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by Elizabeth Bachinsky
I am a magpie after all
I only fly to reach the good stuff.
I have been doing this all my life.
I have met many fliers along the way.
I am a black and white bird.
I become hard to find in the snow melt.
You can locate me by the loot.
You can decide not to read it.
from My Darling Nellie Grey by George Bowering
Last week I went to the Bau-Xi on Granville Street to look at some pictures by Anthony Redpath. As I was going into the gallery a big crow swooped down, grabbed my hair hard, and flew off again. This untitled poem is a fragment from George Bowering’s autobiographical long poem Crows In the Wind, which is the first section of his twenty-sixth collection of poetry My Darling Nellie Grey. I have read this fragment a lot on the Skytrain and on the bus where Poetry In Transit displays it alongside ads for bankruptcy lawyers and STD clinics. Like that crow’s visitation to the Bau-Xi, this poem is brief, unexpected, and lends itself to much interpretation – and, unlike that crow, I will always be glad to see this poem.
If I’m on the Expo Line and I read “I am a magpie after all…,” right away I think: was there ever any uncertainty about this speaker’s magpie-ish-ness? Is this a quality the speaker had forgotten he possessed and has now just remembered? What kind of bird is a magpie but a bird that loves to collect shiny things, interesting things, just the “good stuff.” But magpies aren’t just collectors, they are also pests. They “defend their territory with “singing” and “aggressive posturing.” That does sound about right. George does love to brag (at least he does when he’s bowling.) So what kind of posturing is going on here?
Magpies might make us think of Marianne Moore since Auden once said she had “a magpie of a mind…” and it’s pretty humble to put yourself in Moore’s company. Not to mention magpies are some of the smartest animals on the planet, one of the few species that can recognize itself in a mirror. The image of a magpie acknowledging himself in a mirror is a poignant symbol for autobiography, yet still suggests the vanity of the braggart. Yet as this speaker contemplates himself, he also contemplates others—none of whom he identifies as magpies. Others are “fliers.” Not all writers, the speaker suggests, recognize themselves in their practice the way he does. To be sure, this poem – like so much of Bowering’s work – oozes braggadocio. This speaker has the right “stuff” but he also has the “loot…” and, as Eliot says, “Mediocre writers borrow, great writers steal.”
But the image of author as black and white bird is also terribly funny. Terrible, because this poem, despite its crowing, is the twenty-sixth fragment of a thirty-one part elegy in which the author, at seventy, contemplates his own life and death and the lives and deaths of dear friends. This poem, positioned near the end of a month-long project, is part of an ambitious year-long challenge to a writer within sight of the end of his life. The speaker might feel tired. He might feel crabby. He might not feel like “fly[ing] to reach the good stuff.” – but this won’t preclude his reaching for “stuff” lying readily on the ground within beak’s reach.
Funny, poignant, terrible, rhetorical, pedagogical, the tone of this poem may be read in any number of ways. It might be read as flat and pedantic with its stubborn end-stopped lines and plodding four beat rhythm, or with more of a hint of annoyance as if to say “Where’s the confusion? It’s all right there in black and white…” but it might also be read with a shrug of boyish culpability, as if to say “I am a magpie after all. I have always been a magpie. What else can I be?” My favorite reading of this poem however, suggests that this speaker is speaking from a place of total confidence. In a most magpie-ish manner, he is using every skill at hand to display his dominance, his poetics. In this reading emphasis lies less on the “am” and more on the “after all.” What is “all?” “All” is everything. All is more than 100 books. “All” is a life lived and understood through the process of writing, a life of textuality that the reader can “decide not to read.”
I am a writer after all.
I write about what interests me.
I have been a writer all my life.
I have met many who write along the way.
I am a clear and direct writer.
I am a writer whose writing can be “difficult.”
You will find my books if you look for them.
You don’t have to read them.
I like to think there are no accidents in poetry, particularly not if you’ve been writing it for more than sixty years. This poem is the twenty-sixth poem in Bowering’s twenty-sixth book of poetry. It speaks to his life, his life’s work, and what may, or may not, become of them. It is definitive. It says what it must say and it says so “simply.” It is “lyric,” it is “formal,” and it is part of a larger constraint that might also be classified as “Oulipo.” Its formal and tonal fluidity moves me, which is why I am speaking to you of George Bowering now and not some other Vancouver writer.
This poem from My Darling Nellie Grey is a tiny sliver of George Bowering’s entire body of work. If I were to stack his oeuvre in one spot, it’d probably be as tall as I am. Even the idea of a complete works of George Bowering makes my brain hurt. I have spent today writing a thousand words about eight lines of his and I know I haven’t really even begun to unpack them. But if you want to know how to live a life through writing, if you want to learn how to really play, to discover what is most interesting to you, take my advice and read him! Read him! Read him!
This piece first appeared in Issue 4 of Poetry is Dead on Vancouver: Influence in 2011.