Reviewed by Jimmy Giesler
In William Butler Yeats' poem, “Politics,” composed specifically as the final poem in his life's collected works, he confesses that although his years brought him great wisdom and skill as a poet, he still longed for his innocent youth. Yeats used his craft to gracefully exit the stage of poetry and said farewell to the craft he loved, and now it seems that Brian Louis Pearce, born in 1933, might be doing the same in Growling.
From the first lines of the first poem to the concluding stanza, these poems scream at time's impatience while quietly asking for the past to return to the present in a unified conclusion to Pearce's life. Growling is divided into twelve sections, each section demanding a specific form in stanza and meter. Seven of these sections are “studies,” while the other five are poems that capture each study's observations and combine them with various topics, including Giacometti, a deadly drought, the importance of memory, and so on.
The first two sections of Growling, “Studies at Sixty-Six” and “Studies at Sixty-Eight,” contain the reader's first experiences with Pearce's struggle of associating his age with the end of his life. “Studies at Sixty-Six” shows Pearce's frantic attempt to understand how his years were spent, presenting dozens of images that gracefully transport the speaker from wars to childhood fantasies and eventually to being “a snatcher of breath, hauled through nostrils too closed.” This section ends with an inconclusive and eerie decomposition of existence, but Pearce manages to brighten the tone with “Studies at Sixty-Eight.” Here the speaker embraces his fall from youth, stating, “The falling feline suffers the less because it doesn't fight its fall.” Pearce also advocates incorporating the act of remembering into the present: “Live once. Remember. Live again but better,” suggesting that fusing the past with the present can alleviate the pain of facing one's mortality. These two sections maintain an inviting atmosphere; Pearce's images follow a bit of an upward curve in their complexity, gradually preparing readers for the more erratic sections that follow.
Growling then proceeds with several sections capturing the memories and ideas that the speaker incorporates into his “better-lived” final years. In “White Water,” for instance, the speaker is rafting down a river, explaining that a guide is present to help anyone who needs it. However, the speaker admits that he'd rather help himself--that falling into the icy water would be worth the rush of escaping danger independent of any sort of “guide.”
“Dry Mass” is a longer poem separated into two parts, “I August, 1995,” and “II September, 1995,” and serves as the epicenter of the collection. Here Pearce describes a dry and dying landscape reminiscent of Eliot's “The Waste Land,” and explains that life dries people's souls similarly. Pearce writes that hope and prayer are merely torture, offering false senses of security that ultimately remain unfulfilling. The only thing that sustains our souls as we search for water, according to Pearce, is the will to love. Pearce's final reward in the second section of “Dry Mass” is an endless storm of water, delivering an overwhelming sense of appreciation for his final years. Although the imagery in this section is a little too similar to that in Eliot's poetry at times, Pearce does manage to make this poem a work of his own by carrying language and ideas presented in the earlier poems, creating a continuous flow as Growling progresses. Already Pearce has gone through a noticeable shift in his consciousness as he rejects his former philosophies and becomes more focused on his new interest in the self.
Pearce returns to his “studies” with “Studies at Seventy: Basso,” in which readers notice an incorporation of fantasy in the speaker's reality. Pearce's images get more complicated in these sections as he increases the number of literary allusions and bold admissions of living in fantasy. He explains his fascination with imagination by sending postcard that reads,
It's the underlying rail on which we, like
the tram on the other side [not shown], must run:
if in doubt, make it up.
These lines sum up Pearce's ideas throughout Growling. Here Pearce seems perfectly content without knowing the meaning of life.
Finding contentment in the final years of life has obviously been difficult for Brian Louis Pearce, but Growling documents the poet's acknowledgement and acceptance of mortality through cleverly crafted verse. Pearce uses memory not just as a recollection of the past, but also as complementary accessory to the present, a concept similar to Toni Morrison's “rememory” in Beloved. Pearce is not writing poetry that will revolutionize existentialist literature (not that he particularly wants to). Instead, he has created a book of poems expressing a personal struggle to accept death's approach. He closes Growling with a short poem entitled “Bulawayo Bookery,” a moment of final satisfaction for the speaker. Pearce writes that he has simultaneously watched the cockroaches and the clock, a final exclamation of survival as the speaker nears his final moments. This poem closes with an image of a “bicycle pump wriggling across the floor,” perhaps suggesting that the speaker has removed his air supply to initiate the end of his life. If Growling is the final publication of Pearce's career, it is a humble bow and a smirked “farewell.”