As the title suggests, Edmonton poet Tim Bowling’s 14th book of poetry, The Dark Set: New Tenderman Poems, revisits the lost salmon-fishing culture of British Columbia’s Fraser Valley. Originally from the West Coast, Bowling wrestled with the loss of this way of life, which was embodied by the title character in his 2011 collection Tenderman. The tenderman is a fisherman, a “fiercely independent everyman.” He is a working-class archetype, representing resource extraction industries and their historically masculine cultures—and our own uncertain relationship with them. These new poems pick up where that conversation left off.
The reunion of narrator and tenderman comes across as tired and cynical and occasionally bewildered, but it is not without humour. They’ve aged since their last meeting, and the world around them has changed. The narrator, perhaps, realizes how much he and the tenderman have in common. In “Sailing to Where?” lines from Yeats’s iconic poem are revised to critique the self-help industry: “The wellness centre cannot hold. Reflexology falls/ apart.” The subject matter meanders and jumps from deadly serious to silly and back again, with pop-culture references, wordplay and puns—I’ll call them literary dad jokes—alongside laments for what has been lost and anxiety about the future. In “Tenderosterone,” for example, the words “lift weights” strain and physically change on the page into new words entirely, making a none-too-subtle statement about masculinity in our society.
As in the first tenderman book, these poems are conversations, with the narrator posing wry and occasionally random questions: “How many bones in the human hand, tenderman?” “Do young men wear enough aftershave, tenderman?” and “Tenderman, the doctor you refuse to see has diagnosed you with apathy/ and written out a prescription you can’t be bothered to fill.” Like the poems in his 2016 The Duende of Tetherball, these are rhythmic and colloquial, showcasing Bowling’s virtuosity with the short, genre-defying—lyric but self-referential—poem. With understated and seemingly effortless humour, Bowling examines the aging process, fatherhood, mortality and alienation. The poem “Prince Rupert” hints at the distance between the average reader of the tenderman poems and their subject: “Everyone doubts you exist, tenderman, a western human in the prime of life/ who’s never tapped a keyboard let alone sent a text./ Everyone assumes you’re fiction./ But I have your contact information.” In a remarkably short time a whole way of life disappeared and is almost forgotten. But the narrator—the poet—remembers. And he has never lost touch with the tenderman.
—Kelly Shepherd is the author of Insomnia Bird: Edmonton Poems (Thistledown Press, 2018).