Bowering, Marilyn (Ruthe)

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BOWERING, Marilyn (Ruthe)

Nationality: Canadian. Born: Winnipeg, Manitoba, 13 April 1949. Education: University of Victoria, British Columbia, 1966–68, 1969–70, 1971–70, B.A. 1971, M.A. 1973; University of British Columbia, Vancouver, 1968–69; University of New Brunswick, Fredericton, 1975–78. Family: Married Michael S. Elcock in 1982; one daughter. Career: Radio control room operator, CKDA, Victoria, 1972–73; writer-in-residence, Aegean School of Fine Arts, Paros, Greece, 1973–74; secondary teacher, G.M. Dawson, Masset, British Columbia, 1974–75; instructor in continuing education, University of British Columbia, 1977; lecturer in creative writing, University of Victoria, 1978–80, 1982–86, 1989; editor and writer, Gregson Graham Marketing, Victoria, 1978–80; editor, Noel Collins and Blackwells, Edinburgh, 1980–82; visiting lecturer, 1978–82, lecturer in creative writing, 1982–86, 1989, and visiting associate professor of creative writing, 1993–94, University of Victoria, British Columbia; freelance writer in Seville, Spain, 1990–92; member of the faculty, 1992, and writer-in-electronic-residence, 1993–94, Banff Centre, Banff, Alberta. Awards: Canada Council Award, 1972, 1981, 1984, 1986, 1988; National Magazine award, 1978, 1988; Ontario Arts Council award, 1980, 1986. Address: c/o Beach Holme Publishing, 226–2040 West 12th Avenue, Vancouver, British Columbia V6J 2G2, Canada.



The Liberation of Newfoundland. Fredericton, New Brunswick, Fiddlehead, 1973.

One Who Became Lost. Fredericton, New Brunswick, Fiddlehead, 1976.

The Killing Room. Victoria, British Columbia, Sono Nis Press, 1977; Victoria, British Columbia, Porcépic, 1991.

Third Child; Zian. Knotting, Bedfordshire, Sceptre Press, 1978.

The Book of Glass. Knotting, Bedfordshire, Sceptre Press, 1978.

Sleeping with Lambs. Victoria, British Columbia, Press Porcépic, 1980.

Giving Back Diamonds. Victoria, British Columbia, Press Porcépic, 1982.

The Sunday before Winter: New and Selected Poetry. Toronto, General, 1984.

Anyone Can See I Love You. Erin, Ontario, Porcupine's Quill, 1987.

Grandfather Was a Soldier. Victoria, British Columbia, Press Porcépic, 1987.

Interior Castle. Victoria, British Columbia, Reference West, 1994.

Autobiography. Victoria, British Columbia, Beach Holme, 1996.

Human Bodies: New and Collected Poems 1987–1999. Vancouver, British Columbia, Porcépic Books, 1999.


Anyone Can See I Love You (broadcast 1986; produced Victoria, British Columbia, 1988).

Hajimari-No-Hajimari (produced Japan, 1987).

Radio Plays: Grandfather Was A Soldier, 1983; Marilyn Monroe: Anyone Can See I Love You, 1986; Laika and Folchakov, 1987; A Cold Departure, 1989.


The Visitors All Returned. Erin, Ontario, Press Porcépic, 1979.

To All Appearance a Lady. Mississauga, Ontario, Random House, 1989; New York, Viking, and London, Hamish Hamilton, 1990.

Visible Worlds: A Novel. Toronto, Harper Collins, 1997; and New York, Harper Collins, 1998.


Calling All the World; Laika and Folchakov. Victoria, British Columbia, Press Porcépic, 1989.

Love As It Is. Victoria, British Columbia, Beach Holme, 1993.

Editor, with David, Many Voices: An Anthology of Contemporary Canadian Poetry. Vancouver, Douglas, 1977.

Editor, Guide to the Labour Code of British Columbia. Victoria Government of British Columbia, 1980.


Critical Studies: "The Hidden Dreamer's Cry: Natural Force as Point of View" by M. Travis Lane, in Fiddlehead (Fredericton, New Brunswick), winter 1977; "Verse into Poetry" by George Woodcock, in Canadian Literature (Vancouver, British Columbia), autumn 1983; "The Latitudes of Romance: Representations of Chinese Canada in Bowering's 'To All Appearances a Lady' and Lee's 'Disappearing Moon Cafe'" by Graham Huggan, in Canadian Literature (Vancouver, British Columbia), 140, spring 1994.

Marilyn Bowering comments:

My poems, I am told, are full of surprises—the juxtaposition of the metaphysical with the sensuous and the everyday. Not that I am after surprise but that in speculating about the large things I can only use what I know. Serious in intent, certainly, but also with some irony, especially when considering men and women and relatives.

Death remains a favorite topic.

Poetry is always an attempt to make sense and order and is a conjunction of the emotional and physical life with something that "cannot be said." In that sense it attempts to go beyond words yet keeps the pleasure and shock of words as a reward and impetus for the journey. My early work was, as is so often the case, much concerned with the natural world and the past, the links of history and mythology that give the illusion of substance and order to the process of being alive. Later I became much more interested in exploring consciousnesses other, if that is possible, than my own, in the two verse radio works Grandfather Was a Soldier and Marilyn Monroe: Anyone Can See I Love You, especially.

I admire poems that suggest story, and this has led me to write more fiction. Most of all I like the dissatisfaction that the best poems encourage, as if there is something just out of reach beyond the edge of perception, and with right risks taken it can be held in the hands.

*  *  *

A prolific writer, Marilyn Bowering remains best known as a poet even though she has also turned her energies to prose. A line in her first book, The Liberation of Newfoundland, sums up her poetic predilections: "all things are full of gods." In addition, the aqueous imagery found in this book recurs in much of her later work, as does an obsession with islands, caves, cliffs, dreams, bones, and killing. The early poem "Thera," in One Who Became Lost, sets forth this skeletal vision:

   The island hills
   arch grey spines
   from the sea.
   Facing them—
   white jagged ribs of the land,

Although in other poems she frequently derives her diction from the surrealists, Bowering does not cast their wide net of content. Indeed, her preoccupations appear private, even in their projection into natural forms of sea and land centered on personal agonies. As if to exorcise the latter, she is attracted to fairy tales and often resorts to charms, incantations, spells, and curses as mediums of expression. In her early work, such as One Who Became Lost, a certain monotonousness of perception tends to make one poem blur into another, although later books like Sleeping with Lambs evidence greater variety and grasp of shape. She adroitly weaves these lines into the title poem of Giving Back Diamonds:

   I love you forever
   there's no one like you
   I'd do anything for you
   I want you just as you are
   goodbye forever, goodbye

The repetitive emphasis of this ironic refrain is given extra point by the book's epigraph from Zsa Zsa Gabor: "I never hated a man enough to give diamonds back." Perhaps a title in the "Giving Back Diamonds" section of The Sunday before Winter best describes Bowering's attitude to her materials: "Well, it ain't no sin to take off your skin and dance around in your bones." Anyone Can See I Love You is a cycle of poems as told by Marilyn Monroe about her life. The book has been broadcast and staged—a measure of Bowering's success at re-creating the star's tough but vulnerable voice.

Bowering's later work builds on earlier preoccupations. Inspired by the "fearful wonder" she felt as a child seeing Sputnik II in the sky, Calling All the World imaginatively and charmingly reconstructs the epochal journey of Laika, the Soviets' canine cosmonaut and the terrestrial travels of Folchakhov, the dog's trainer. A larger collection, Love As It Is, is dominated by a series of dramatic monologues based on the correspondence of George Sand and Frédéric Chopin. Love, she implies, has a dangerous fragility, and the broken pieces of it can cut.

Human Bodies, which samples extensively from previous collections and adds new poems, offers a useful overview of Bowering's strengths and weaknesses. On display are straightforward syntax, flat diction, a certain rhythmic monotony, a monochromatic tone, and a thinness of imagistic reference. If this seems unappealing, Dave Godfrey's introduction rightly calls Bowering's art one of "intelligent indeterminacy" and notes that her poems "almost always put us face to face with people" (or, in the case of Laika, with dogs). Also reaffirmed is the way she smoothly incorporates documentary materials, as when she revisits the battlefields of World War I in Grandfather Was a Soldier. Having a structural sensibility, she favors long poems in sections, as in "Letter to Janey":

   My mind skitters like metal spoons,
   rattling the white plastic.
   The words, the prayers, the unknown tongues
   are a wind that cores me inside out,
   like my grandmother cores an apple.
   My insides are scooped out by metal blades.
   I'm so light inside my plastic that I scarcely exist at all.

The lines are typical in showing Bowering's reflective mind confronting what to her is the self-evident terror of existence.

—Fraser Sutherland