a fictive life. Though coming from a bourgeois Swiss family, he would present himself as an ultra-whitmanic roustabout with a cheap suitcase checking out scalping knives in a “squaw’s wigwam,” or “looking for a cheap hotel” in Vancouver’s dark side.
Cendrars would go to Hollywood twenty-five years after writing “Far West,” a longish fauvist poem. There he wrote articles on Tinseltown and sent them to the newspaper Paris-Soir. His writing about the city he did see and his writing about exotic places he never got to are quite similar. A lot of it is made up, as was the personage he presented in place of himself. Having lost his right arm, he would indulge a taste for the darkly romantic, say the sinister. Even his Vancouver of 1912, though, begins with the gothic’s favourite weather––fog:
You can hardly hear the bell of ten p.m. through
the thick fog that blankets piers and boats,
and we are tipped off that what follows will be mysterious and hostile to human sense. The wind will be glacial and the shadows murky. Steamships are gone to mysterious Asia and to a “Klondike” that the poet must have thought was on some Pacific coast. When the first person arrives he resembles a noir private eye:
In the gloom I strain to make out street signs while I haul
my valise, looking for a cheap hotel.
More details about Bowering’s visit to St. Catharines are available at festivalofreaders.com
Ten P.M. has just struck barely heard through the thick fog
that muffles the docks and the ships in the harbour
The wharfs are deserted and the town is wrapped in sleep
You stroll along a low sandy shore swept by an icy wind and the long billows of the Pacific
That lurid spot in the dank darkness is the station of the Canadian Grand Trunk
And those bluish patches in the wind are the liners bound for the Klondike Japan and the West Indies
It is so dark that I can hardly make out the signs in the streets where hugging a heavy suitcase
I am looking for a cheap hotel
Everyone is on board
The oarsmen are bent on their oars and the heavy craft
loaded to the brim plows through the high waves
A small hunchback at the helm checks the tiller now and then
Adjusting his steering through the fog to the calls [S]