Monday, September 5, 2022

Colin Morton : A double-take: on George Bowering’s Kerrisdale Elegies (Coach House, 1984)

conversations on the long poem





During my last year of high school in Calgary, I discovered the joys of writing poetry and wrote every day. Coincidentally, the young George Bowering was writer-in-residence that year at the university five km away from my school. I never heard about that, however, such was the state of local culture in the sixties. So I missed an early opportunity, as well as his prize-winning book from that year, Rocky Mountain Foot. He was in the anthologies, and I knew about TISH, but the first of Bowering’s books I bought was Autobiology, a cheeky and charming collection of prose poems. It surprised me, then, to see that he had published what looked like a translation/adaptation of a modernist monument, Rilke’s Duino Elegies. They seemed an odd couple: Rilke a towering Apollonian figure, available to me only in often-tangled translation; Bowering sort of a post-modern Trickster.

          Kerrisdale Elegies not only translates, brings over, Rilke’s formal German poem into late 20th century North American English. It also domesticates Rilke’s intense lyric sensibility to a laid-back West Coast vibe. Inspiration for Rilke’s series of meditations is said to have struck him at secluded Duino castle on the Adriatic in 1912; Bowering locates his ruminations in a leafy Vancouver suburb during baseball season.

          From the first page, the subtle shifts in meaning move the poem into Bowering’s world. Rilke tends to universalize; Bowering makes it personal. For example, the famous opening lines of the first Duino Elegy – (note 1)

          Who, if I cried, would hear me among the angelic
orders? And even if one of them suddenly
pressed me against his heart, I should fade in the strength of his

stronger existence –

becomes in Bowering

          If I did complain, who among my friends
would hear?
If one of them

amazed me with an embrace
he would find his arms empty, his own face

staring from a mirror.

The scene is brought down to earth; friends stand in for angels. Yet like Rilke’s, Bowering’s speaker feels somehow hollow. The Self, tenuous and fluid, haunts this poem as it does Rilke’s original.

          Here is Rilke again, still on the first page (note 2):

          Oh who can we turn to
in this need?
Not angels

not people
and the cunning animals

realize at once
that we aren’t especially

at home
in the deciphered world.

Bowering updates the lines this way:

                                         Who would listen
who would amaze?
Friends and beauty

lie waiting in poems, and the god
whose life we once wrote has left us

to muck in a world we covered with grease.

Already, loose translation had become a transformation of Rilke’s essentially Romantic vision into a carrying case for Bowering’s own musings. Nostalgia, aging, mortality; the deep puzzles of life remain, and with them the pleasure of the text that explores its ironies and conundrums. God and angels can no longer be relied upon; the reliability of friends remains to be tested; one’s own self questioned. But Bowering approaches such questions lightly.

          Maybe I should walk along 41st Avenue
where mothers in velvet jogging suits push proms
and imitate the objects of my first lyrics.

Maybe I should comb my hair
the way I did in high school.


          Isnt it about time we said to hell with agony?
Shouldn’t we be rich with hit parade love by now?
Arent we free to choose joy over drama?

Yes, but joy and grief are still intertwined:

                     We need the mystery, we need
the grief that make us long for our dead friends,
we need that void for our poems.

          All the old questions linger in suburban backyards and ball parks, just as they do among Rilke’s ruined castles. There’s no escaping mortality, but Bowering skips the morbidity:

                               God, there goes another breath,
and I go with it.
I was further from my grave

two stanzas back, I’m human.
Will the universe

notice my unattached molecules drifting thru?

          “Being dead is no bed of roses,” Bowering repeats, and death grows nearer as the meditations progress. The poet, walking the tree-lined streets of Kerrisdale, calls himself an “ephemeron in running shoes” traversing a world that “gave me birth / and told me / not to stick around.” Of course, Bowering has stuck around and explored many more avenues beyond Kerrisdale.

          There is discipline in engaging with another’s text closely enough to attempt a translation. It can also be liberating, opening the imagination to unfamiliar realms of thought, getting on board and following the new ideass where they lead. Bowering exposes Rilke’s high seriousness to the daylight of modern urban life. He brings contemporary idiom to Rilke’s vocabulary and syntax, yet the rhythm of Rilke’s sentences has a weight that Bowering’s lines do not resist. The cadence, the rhythms persist, while the substance changes. Perhaps having a model provided him with the freedom to make solemn utterances while keeping aesthetic distance.

          Though seldom on such a large scale, many poets have seized their license and had a go at translating or interpreting poems from other cultures and ages. Often, lacking knowledge of the language, they use translations as springboards to poetic lines of their own. So we find homages, poems that owe their birth to another poem but depart from translation and must be read new poems. Robert Lowell called his imitations; Steven Heighton, approximations. Ezra Pound famously modernized the anonymous Anglo Saxon poem “The Seafarer.” Recently I came upon translations of another poem from Anglo-Saxon England, “The Wanderer,” and tried to pare it down to the way a present day “canadien errant” might express the pain of being separated from friends. 


The Wanderer

(after an anonymous Anglo Saxon poem)


Icy waves as far as I can see.
No sign of anyone I know.

Each day this silence
and none to break it.

Be firm and correct, says I Ching.
I go my own way,

keep my counsel, but
where is the sign to lead me home?

Ever since my hasty flight,
no solace or aid, no local,

no mates to share a pint and laugh.
I once called darkness my old friend,

but found no comfort there.
No one to pray to in the depths of night.

I meet my love in dreams
but wake alone

snow congealing on the waves
between here and home.






Colin Morton has published many books and chapbooks of poetry including award winners The Merzbook: Kurt Schwitters Poems and Coastlines of the Archipelago, as well as stories and reviews, a novel, an award-winning animated film, and video poems accessible at Living on traditional Algonquin Anishinaabe land in Ottawa, he has twice received the Archibald Lampman Award for poetry.






1. Translated by J.B. Leishman and Stephen Spender; from Poems for the Millenium (ed. Rothernberg and Joris, University of California Press, 1995).

2.  Translated by David Young; from Duino Elegies (W.W. Norton 1978).

Note 3: Ezra Pound's Seafarer

Note 4: The Wanderer with translation