The Call of the Red-Winged Blackbird

Essays on the Common and Extraordinary

By Angie Abdou

by Tim Bowling
Wolsak & Wynn
2022/$22.00/300 pp.

In The Call of the Red-Winged Blackbird, Tim Bowling offers his readers a deep and intimate conversation about contemporary existence, particularly mortality, loss and solitude. Though he wrote all but one of the essays before the pandemic, the book’s preoccupations make it a particularly timely read for the COVID era.

The nine essays of part one focus on loss. Sometimes Bowling turns his attention to literal losses in society such as the end of silent movies, the discontinuation of the Canadian penny, the dying tradition of letter writing, the ruination of the natural world, or the cessation of cursive handwriting in schools. Other times, he explores more personal losses such as various illusions that attach themselves to hockey, a sport he calls our country’s most comforting lie. Part two of the collection, a series of three essays, begins with a dramatic death that affected Bowling in his childhood and gave him an early awareness of his own mortality or, in his words, the insight that he bore his share of the heavy casket on his shoulder.

In the preface, Bowling succinctly and clearly explains what he values in personal essays and what he believes the genre should, at its best, achieve. Bowling values the sensibility of a literary work over its content or style; he agrees with F. Scott Fitzgerald that it’s the voice that makes a reader fall in love with a story. Bowling argues that capturing an individual voice on the page is even more important in personal essays than other genres. The essayist, he insists, aims to achieve a direct connection with the reader by working on a modest and immediate scale. As a self-described inveterate letter writer, he is well suited to this task.

Lucky is the reader who gets a letter from Tim Bowling.

These essays are filled with quiet wisdom, hard-won insights about everyday life, a stirring love of the natural world, a poignant passion for life heightened by clear-sighted awareness of its brevity, and a rare intimacy and candour, as if Bowling is confiding these stories and thoughts to his closest loved one.

Above all, this book is great company. Bowling reminds readers that, at 60, he is no longer a young artist. The author of 21 books of fiction, non-fiction and poetry, he reflects on how his writing and his attitude to his craft have changed over the years. This is particularly thought-provoking for fellow artists. His willingness to call out toxic behaviours in the publishing world—and to critique the way capitalism infiltrates art—is commendable. The deep (sometimes non-conventional, even rebellious) understanding permeating these pages stands as a reminder of the value of mature art in a culture that worships youth. It’s a welcome addition to Bowling’s impressive canon.

Angie Abdou is the author of This One Wild Life (ECW).

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