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B.C. logger Peter Trower found solace in poetry

Peter Trower spent more than two decades working as a logger, before eventually abandoning the forest for the beery life of a writer.

Courtesy of the family

To some poets, a tree is worthy of rhapsody. To Peter Trower, a tree was as likely to crush him as inspire him.

Mr. Trower spent more than two decades working as a logger in the woods, a dangerous place where a moment's inattention or a comrade's carelessness could have grave consequences. Far from civilization in isolated logging camps, he endured lonely nights by reading Jack Kerouac, finding in the stream-of-consciousness prose an avenue for expressing his own poetic insights into life in the bush.

He eventually abandoned the forest for an impecunious yet beery life as a writer, producing several collections of poetry and three novels, an output that earned him praise in British Columbia as a bard of the backwoods. He was less celebrated by the Eastern Canadian tastemakers of Canadian literature.

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His death at 87 marks the end of an era for worker poets whose sharp eyes and calloused hands conveyed the beauty and horror to be found in the sweaty labour of a resource economy.

He spent decades in caulk boots, a duffel-bag wanderer. He worked as a baker, surveyor, shake-cutter, choker setter, whistle punk, crane operator and pulp-mill hand. The worst job he had was working the pot-line in a smelter, converting bauxite into aluminum, a cloud of black sputum erupting from his every cough.

In the act of felling a tree, he saw an echo of the combat the older members of his crew had witnessed, as he expressed in the poem Like A War:

No bombs explode, no khaki regiments tramp

to battle in a coastal logging-camp.

Yet blood can spill upon the forest floor

and logging can be very like a war.

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In the big city, many a night (and early morning) was spent with elbows on beer-soaked, terry-cloth tabletops at dive bars on Vancouver's skid row, where poets bellowed their stanzas over the blare of a jukebox and the roar of a night's revelry. After such training, performing in front of an audience at a reading was a snap, even when burly loggers expected to be averse to verse filled a room.

When not at the microphone, Mr. Trower was a shy man so soft-spoken as to mumble. With a fleshy, droop-eyed face and a down-turned mouth, he resembled the actor Peter Boyle. He could be dishevelled, though a Greek fisherman's black cap and sunglasses gave him a certain élan.

"He looked like every toothless logger I'd ever met before," one of his publishers said. "I couldn't imagine him writing poetry."

Mr. Trower persisted in large part because his mother had always insisted he would be a writer.

Peter Gerard Trower was born on Aug. 25, 1930, at St Leonards-on-Sea, a tranquil resort town on the English Channel. He was the first of two boys born to Gertrude Eleanor Mary (née Gilman), known before her marriage as Gem for the initials of her given names, and Stephen Herbert Gerard Trower, a test pilot.

His mother was the only daughter of the Acting British Resident to the Selangor Sultanate in Malaya. At first, her parents opposed the proposed union, their objections raised not for displeasure with the prospective groom's character but rather for the perilous nature of his profession. In the end, the Hon. E.W.F. Gilman escorted the bride on his arm at a wedding at St. Mary's Church in Kuala Lumpur in which the ceremony was officiated by the Bishop of Singapore.

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The newlyweds moved to Calcutta where the groom worked for the Anglo-Indian Air Survey. The teeming city did not win the approval of the new Mrs. Trower, so the couple soon after resettled with the groom's parents in England. A second son, Christopher, arrived early in 1933.

The pilot, who had retired from the Royal Navy, was commissioned as a flying officer in the Royal Air Force Reserve in 1934. He tested aircraft for the Fairey Aviation Co., a British firm. In 1935, the pilot demonstrated a Fairey Fantôme, a state-of-the-art biplane, at a competition for flying machines at a military airbase in Belgium. While performing loops and other feats of derring-do from a great height, the sleek aircraft began a nosedive toward the ground from which it would not recover. It was thought the pilot had blacked out. He was 34.

The bereaved family retreated to an estate owned by the boys' maternal grandparents near the village of Islip in Oxfordshire. Peter was sent to a boys-only preparatory school in Oxford known for its "robust informality and relaxed rigour," a training ground for England's future elites, including at least two generations of Tolkiens.

The outbreak of war in 1939 heralded an end to young Peter's pastoral childhood. Family lore has it that Lord Haw-Haw, the traitorous Nazi announcer William Joyce, had identified an oil depot at Islip as a worthy target for an air bombardment during the Battle of Britain. On July 18, 1940, Mrs. Trower and her boys boarded on tourist-class tickets the Canadian Pacific Line steamship Duchess of Bedford, bound for Montreal. They sailed across the dangerous Atlantic without event before joining relatives in Vancouver.

Less than two months later, the widow married Trygve Iversen, a rough-hewn wood-pulp engineer, and the boys were once again on the move, this time to Port Mellon, a mill town northwest of Vancouver, where a one-room schoolhouse offered a more rustic education than that on offer in Oxford. The settlement was accessible only by boat or float plane and had not yet been wired for telephone service. Later, the poet would remember the outpost as a "jerry-built, tarpaper town." A half-brother, Martin, was born in 1942.

Mr. Iversen, who was superintendent of the mill, disappeared while on a timber cruise to estimate a stand of forest at the head of Bute Inlet. He was presumed to have fallen into the water and drowned. Not yet 14, Peter Trower had lost a father and a stepfather.

The grieving family spent the next few years shuttling between Gibsons, near Port Mellon, and Vancouver, where Peter attended high school before dropping out to find work in 1948. Mr. Trower followed his younger brother to a logging camp in the Queen Charlotte Islands (now Haida Gwaii).

After three years, he returned to Port Mellon to homestead 60 acres his stepfather had purchased during the Depression. He lived in a stump-house while taking on odd jobs in logging and construction, all the while cutting shakes on the property. He worked in a pulp mill at Woodfibre and spent two years in the aluminum smelter at Kitimat. "Like working in hell," he once said.

A modest inheritance allowed him to quit the smelter and enroll at the Vancouver School of Art (now Emily Carr University), where he dabbled as a cartoonist.

Chastened by the superior drafting skills of his younger, less worldly classmates, he dropped out, pursuing instead the dissolute life of a beatnik, "learning what the bottom of life was like." He discovered after three years that it meant he had no money, so he returned to Gibsons and a life in the woods.

After a slipped choker smashed him in the mouth, knocking out his teeth, Mr. Trower again abandoned logging for work as a surveyor. A first collection, Moving Through the Mystery, was published by Talon Books in 1969, though the volume is now treasured more for the psychedelic mandalas drawn by Jack Wise. Even Mr. Trower later dismissed his writing as juvenilia, though he was nearly 40 on publication.

After a young university graduate named Howard White published the first of a series of volumes titled Raincoast Chronicles about life on the West Coast, a chagrined Mr. Trower summoned the publisher to his home to demand to know why he had not been invited to contribute. Mr. White found him in a cabin on his mother's property. "It had the whiff of the bunkhouse," Mr. White recalled recently, "the unmistakeable stench of stale beer, old socks, mouldy skin mags." The poet offered to share his beer, rubbing a thumb on the lip of a soiled glass in a modest swipe at domesticity. The two became friends and Mr. Trower was named associate editor of subsequent editions.

Mr. White's Harbour Publishing would publish several of Mr. Trower's dozen poetry collections, including Between Sky and Splinters (1974), The Alders and Others (1976), and Bush Poems (1978). The publisher also released Mr. Trower's three novels – Grogan's Café (1993), Dead Man's Ticket (1996) and The Judas Hills (2000). Other poetry collections were released by such British Columbia publishers as Ekstasis and Reference West. Only two of his works were handled by Eastern firms – The Slidingback Hills (Oberon, 1986) and Ragged Horizons (McClelland and Stewart, 1978).

A habitué of such Vancouver drinking establishments as the Alcazar Hotel and the Railway Club, Mr. Trower was championed by such poets as John Newlove, Al Purdy and Patrick Lane. The editor Mac Parry at the lifestyle magazine Vancouver also published his work, introducing the hard-scrabble poet to readers otherwise indulging fantasies about new bathroom fixtures.

After the death of his mother from respiratory failure in 1979, Mr. Trower rekindled a romance with the writer Yvonne Klan, whom he had known in high school. She had a salutary effect on the poet, insisting he not visit her when drunk. As it turned out, he preferred her company to that of the beer hall, most of the time. He dedicated a volume of tender, unsentimental, lyrical love poems, A Ship Called Destiny, to Ms. Klan.

Honours were late coming to Mr. Trower. (His friend the writer Jim Christy once fashioned a fake trophy for him from typewriter keys and Extra Old Stock beer labels.) Mr. Trower received the B.C. Gas (now George Woodcock) Lifetime Achievement Award in 2002, and the Jack Chalmers Poetry Award from the Canadian Authors Association in 2005 for his collection Haunted Hills and Hanging Valleys.

Mr. Trower died on Nov. 10 at Lions Gate Hospital in North Vancouver from complications following surgery for a broken hip. He had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's, granting power of attorney to his widowed sister-in-law four years ago. He spent his final years at the Inglewood Care Home in West Vancouver. He was predeceased by his brother in 2006 and his half-brother in 2013, as well as by his long-time companion Ms. Klan in 2004.

A memorial and celebration is scheduled to be held Saturday at 3 p.m. at his old Vancouver hangout, now known as the Railway Stage and Beer Café. It will not be teetotal.

Mr. Trower was a mentor to street poets, including Evelyn Lau, a drug-addicted, teenaged prostitute whose work deeply impressed him. He put her in touch with book agent Denise Bukowski, and Ms. Lau's Runaway: Diary of a Street Kid launched a notable literary career.

In a 1994 made-for-television movie based on the memoir, Sandra Oh portrayed the lead role in The Diary of Evelyn Lau. Mr. Trower played himself, sitting at a table in a bar, declaiming poetry, a role for which he had a lifetime's preparation.

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