Tribute to Kent Bowker (1928-2017)

Peter Anastas

 

I grew up in San Francisco, knew the old California of cities with limits, bare brown hills dotted with live oaks, glorious orchards, and deep dark redwood forests.  San Francisco’s fog, shifting beauty filling voids, never either hot or cold, chilly often, no more. The smell of ocean sweeps through the gate, tumbles over the hills. North end bars filled, fifty years ago with poets, before money came.

My old California no longer, I depart, return
to my New England home, to the marshes,
granite ledges of the older sea.                     (Kent Bowker, “The Hand Off”)

 

John Donne wrote that every death diminishes us.  I thought of Donne’s words after a mutual friend emailed me on June 24 to report that Kent had died at 7 a.m. that morning at Kaplan House, following complications from a pacemaker procedure.

I had known Kent for nearly thirty years.  We’d sailed together, dined with our families, and worked together on the board of the Charles Olson Society.   In recent years we met regularly for lunch and conversations that ranged from the day’s pressing political issues to Kent’s years in Berkeley during the 1950s, where he studied physics and became friendly with some of the Bay Area’s finest writers, including poets Robert Duncan, Robin Blazer and Jack Spicer, during the era known as the San Francisco Renaissance.

Kent really was the “Renaissance Man” that his Gloucester Times obituary and the family’s Facebook tribute describe him as being.  He’d studied theoretical physics at the University of California in Berkeley and worked at the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory, where the Manhattan Project had originated.   Concurrently, he painted and wrote poetry at a time when writers like Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Michael McClure, Gary Snyder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Kenneth Rexroth, John Wieners, and Charles Olson were either living in San Francisco or passing though.

After Kent moved to the Boston area to work at the Lincoln Laboratories and Itek, he continued to write, adding sailing to his repertoire.   He designed the house in Essex he and his art historian wife Joan lived in.  Filled with books and paintings and situated on a hill surrounded by fields, forests and wetlands, it was an ideal place for meditation and creativity.  After he retired he devoted his entire time to painting and writing—when he and Joan were not sailing or traveling.  Kent was also a superb cook.

When I first walked into Kent and Joan’s house for a Christmas party, I was attracted to Kent’s impressive library.  Personal libraries tell us much about the person who has created them.  As soon as I discovered the collected poems of Charles Olson on the bookshelves, along with those of the San Francisco poets Kent was close to, I knew that I had met someone I could talk with about the things that meant the most to both of us, not only poetry but the larger cultural and social issues the poets we both admired addressed.

Kent was always modest about his learning.  Berkley at the time Kent was a student there, along with Gloucester novelist and playwright Jonathan Bayliss, and woodworker/sculptor Jay McLauchlan, was arguably the most exciting place to be in America, especially if you were a writer.  New York, yes—and always.  But there was an atmosphere in San Francisco the likes of which we had never seen and, sadly, would never see again.  The Pacific light, the blue ocean itself, the astounding Bay and its iconic bridge were part of that atmosphere, along with North Beach bookstores like City Lights, cafes and housing that was affordable to writers and artists.

But Kent did not engage in nostalgia.  He did not romanticize Berkeley.  He lived in the present, depicting the marshes and woods around his house, the beaches of Ipswich and Plum Island he sailed past; himself and family members.

When we started Enduring Gloucester five years ago I asked Kent for a poem.  It would be the first of many he contributed—wryly humorous or passionate.  Poems about the passing of time, the changes in nature; about Gloucester lobstermen and the sea itself.

Kent was a Progressive long before those who use the term today.  A conversation with Kent was like his poetry—articulate, knowledgeable, and deeply humane.  We will miss Kent while cherishing the gift of his poetry.

 

Peter Anastas, editorial director of Enduring Gloucesteris a Gloucester native and writer. His most recent book, A Walker in the City: Elegy for Gloucester, is a selection from columns that were published in the Gloucester Daily Times.

GREEN WEED

"View from the Ledge" 1975. Nell Blaine (1922-1996)

“View from the Ledge” 1975.
Nell Blaine (1922-1996)

Green weed

Tawny tufts

were flowers

Mushrooms climb

a listing tree

Carpets of oak

and brown pine

needles over gray

rock and root

A light shower

accelerates the dogs

The tie to my hoodie

sways

December pansies

loving the mist

the fog horn

from the lighthouse

South easterly gusts

darken yesterday’s

northeasterly swells

suck back around

smooth and ancient

boulders by thistle

and bitter sweet

green weed

Melissa de Haan Cummings

17 December 2015

melissa2bcummingsMelissa de Haan Cummings majored in French and English Literature at Bryn Mawr. She has published poetry in a number of journals.
She describes her interests as including,“much small boating around
Cape Ann, love of Charles Olson, Hatha yoga practice since 1969.”

The Last One, a new poem by Kent Bowker

25195l

Gloucester Harbor. 2011 Ned Mueller (b. 1940)

The Last One

Coming from P-town to Gloucester
motor sailing in a calm, lightly ruffled ocean
in the empty bowl of the horizon
we came upon a rusting hulk
brown streaked blackened red side,
slowly turning on the flat black sea.

A long dark rusty gilnetter, lines out,
like a hopeless memory circling in the flat sea
What is beneath this surface for the families?
For the layers of families waiting
for the missing fish money.
The boat’s steel flakes fall off
in the long search for the last fish,
no money in it for paint,
in seeking it rusts away

Dark cavities behind the streaked plates
we see no seaman, maybe a hint of a face
the ship rusts, circling in the flat sea
inside the sharp edge of horizon
the songs of the sea were still
the wind slow

reaching down
for the last fish
long searching, circling
nets winding, futile,
paint chips flaking, gone.
A face appears in the recesses
of the large net wheels
fades back into the indigo
shadows in the turning boat
as if depression driving
the hunter who must hide, –
a recluse of the sea
seining for the last fish.

In its own vortex
scorpion of the mind
repetition, the laying of nets
a slow dervish dance
arms raised like railroad semaphores
for the end of the line, a train coming,
in the desolation of this lifeless desert,
the slow turning over flat water
the dervish spinning ecstasy
is a ritual to invoke
the fish providing spirits.
the slow turning over flat water
slightly scratching the surface
inscribe the tracks of the dance
over depths of the sea
seeking the last fish –

so long out- rusting away
becoming pointless
lost, seeking, –
as the families
are fading
away.

Kent Bowker

Kent Bowker

 

 

 

Kent Bowker  started with poetry at Berkeley in the Fifties, then became a physicist working mainly in optics.  His new book of poems is Katharsis: Sifting Through a Mormon Past.  He lives in Essex, next to the Great Marshes and is treasurer of the Charles Olson Society.

Equinox, by Lanesville poet Melissa de Haan Cummings

erika hillier lanesville (2)

Erika Hillier, Lanesville

Equinox

Sunny was slipping across the other side
with her black lab and her brown lab
treacherously icy
She was missing the twenty nine people
and seven dogs who celebrated sun
and warmth eight days ago
You counted?  Of course!
I want to tell people about it!
We parted at the foot of
Sunset Point Road after I
told her about the Black Man
found hanged from a tree
yesterday in Mississippi
she told me Judy and her guy
were Freedom Riders
in the Sixties  We passed
their house   I turned back
at the bottom of Ships Bell
met Lisa Dustin and Clayton
by Stowells where Dustin
told me the temperature is
supposed to be forty-seven
at time of year   I told him
we aren’t what we are supposed
to be either   Clayton said
It is what it is   Lisa thumped
me on the arm in a friendly
goodbye  Pirate climbed
under Claytons feet in the
warm Jeepster   I told Dustin
I knew his ex and we admired
her classy sexy way with
clothing   He told me how
an uncle used to have trouble breathing
when Gianna was around
I told him about Wink Sargent
We agreed wear a bikini
if you want   Lusting is
a guy’s problem
Forgetting to tell Dusty
Gianna teaches body combat
And how does he think
she looks then?

Went out on the Flatiron
to observe the clump
of brown weed
pretty much covers
the spot where the dock
rests from about May
to October
Sudden splash!
quick swim toward the gap
like a fish but wait to see
it is a cormorant

Melissa de Haan Cummings

Melissa de Haan Cummings majored in French and English Literature at 
Bryn Mawr. She has published poetry in a number of journals. 
 She describes her interests as including, “much small boating around Cape
 Ann, love of Charles Olson, Hatha yoga practice since 1969.”

Melissa Cummings

Crossing the Bar by Kent Bowker

254c0-ianfactor

Last Catch of the Day – 2012 by Ian Factor (b. 1969)

Crossing the Bar

Crossing the bar again
In the slosh and tumble of waves, around ledges,
at the favored lobster spots close to shore, the white working boat
maneuvers about rocks, gear shift growling,
runs down on pots, the men scooping them up,
hauling traps aboard, pulling the writhing bugs out, checking length
sometimes tossing most of them back in
thinking it's time to shift the pots further offshore.
It seems the hold is never quite full,
when they turn the helm to home.

It’s not all work, for there is a time
for awe and wonder in going
to and fro, in foggy uncertainty, or clear air
when the horizon is crisp and stark,
or when clouds boil, flowering in blue sky,
or when the black of a coming storm menaces,
or in the calm of sunrise, waters flat as can be,
never the same from day to day,

but same never-the-less.
You’re on your own out there.

They do not visit this place
as the yachtsmen do, to pleasure the day,
they live this world, all of it, its peace and hell alike.

Then back home again and out on the town
into dazzling lights, dark bars, a drink
having fun with women
punk rock songs and randy jokes.

Saint Joseph certainly must be there,
with faith’s wafer and wine certainty and protection
warding off threat of wave and rock
in the heave and thrust of swells
uneven footing, a dangerous winch cable
screaming on its spool.

There is a muscle taut energy
in this small 35 foot lobster boat

     heir to the fast Grand Bank fishing schooners, 
     proud large trawlers, the great hauls.

These rock crawling scavengers 
are all that’s left to harvest now,

     bend the muscles to.

It’s traps now, was nets then, always the haul, 
the heft of the prey on the deck 
in the heave and rolling wave of the sea 
The big thing to think about 
what many of us do not 
is who and where we are in this world. 
So few know, but those whose working rhythm 
is embedded in it, do. 

A Saint Joseph medallion dangles from the rear view mirror 
of their pickup loaded with traps and pots 
and its ‘screw you’ bumper stickers. But when some ignorant asshole on autopilot 
with cutters on his flashy yachts’ prop tears through a line of pots 
all the days moneys gone

     What’s Saint Joseph to do then 
     you have to keep asking.'

          Oh, they’re not paying what they used to, 3 buck a pound, 
          not worth it sometimes when they’re 10 bucks afterward.

Everyday, passing by the Dog Bar, offloading the stuff, 
tired, returning to the slip, tie up, disembark 
and, bone hope weary, might take to drink again. 

In the coherence of this life,
     (the faith and ceremonies, a cardinal’s blessing
          once a year doesn’t do much)
     no matter how small it seems
          faith punctuates the daily chores

but it’s the rhythm of the lobsterman’s life 
out and back again, bait and reap 
that sustains as it does for all working men, 
the doing of it.

Kent Bowker

Kent Bowker

 

 

 


Kent Bowker
  started with poetry at Berkeley in the Fifties, then became a physicist working mainly in optics.  His new book of poems is Katharsis: Sifting Through a Mormon Past.  He lives in Essex, next to the Great Marshes and is treasurer of the Charles Olson Society.