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The Witness Ghost

House Built of Rain

By Russell Thornton

Taking the Names Down from the Hill

By Phillip Kevin Paul

Review By Laurie Ricou

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 145 Spring 2005  | p. 116-7

ALTHOUGH HE HAS LIVED some years now in Edmonton, Tim Bowling continues to be one of the most eloquent interpreters of British Columbia, especially of the river-coast scene and image: the sky wearing a “sodden pea-coat,” the “cries” of the coal trains as they “go down to the sea,” that glimpse through stubble of the “cock-pheasant’s head / … like a bloodied gaff” Especially in Low Water Slack (1995) and the novel Downriver Drift (2000), Bowling sings salmon with a resonance rivalling Daphne Marlatt’s Steveston. The Witness Ghost is Bowling’s serial elegy for his father, a friendly, sometimes frightened witness to his lifelong work as fisher of the Fraser River. The endlessly moving “dying-as-it’s born” salmon provides both depth and mystery to the understanding of a father’s commitment/The opening and title poem, a moment-by-moment tracking of an early morning fishing trip, affectionately and gradually reveals the humbling “dictates of your work”: the shove on the shoulder bones, the tidal pull of the nets, the staking of a garden with broken hockey sticks. 

Russell Thornton’s House Built of Rain broods, as his title implies, on a one-time British Columbia home that nurtures but hardly comforts or shelters. Mist —Thornton evocatively redefines it as “the rain / … refining itself” – “thread[s]” through the book. The image is commonplace in the coastal aesthetic. The collection’s penultimate poem, “Solstice Mist” (82-3), illustrates a typical set of tautologies contemplating the central paradox of the mist-scape; that is, that outlines and identities are blurred, “inscrutable,” but for all their “unknowable”-nés s more attractively “brightening … with / impossible gentleness.” “Solstice Mist” hides any precise sense of physical location, while the characters, careless with love as with violence, are identified only as “someone.” In other words, Thornton’s poetic emphasizes the generalized impression and sensation at the expense of specific images or temporal and spatial details. So too with narrative, as in the deliberately awkward anecdote in “Lonsdale Quay” (36-7), where “perhaps” is a ruling condition, and description of movements is more “exquisite” than the reverberations of metaphor. 

As his title suggests, Philip Kevin Paul at once trusts in and takes responsibility for the mystery of naming. Several of his poems, and those most interesting to me, translate terms from his native Saanich dialect. “Translate” may not be quite the right word because the term may imply some sort of equivalence, while the branching of Paul’s lines implies a growing of connections. “Water drinker” may be the literal translation of Ko Ko HLC, apparently Saanich for arbutus (20 -3). But Paul’s poem teaches us – and hence it is a “BC study” – that speaking the word Ko Ko HLC is singing the song of the stream, which is, after all, shaped by the trees. Paul invites us not just to learn a translation, or to listen to a new word and try to pronounce it, but also to imagine the thoughts that the voice and exchange compound and compress: 

“Imagine their thoughts 

when they realized 

every stream has its own song 

from the shape made by the trees 

around it, the sound of the water turning in the hollow, returning to them from 

the leaves.” (22) 

When it comes to arbutus’s cousin in the heather family, the Saanich names themselves compound to find salal: HELI; S’HELI; SOX, HELI, the three parts of the poem “What We Call Life.” The three sections of the poem build alive and lively into personal belief. Although the poem honours “the story of my mother’s love for salal berries,” salal is not directly a translation, I assume. “SOX, HELI” does not mean salal, but salal shapes love and sweetness and the promise of harvest and “jest.” Many of Paul’s poems imagine the songs of stream and tree and animal discovered in listening to his new and ancient language. They turn like water in our head; we must keep returning to them.