Marilyn R(uthe) Bowering Essay - Critical Essays

Bowering, Marilyn R(uthe)


Marilyn R(uthe) Bowering 1949–

Canadian poet and novelist.

Surreal and vividly imagistic, Bowering's poems frequently resemble myths and dreams. Bowering writes many poems from the point of view of a primitive female persona and infuses her work with the myths and symbolism of the Canadian West Coast. Her poetry collections—One Who Became Lost (1976), The Killing Room (1977), and Giving Back Diamonds (1982)—often depict extreme emotions, especially anger and violence.

In addition to her collections of poetry, Bowering also wrote The Visitors Have All Returned (1979), a structurally experimental novel in which each chapter is only loosely connected to the others. Like her poetry, this work has received mixed critical reviews.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vol. 101.)

M. Travis Lane

One of the most useful things poets can do for their art is to invent a speaker who creates in his or her or its point-of-view feelings, flesh, and world—the symbolic values of the poem…. Such poetry tends to be uncommonly strong and illuminating, and we have some fine examples of it in … One Who Became Lost, by Marilyn Bowering.

With the exception of a few excellent poems … ("Café" and "The Monastery of Hosios Louikas"), the best poems in [this book] … are not spoken by a poetic speaker who represents either the average human sensibility or even the average poetic speaker. Instead the speaker is woman-in-nature—a primitive, an animal, a witch, a goddess—some sort of natural, female force. Bowering [has] … an interest in recreating a point-of-view vitally female at the level of dream, totem, and myth. [She is] … rewriting the fairy tales, creating a world view without the dualism that has traditionally split the world into male-positive-aggressive and female-negative-passive. For [her] … nature is not that simply divided; both male and female alike are aggressor and victim, and for them nothing, not even the earth, is passive. (p. 156)

[One Who Became Lost is] a substantial and well-organized book divided into three coherently grouped sections…. Actually Bowering brings us two books, for her title, from the small central section, works also for the untitled first but not at all for the titled third section, Slave-Killers. The title section of One Who Became Lost, set in its center, does suggest for the first section the theme of the search for the original, primitive self and, for the third section, an aspect of what was found in this self. The title poem is a...

(The entire section is 721 words.)

Douglas Barbour

Marilyn Bowering's One Who Became Lost is a strong second book from this young poet. Not all the poems work, but all make their presence felt. Bowering's poems are intensely emotional, and the dominating emotions are anger/(hatred) and love. Many of the poems have the violent juxtapositions of mood and movement associated with dreams, and, indeed, the dream is a central concept in this book. The other central concept is myth, as seen in both the poems from Greece and the poems from the Queen Charlotte Islands with their various allusions to Indian mythology. Although I began this collection with a certain small sense of boredom, Bowering slowly brought me further and further under the spell of her often terrifying visions. When rhythm and language unite as they do in the best of these poems, the result is a true testament to the turmoil of the human heart. One Who Became Lost represents a big step forward for this young and as yet unheralded poet.

Douglas Barbour, in a review of "One Who Became Lost," in The Dalhousie Review, Vol. 57, No. 2, Summer, 1977, p. 356.

Robert Billings

[Susan] Musgrave and Plath seem to be the major influences on Marilyn Bowering. The Killing Room, Bowering's first full length collection, is filled with the same sharp edges of both diction and sentiment, and the same working and reworking of myth…. Bowering's world is a vicious place, a place where if gentleness exists at all, it is only one more element of the violence. Bowering's personae are caught in violence; they sometimes accept it, sometimes rage against it, and sometimes commit it themselves. This is a world of knives, of warmth cut from the body and held, jealously; of "defamation of the beautiful" and actually wanting "to be lost / in winter." The key to the book is, I think, "Winter Harbour", in which Bowering makes the harbour represent a number of contradictory human impulses: "no Spring to melt the ice floes", 'no unfulfilled desires", "no need." But the point is that such integration is only fantasy: "in some year / we may have enough prayers" ("Armistice"), but for now the search goes on, "sprouting or reaping" still "nourish us." There are times in the book when jarring rhymes undercut Bowering's sincerity and the intensity of her world; but for the most part the simple diction, and the combination of immediate presentation and abstraction ("Power is breadth / and being") effectively expose a world in which "'Morality' / means us lying dead." (pp. 101-02)

Robert Billings, in a review of "The Killing Room," in The University of Windsor Review, Vol. XIII, No. 2, Spring-Summer, 1978, pp. 101-02.

Chaviva Hosek

The Killing Room by Marilyn Bowering is presided over by the voice of a witchy female, a persona we may recognize from the work of other contemporary poets, most notably Atwood, Musgrave, and MacEwen. At its best this can be a peculiarly compelling kind of poetry; at its worst it can seem like mystification to no apparent purpose. The voice of the witchy female seems to specialize in mysterious narratives which are meant to be highly symbolic, full of secret, inaccessible knowledge about blood and bones. This volume as a whole and many individual poems in it have too much in the way of symbolic events and not enough hints of where interpretation might go, not enough statement in relation to myth. For all their attempt at rich suggestiveness, the poems therefore seem thin…. [In Bowering's poetry] the voice suggests that it possesses ancient and shared knowledge, yet the poems often read like personal mythology.

I fear my response to this volume is rather bad-tempered. Part of the reason for this reaction is that the poems give so little in the way of aural satisfaction. If we are to live in the realm of magic, why can't we get some of the goodies? Poetry is made of words and sounds, not only of potential meanings. Many of the individual sentences in this poetry are flat and almost deliberately bleached. This may be an attempt to make them more suggestive, but instead they seem merely poverty-stricken, and neither narrative nor texture is memorable in many of them. The speakers of the poems seem almost totally self-involved, brooding on some unstated injury or loss…. The most satisfying poems are "Raven II" and "Frog's Woman," which have an almost oriental feeling about them, and "The Origin of Man," which has an intelligible narrative, consistent imagery, and a sound pattern that reinforces the narrative. (pp. 162-63)

Chaviva Hosek, in a review of "The Killing Room," in The Fiddlehead, No. 118, Summer, 1978, pp. 162-63.

Douglas Barbour

The poems in The Killing Room are often powerful but it is a power of despair, of acceding to death in all its forms without fighting back. 'Death is wide' and 'there were signs / I was not safe' mark the parameters Bowering's imagination works within here. The cover drawing of a starving girl-child seems only too appropriate, for Bowering's people starve from lack of love and friendship…. So the women of 'Married Woman's Complaint' and 'Rose Harbour Whaling Station, 1910' allow the violence their men work upon them, and that is the reason for despair. No doubt Bowering feels that such bitter violent lives are and were lived, but her representation of them is so starkly absolute, so lacking in psychological exploration, that no hope at all remains. Towards the end, there are a few poems which at least begin to work with this deadly material in new, more open ways. The brilliant 'Winter Harbour' is a powerful evocation of frightening yet enticing transcendence through death and is simply the best poem in the book. Marilyn Bowering is a talented writer, but this collection is too bleak for most readers to find enjoyable or even salutary.

Douglas Barbour, in a review of "The Killing Room," in The Dalhousie Review, Vol. 58, No. 3, Autumn, 1978, p. 567.

Janet Giltrow

Marilyn Bowering's The Visitors Have all Returned is "experimental" fiction, but its innovations draw it towards poetry. Bowering presents action elliptically; consequently her chapters have the structural status of poems collected to address a unifying theme. In The Visitors the speaker's theme is her detachment from her husband and, eventually and ominously, from her daughter, and her resort to private images of ancient, childless figures traversing a mythic pastoral.

When the plotted connections among narrative units are missing, prose loses some of the ordinary signs of coherence and cohesion. Bowering supplies this deficiency with relentless reference to the narrator, a young woman...

(The entire section is 212 words.)

Bruce Whiteman

On the front cover of Marilyn Bowering's new book of poems there is a photograph of the poet. She is, as the acknowledgements inform us, wearing an expensive dress from Creeds and expensive jewellry designed by Tony Calvetti of Vancouver. If the poet as Vogue model seems an unpromising beginning to a book, the remark of Zsa Zsa Gabor which gives it its title ("I never hated a man enough to give diamonds back") certainly does not instill confidence nor help to dispel the feeling that there is less here than meets the eye. That is too bad, because although the collection overall is rather weak, due largely to the limitations of Bowering's interests and the small range of her voice, Giving Back Diamonds...

(The entire section is 355 words.)

John Oughton

[In Giving Back Diamonds] Bowering does give diamonds back, moulded from the coal of her experience…. Bowering's lines are honed, her words deliberately and deceptively simple. Like her West-Coast colleague Susan Musgrave, Bowering is fascinated by elemental things—bones, blood, the pull of the grave—but she prefers a finesse where Musgrave would go for the grand slam. Bowering writes elliptically, sparely, from a sensibility that might serve as a model for the younger woman poet, both delicate and tough….

The poems indeed have a logic of their own, mirroring and amplifying each part and then ringing changes before the echo sours. The best ones have the impact of a dream or fairy...

(The entire section is 175 words.)