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Poetry Canadian

The Witness Ghost

by (author) Tim Bowling

Nightwood Editions
Initial publish date
Mar 2003
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Mar 2003
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The Witness Ghost is Tim Bowling's most unified collection of poems since his widely praised debut, Low Water Slack (Nightwood, 1995). Here, in an extended sequence of powerful elegies, he traces his feelings of loss, bewilderment and anger at the death of his father, a man who spent his working life as a salmon fisherman on British Columbia's majestic Fraser River. Borne back into a past of old wharves, boats, nets and ripening blackberries, the poet enters into the lush west coast riverscape in an attempt to recapture Heck Bowling's lingering spirit in all the complex human tangles of sorrow, joy, weariness and reverence. In his characteristic style of direct emotional statement mixed with startling imagery and metaphor, Bowling has written one of the most intense and loving statements to fatherhood in Canadian poetry, while at the same time extending his rapt immersion in the west coast's mythic history and beauty.

About the author

Tim Bowling has published numerous poetry collections, including Low Water Slack; Dying Scarlet (winner of the 1998 Stephan G. Stephansson Award for poetry); Darkness and Silence (winner of the Canadian Authors Association Award for Poetry); The Witness Ghost; and The Memory Orchard (both nominated for the Governor General's Literary Award). He is also the author of three novels, Downriver Drift (Harbour), The Paperboy's Winter (Penguin) and The Bone Sharps (Gaspereau Press). His first book of non-fiction, The Lost Coast: Salmon, Memory and the Death of Wild Culture (Nightwood Editions), was shortlisted for three literary awards: The Writers' Trust Nereus Non-Fiction Award, the BC Book Prizes' Roderick Haig-Brown Regional Prize and the Alberta Literary Awards' Wilfred Eggleston Award for Non-Fiction. The Lost Coast was also chosen as a 2008 Kiriyama Prize "Notable Book." Bowling is the recipient of the Petra Kenney International Poetry Prize, the National Poetry Award and the Orillia International Poetry Prize. Bowling was the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2008. A native of the West Coast, he now lives in Edmonton Alberta. His latest collection of poetry is Tenderman (Nightwood), due out in fall 2011.

Tim Bowling's profile page


  • Short-listed, Governor General's Award for Poetry

Excerpt: The Witness Ghost (by (author) Tim Bowling)


I woke in the dark to your voice
(Trickle of creek over rock,
clench of tide around pile).
We left in the dark, the old way,
down the lampless, houseless block,
past the row of wild cherries,
the crunch of our boots on gravel
like the drawn-out growl
of an old dog who doesn't really
mean it. And when the blossoms
touched my cheek, I understood
you had turned back to kiss me
without turning. I went into
those kisses like a bride.

There wasn't any light, though the stars
shone. It was as if someone
looked at us without seeing us;
we could have waved our arms
and never raised a blink. Half-
asleep, I lulled in your easy wake
along the wind-scoured parapet of dyke
down the gangway to the mossy wharf.
A mast-chain shivered as we left the planks.

After you had warmed up the boat,
I stood aside and watched you choose
to steer from the cabin not the deck
because a spider in the night
had attached a strand of web
to a spoke. I almost heard you sigh
for the ruin you'd have to make
later, when the dictates of your work
lorded over gentleness, as if
you had to spare a life for those
you planned to take. A reverse sacrifice.

The river trembled, sheened to silk.
Heavy in the damp, the musk
of mud and creosote. Distantly,
a coal train cried, leading
its black pod a little closer
to the kelp. I woke
further. At the towhead,
beside an island of rushes
slightly rising and falling
like the roped chest of Gulliver,
I saw the little throw of lights
up Grouse Mountain, in North Vancouver
where you'd been a boy, splashing
truant in creeks so silver that, whenever
you moved your body, even to kill,
something essential had been smithied,
struck from fire.

The net rolled off the drum.
You steered across the channel
from the stern. I stood
beside the doomed cathedral
on the deck, my heart
still as the unsuspecting spider.
For ten minutes, we strained
to hear a salmon hit the net.

Then we picked up. Closer,
I watched you hang above
the ripping silk. An urgent whisper
and I came beside you, on rubbery
tiptoe, staring into the drip of black.
Slowly, you bunched in your hands
the web as soft as muddied lace.
We bent like two sunflowers
seeking the earth's internal light.

Shhh. The unending caution
of the breeze. Your lips
had become the vessel of the race.
In your hands, the will to strike.
In your eyes, the wonder that you would.
I hunched into the sudden shadow
of your shoulders, gaping like a baby owl.

Something big was down there. You held
a single mesh between thumb and forefinger
and traced its tooth-snagged geometric
on the air, careful inch by inch. Then angled
the hook of the gaff, prepared to strike.
In the invisible, acrid clots of exhaust,
I held my bones and heartbeat in,
stifled a cough.

The downward arc dipped
in the black before it pierced
the skull in the fatal crush,
striking up from under
at the gill. You rarely missed
and knocked it loose, or stuck
the hook in the valued flesh.
A painter's skill - you must
have traced the pattern of death
ten thousand times
in the roiling dark
until even your sleep was etched
with crossing lines so thick
they came to mimick
the grains in a woodcut.

And I was the spider who watched.
I was the pupil in the crystal,
widening, my black into the black
of the earth, that has to turn and kill
whatever's formed from the guts
of the self - nothing gentle
in the fall of a blossom
onto a street black
as the lid of a coffin,
or in a bubble of black froth
at the torn jaw of a salmon,
nothing gentle in an art that
traces out lines only to turn
and stuff its own creation
in its mouth.

Yet I woke this morning,
and will always wake,
to your voice
and the hopeless task
of replication,
to string along the web
without breaking
the first, struck silver
of dew,
and listen for
the dying-as-it's-born
echoing afterclang of hush.


A man and a boy on a river
in a boat drifting rapidly to sea.
They labour together in the stern,
salmon fluent at their gumboot tops,
others flopping in across the rollers,
hanging, thrashing, in the meshes.
Over the island poplars
the tiny moon tenses
at every tug on the web,
creeps its white sack forward.

Late August. The corn has been cut
in the fields they drift past. The scent
of cut peas is on the wind, cut hay.
The salmon's mouths open and close,
open and close, like fast wounds.
The man and the boy drift faster.
At their legs, the sickles cut.
Decorously. As a caretaker cuts
the grass of the unvisited graves.
Almost without sound.

The boy fell first, too many
years ago to count.

And the man with the nimble fingers
who spoke always with a deer's look?

Three months ago this day,
the river struck his gold.

Editorial Reviews

"[Bowling's] series of elegiac poems on his father's death, The Witness Ghost, haunts me: it's exactly the kind of poetry I wish I had the energy and commitment and imagination to write, and had he written often thus, it had been vain to blame and useless to praise him. Good stuff, is what I'm saying. ... I'm teaching the book this fall."
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book addiction

"The award-winning Tim Bowling's series of intense elegies for his fisherman father ache with loss and longing for a time and place as well as for the man. The poet conjures up the wet coast's verdant wild with concise, always musical craft while etching moving portraits of his father."
-Joseph Blake, Victoria Times-Colonist

"Bowling's style can be sublime...

"An example of Bowling's ability to create novel and arresting images is found in "The Carrying Place," in which the unexpected emotions released in mourning are compared to "an ant that, / dragging a crumb of bread, / carries the baker's pain." Bowling relates his personal grief to the environment in "Now It Is the World's Turn to Die," which contains a reference to "the trees unfleshing, the salmon /

"In this book, the author commemorates his father by expressing personal sentiments with discipline and intelligence."
-Ronald Charles Epstein, Canadian Book Review Annual

Canadian Book Review Annual

"The Witness Ghost mourns in a frank, adult voice. . . . the writing gains hallucinogenic intensity from the concentrated focus of Bowling's observation and his astonishing ability to recover and reconstruct evanescent states of feeling. . . . All of this serves to enmesh the grieving and the memories within a net of particularity, so that landscape, weather and work anchor each poem."
-Harry Vandervlist, Alberta Views

Alberta Views

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