Saturday, November 25, 2017

Peter Trower (1930-2017), bard of the British Columbia backwoods

The poet Peter Trower reads from a manuscript.

By Tom Hawthorn
The Globe and Mail
November 25, 2017

To some poets, a tree is worthy of rhapsody. To Peter Trower, a tree was as likely to crush him as inspire him.

Mr. Trower spent more than two decades working as a logger in the woods, a dangerous place where a moment’s inattention or a comrade’s carelessness could have grave consequence. Far from civilization in isolated logging camps, he endured lonely nights by reading Jack Kerouac, finding in the stream-of-consciousness prose an avenue for expressing his own poetic insights into life in the bush.

He eventually abandoned the forest for an impecunious yet beery life as a writer, producing several collections of poetry and three novels, an output which earned him praise in British Columbia as a bard of the backwoods. He was less celebrated by the Eastern Canadian tastemakers of Canadian literature.

His death at 87 marks the end of an era for worker poets whose sharp eyes and calloused hands conveyed the beauty and horror to be found in the sweaty labour of a resource economy.

He spent decades in caulk boots, a duffle-bag wanderer. He worked as a baker, surveyor, shake-cutter, choker setter, whistle punk, crane operator, and pulp-mill hand. The worst job he had was working the pot-line in a smelter, converting bauxite into aluminum, a cloud of black sputum erupting from his every cough.

In the act of falling a tree he saw an echo of the combat the older members of his crew had witnessed, as he expressed in the poem “Like A War:”

No bombs explode, no khaki regiments tramp
to battle in a coastal logging-camp.
Yet blood can spill upon the forest floor
and logging can be very like a war.

In the big city, many a night (and early morning) was spent with elbows on beer-soaked, terrycloth tabletops at dive bars on Vancouver’s skid row, where poets bellowed their stanzas over the blare of a jukebox and the roar of a night’s revelry. After such training, performing in front of an audience at a reading was a snap, even when burly loggers expected to be averse to verse filled a room.

When not at the microphone, Mr. Trower was a shy man so soft spoken as to mumble. With a fleshy, droop-eyed face and a downturned mouth, he resembled the actor Peter Boyle. He could be disheveled, though a Greek fisherman’s black cap and sunglasses gave him a certain élan.

“He looked like every toothless logger I’d ever met before,” one of his publishers said. “I couldn’t imagine him writing poetry.”

Mr. Trower persisted in large part because his mother had always insisted he would be a writer.

Peter Gerard Tower was born on Aug. 25, 1930, at St Leonards-on-Sea, a tranquil resort town on the English Channel. He was the first of two boys born to Gertrude Eleanor Mary (née Gilman), known before her marriage as Gem for the initials of her given names, and Stephen Herbert Gerard Trower, a test pilot.

His mother was the only daughter of the Acting British Resident to the Selangor Sultanate in Malaya. At first, her parents opposed the proposed union, their objections raised not for displeasure with the prospective groom’s character but rather for the perilous nature of his profession. In the end, the Hon. E.W.F. Gilman escorted the bride on his arm at a wedding at St. Mary’s Church in Kuala Lumpur in which the ceremony was officiated by the Bishop of Singapore.

The newlyweds moved to Calcutta where the groom worked for the Anglo-Indian Air Survey. The teeming city did not win the approval of the new Mrs. Trower, so the couple soon after resettled with the groom’s parents in England. A second son, Christopher, arrived early in 1933.

The pilot, who had retired from the Royal Navy, was commissioned as a flying officer in the Royal Air Force Reserve in 1934. He tested aircraft for the Fairey Aviation Co., a British firm. In 1935, he delivered one of the company’s military planes to Moscow. His grateful Soviet hosts took him to the opera and feted him at banquets, a remarkable honour at a time of famine. The pilot’s less-than-gracious response was to don blue overalls to join his minder, less loyal than his boss’s suspected, in sneaking into an automobile factory. Once inside, they saw workers putting together aircraft. The machine he had flown in was clearly going to be a model for knockoffs.

Later that summer, the pilot demonstrated a Fairey Fantôme, a state-of-the-art biplane, at a competition for flying machines at a military airbase in Belgium. While performing loops and other feats of derring-do from a great height, the sleek aircraft began a nosedive towards the ground from which it would not recover. It was thought the pilot had blacked out. He was 34.

The bereaved family retreated to an estate owned by the boys’ maternal grandparents near the village of Islip in Oxfordshire. Years later, Mr. Trower would remember being indulged, especially at Christmas, a mountain of wrapped gifts a replacement for the ache of the tragic loss of a father.
Peter was sent to a boys-only preparatory school in Oxford known for its “robust informality and relaxed rigor,” a training ground for England’s future elites, including at least two generations of Tolkiens.

The outbreak of war in 1939 heralded an end to young Trower’s pastoral childhood. Family lore has it that Lord Haw-Haw, the traitorous Nazi announcer William Joyce, had identified an oil depot at Islip as a worthy target for an air bombardment during the Battle of Britain. On July 18, 1940, Mrs. Trower and her boys boarded on tourist-class tickets the Canadian Pacific Line steamship Duchess of Bedford, bound for Montreal. They sailed across the dangerous Atlantic without event before joining relatives in Vancouver.

Less than two months later, the widow married Trygve Iversen, a roughhewn wood-pulp engineer, and the boys were once again on the move, this time to Port Mellon, a mill town northwest of Vancouver, where a one-room schoolhouse offered a more rustic education than that on offer in Oxford. The settlement was accessible only by boat or float plane, and had not yet been wired for telephone service. Later, the poet would remember the outpost as a “jerry-built, tarpaper town.” A half-brother, Martin, was born in 1942.

(While she was in hospital to give birth, her husband acceded to her wish to have the interior of the house painted. She returned to find floors of yellow ochre, except in the kitchen, where a battleship grey floor was contrasted by cupboards, walls and a ceiling painted green, all from leftover paint at the mill.)

Mr. Iversen, who was superintendent of the mill, disappeared while on a timber cruise to estimate a stand of forest at the head of Bute Inlet. He was presumed to have fallen into the water and drowned. Not yet 14, Peter Trower had lost a father and a stepfather.

The grieving family spent the next few years shuttling between Gibsons, near Port Mellon, and Vancouver, where Peter attended high school before dropping out to find work in 1948. Mr. Trower followed his younger brother to a logging camp in the Queen Charlotte Islands (now Haida Gwaii).
After three years, he returned to Port Mellon to homestead 60 acres his stepfather had purchased during the Depression. He lived in a stump-house while taking on odd jobs in logging and construction, all the while cutting shakes on the property. He worked in a pulp mill at Woodfibre and spent two years in the aluminum smelter at Kitimat. “Like working in hell,” he once said.

A modest inheritance allowed him to quit the smelter and enrol at the Vancouver School of Art (now Emily Carr University), where he dabbled as a cartoonist.

Chastened by the superior drafting skills of his younger, less worldly classmates, he dropped out, pursuing instead the dissolute life of a beatnik, “learning what the bottom of life was like.” He discovered after three years that it meant he had no money, so he returned to Gibsons and a life in the woods.

After a slipped choker smashed him in the mouth, knocking out his teeth, Mr. Trower again abandoned logging for work as a surveyor. A first collection, “Moving Through the Mystery,” was published by Talon Books in 1969, though the volume is now treasured more for the psychedelic mandalas drawn by Jack Wise. Even Mr. Trower later dismissed his writing as juvenilia, though he was nearly 40 on publication.

After a young university graduate named Howard White published the first of a proposed series of volumes titled Raincoast Chronicles about life on the West Coast, a chagrined Mr. Trower summoned the publisher to his home to demand to know why he had not been invited to contribute. Mr. White found him in a cabin on his mother’s property. “It had the whiff of the bunkhouse,” Mr. White recalled recently, “the unmistakeable stench of stale beer, old socks, mouldy skin mags.” The poet offered to share his beer, rubbing a thumb on the lip of a soiled glass in a modest swipe at domesticity. The two became friends and Mr. Trower was named associate editor of subsequent editions.

Mr. White’s Harbour Publishing would publish several of Mr. Trower’s dozen poetry collections, including “Between Sky and Splinters” (1974), “The Alders and Others” (1976), and “Bush Poems” (1978). The publisher also released Mr. Trower’s three novels — “Grogan’s Café” (1993), “Dead Man’s Ticket” (1996) and “The Judas Hills” (2000). Other poetry collections were released by such British Columbia publishers as Ekstasis and Reference West. Only two of his works were handled by Eastern houses — “The Slidingback Hills” (Oberon, 1986) and “Ragged Horizons” (McClelland and Stewart, 1978).

A regular habitué of such Vancouver drinking establishments as the Alcazar Hotel and the Railway Club, Mr. Trower was encouraged by such poets as John Newlove, Al Purdy and Patrick Lane. The editor Mac Parry at the lifestyle magazine Vancouver championed his work, introducing the hard-scrabble poet to readers otherwise indulging fantasies about new bathroom fixtures.

The poet was invited to join the magazine staff at post-publication parties. At one of these, the young writer Les Wiseman was introduced to Mr. Trower, who had just been featured on the cover of the Georgia Straight underground newspaper.

“You remind me of this guy, Bukowski, have you ever read him?” the writer asked the poet.

He replied, “I just wrote a poem called ‘Funky Bukowski.’ It’s here in my briefcase. Would you like to read it?”

The poet opened the battered valise unveiling a pair of Y-front, tighty-whitey briefs atop a stack of paper. He fished around beneath the underwear before retrieving a draft manuscript.

The poet was the subject of at least two documentaries — “Between Sky and Splinters” by Mike Poole, and “Peter Trower: The Men There Were Then” by Alan Twigg and Tom Shandel for CBC.
Over the years, Mr. Trower also made an occasional appearance on the police blotter. He forfeited a $100 peace bond and was fined an additional $20, plus his share of $252 in damage, after a handgun was fired during a party in a mill dormitory in 1953. In 1967, he spent a month in jail for marijuana possession after his house in Gibsons was raided by a police drug squad, whose members included the notorious Abe Snidanko (obituary, Aug. 13). He was also fined $1,000.

After the death of his mother from respiratory failure in 1979, Mr. Trower rekindled a romance with the writer Yvonne Klan, whom he had known in high school. She had a salutary effect on the poet, insisting he not visit when drunk. As it turned out, he preferred her company to that of the beer hall, most of the time. He dedicated a volume of tender, unsentimental, lyrical love poems, “A Ship Called Destiny,” to Ms. Klan.

A jazz and blues aficionado, who later became a fan of psychedelia, Mr. Trower maintained an unexpected but steadfast appreciation for the old-time, big-voiced singer Frankie Laine, whose talents were not acknowledged by the poet’s circle.

“I get somewhat put down by the hip purists for this little indulgence but I don’t care,” he wrote to a friend in the 1960s. “Laine keeps me in touch with the mad past which I must mine for all its worth.”

Mr. Trower released his own music and poetry compact disc, “Sidewalks and Sidehills” in 2003.

Honours were late coming to Mr. Trower. (His friend the writer Jim Christy once fashioned a fake trophy for him from typewriter keys and labels from Extra Old Stock beer bottles.) Mr. Trower received the B.C. Gas (now George Woodcock) Lifetime Achievement Award in 2002, and the Jack Chalmers Poetry Award from the Canadian Authors Association in 2005 for his collection, “Haunted Hills and Hanging Valleys.”

His writing earned Gibsons, a town on British Columbia’s Sunshine Coast otherwise known as the setting for television’s “The Beachcombers,” an entry in John Robert Colombo’s encyclopedic “Canadian Literary Landmarks.” Gibsons council repaid the favour last year by voting to name a street in a new subdivision Trower Lane.

Mr. Trower died on Nov. 10 at Lions Gate Hospital in North Vancouver from complications following surgery for a broken hip. He had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, granting power of attorney to his widowed sister-in-law four years ago. He spent his final years at the Inglewood Care Home in West Vancouver. He was predeceased by his brother in 2006 and his half-brother in 2013, as well as by his long-time companion Yvonne Klan in 2004.

A memorial and celebration is scheduled to be held today at 3 p.m. at his old Vancouver hangout, now known as the Railway Stage and Beer Café. It will not be teetotal.

Mr. Trower was a mentor to street poets, including Evelyn Lau, a drug-addicted, teenaged prostitute whose work deeply impressed the older writer. He put her in touch with the book agent Denise Bukowski, and Ms. Lau’s “Runaway: Diary of a Street Kid” launched a notable literary career.

In a 1994 made-for-television movie based on the memoir, Sandra Oh portrayed the lead role in “The Diary of Evelyn Lau.” Mr. Trower played himself, declaiming poetry while sitting at a table in a bar, a role for which he had a lifetime’s preparation.

Special to The Globe and Mail