“Baffling” the Tarot with Genève by George Bowering

Genève was one of George Bowering’s early book-length serial poems. Published in 1971 by Coach House Books, it one of the three books of poetry the prolific author published in the two years after his first Governor General’s Award win. It was inspired by Bowering’s daily pulling of Tarot cards when living in Montreal.

Bowering is Canada’s first Parliamentary Poet Laureate, a two-time winner of the Governor General’s award, and the author of more than 100 books, among other accomplishments. Bowering has inspired an entire issue of a literary journal dedicated to him, with writers like Margaret Atwood, Daphne Marlatt, and Erin Moure doing literary analysis of his work for The Capilano Review in fall 2014.

In the Name

When translating Genève from French to English, the most common translation is Geneva, a city in Switzerland. However, multiple websites dedicated to baby names cite Genève as a French and German baby name, with the meaning of the name being: Of the race of women.[1][2]

One of the essays in the Bowering’s Books issue of TCR was written by Ted Byrne and entitled “Justice is a Woman: Reading Genève,”[3] and it broke down each aspect of the serial poem. Byrne paid close attention to the strong female characters within the piece, leading me to believe that the title was likely in reference to the second translation of Genève.

Bowering to Bowering

The book is most often cited in relation to Kerrisdale Elegies, a later book of his, published in 1984 by Coach House Books. Neither Genève or Kerrisdale Elegies are listed on Coach House’s author page for Bowering, likely because they are not still in print with the press. Kerrisdale Elegies was re-published by Talonbooks in 2008.[4]

The most obvious comparison between the two is form, which is that of the serial poem, which Bowering has published widely in. Genève marked Bowering’s fourth publication in the form, and his second for Coach House Books.[5]

However, the comparisons between the two books goes beyond form. In The Capilano Review Byrne further compared the two works saying that:

Genève is a translation of the Tarot cards in much the same way Kerrisdale Elegies is a translation of Duino Elegies. Both translations can be seen as acts of disrespect or of hubris. The targets merit disrespect: Rilke’s snobbism; the Tarot’s 19th-century appropriation of a good card game to mystic hocus pocus.”[6]

The Baffle

Beyond being viewed as an act of irreverence to the mystical aspects of the Tarot deck, Genève was also an example of one what Bowering has called the “baffle,” which is an exercise in writing against a prescribed boundary.[7]

Bowering spoke at length about his use of the baffle during an interview with Ken Norris for the George Bowering issue of Essays on Canadian Writing, saying:

“I have mentioned to people on previous occasions that I tend to write a longer poem the way Victor Coleman or Roy Kiyooka do; that is, I have what I call a “baffle,” some rule I impose on myself, like writing a poem alphabetically, or using the tarot cards; that way I can prevent the individually desirous will from its ambition. That is, I can try to meet the dictates of the rule out there, while the real business of subverting the lyric the poem is going on unbeknownst to me. That way I can keep the poem relatively free of expression, expression of my feelings or thoughts, etc., which is just a disguised way of saying expression of one’s will.”[8]

In Conversation

In the book, Bowering references another poet: Griffin Poetry Prize winner Robin Blaser. Conversations between poets in their writing was typical of the time, with Bowering writing both poetry and prose for many writers such as bpNichol, George Stanley, Daphne Marlatt, and Roy Kiyooka throughout his career.[9] However, the conversations between Blaser and Bowering were especially common. Bowering was called “Blaser’s younger Canadian contemporary”[10] by Stan Persky in his essay “Reading Robin Blaser” in Robin Blaser, a book Persky co-authored with Brian Fawcett for New Star Books in 2010. Both men have been quoted extensively about each other, both in interviews, and in their own literary analysis. In The Fire: collected essays of Robin Blaser there is a chapter dedicated to “George Bowering’s Plain Song.” [11]

By Design

At first glance, one of the very distinct design choices about Genève that makes it stand out, even among more highly visual poetry books from Bowering’s contemporaries like bpNichol, is its rusty orange coloured paper. Upon further inspection however, the reader will find a large poster depicting the spread of tarot cards on the inside of the book’s dust jacket. Distinct design choices such as these were typical of Coach House Press at the time. Per their “About Us” page, the press was founded by typesetter Stan Bevington in 1965.[12]

In Open Letter’s “Coach House Press 1965-1996” edition both Douglas Barbour and Frank Davey discussed Coach House’s distinct aesthetic in their essays. Barbour, in “Some Notes about a Long Relationship with the Coach House” ventured that Coach House “seemed to be staking out its claim for the book as an aesthetic object in its own right, yet I would have to say, looking back, that the different formats always seemed suited to the material.”[13] In “The Beginnings of an End to Coach House Press” Davey spoke to how “vague ideological assumptions about small presses that we could agree upon: that they should be subversive, mischievous, interrogative, or defiant toward various artistic, prosodic, theatrical, political, sexual, bureaucratic, or narrative conventions” led to concealing the poster under the dust jacket.[14]

Interestingly, for the high aesthetic quality of the poster and the amount of effort that likely went into creating a poster on the inside of the dust jacket, the cover itself was a relatively low quality photo of a section of Coach House’s carpet, taken by the publisher Stan Bevington.[15] Further, the author’s name and the title of the book were not centered on the spine, which was likely not a deliberate design choice, but rather a risk of the relatively complex wrapping of the dust jacket.

By the Numbers

Coach House Books printed 1,000 copies of the book: 250 clothbound and 750 in wrappers.[16] Frank Davey in “Poetry, Audience, Politics and Region” for Canadian Poetry examined colophons from poetry books in the 1970s, and cited typical print runs as anywhere between 500 and 1,500, though most that he listed in the article were in the 750-1,000 range.[17]

In the case of Genève’s print run, Barbour mentioned in his essay that it became a rare item almost immediately, yet interestingly it was not one of his suites of poetry chosen to be republished in West Window: selected poetry while some of Bowering’s other rare books were.[18]

A Dedication to Small

When looking at Bowering’s bibliography[19] leading up to Genève, it showed that he had published with a number of different publishers with both his poetry and his fiction. A glance at his bibliography in 2017 shows the same still to be true. Certain publishing houses, such as Talonbooks, appear frequently, but with how prolific Bowering has been as an author it would have been impossible for him to stay faithful to a single publishing house without overtaking their entire list.

One thing of note is how often Bowering favours small publishing houses such as Talonbooks, While larger sized publisher’s like House of Anansi and McClelland and Stewart are represented, his bibliography is also full of Anvil Press, Vehicle Press, Turnstone Press, and New Star Books. Per the “About” page on his website, Bowering has published with 66 presses to date, including small chapbook publishers.[20]

In Conclusion

Were one to just read the description of Genève, they might assume that it was written to satisfy an interest or curiosity in Tarot and the occult. However, literary analysis and interviews with Bowering have proven that assumption untrue. Rather than being an outlier in Bowering’s publishing history, it is interconnected with some of his other works, and has been cited in many academic works as an example of the many things Bowering has become known for in his poetry. With the visual aspects of the book in regards to its design and the recent successes of new poets such as Rupi Kaur who include visual elements in their work, as well as the rising trend of Neopaganism, I believe there may be a platform for this work to be remediated and recirculated in 2017.


[1] “Geneve name meaning.” She Knows . Accessed February 24, 2017. http://www.sheknows.com/baby-names/name/geneve.

[2] “Meaning of Geneve – French baby name.” All Parenting . Accessed February 24, 2017. http://babynames.allparenting.com/list/French_Baby_Names/Geneve/details/.

[3] Byrne, Ted. “Justice is a Woman: Reading Genève.” The Capilano Review, October 10, 2014, 72-89.

[4] “Kerrisdale Elegies.” Talonbooks.com . March 28, 2010. Accessed February 24, 2017. http://talonbooks.com/books/kerrisdale-elegies.

[5] “Poetry.” George Bowering. Accessed February 24, 2017. http://georgebowering.com/writings/poetry/.

[6] Byrne, Ted. “Justice is a Woman: Reading Genève.” The Capilano Review, October 10, 2014, 72-89.

[7] McLennan, Rob. Subverting the lyric: essays. Toronto: ECW Press, 2008.

[8] Norris, Ken. “The Efficacy of the Sentence as the Basis of Reality: An Interview with George Bowering.” Essays on Canadian Writing, 1989.

[9] McLennan, Rob. Subverting the lyric: essays. Toronto: ECW Press, 2008.

[10] Persky, Stan. “Reading Robin Blaser.” In Robin Blaser. Vancouver, BC: New Star Books, 2010.

[11] Blaser, Robin, and Miriam Nichols. The fire: collected essays of Robin Blaser. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.

[12] “About Us.” Coach House Books. Accessed February 24, 2017. https://chbooks.com/About-Us.

[13] Barbour, Douglas. “Some Notes about a Long Relationship with the Coach House.” Open Letter, 9th ser., no. 8 (1997): 16-22.

[14] Davey, Frank. “The Beginnings of an End to Coach House Press.” Open Letter, 9th ser., no. 8 (1997): 40-77.

[15] Byrne, Ted. “Justice is a Woman: Reading Genève.” The Capilano Review, October 10, 2014, 72-89.

[16] Bowering, George. Genève. Toronto: Coach House Press, 1971.

[17] Davey, Frank. “Poetry, Audience, Politics and Region.” Canadian Poetry 30. Accessed February 24, 2017. http://www.uwo.ca/english/canadianpoetry/cpjrn/vol30/davey.htm.

[18] Barbour, Douglas. “Some Notes about a Long Relationship with the Coach House.” Open Letter, 9th ser., no. 8 (1997): 16-22.

[19] “Writings.” George Bowering. Accessed February 24, 2017. http://georgebowering.com/writings/poetry/.

[20] “About GB.” George Bowering. Accessed February 24, 2017. http://georgebowering.com/writings/poetry/.


One Reply to ““Baffling” the Tarot with Genève by George Bowering”

  1. This is a thorough and detailed research proposal that has the potential to lead you in all kinds of productive directions. I would encourage you to move further in the publishing history direction than the literary analysis direction, or at least to make sure that your questions about the content of the book keep in mind the context of its publishing and the ways that context might have influenced the content. The questions about design and production will be challenging to answer, but are also more immediately relevant to the final project you’re currently thinking of — which is a tremendous idea — so that’s definitely a direction worth pursuing.

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