Starfly by Phil Bowen (7.50, Stride)
The Rumour
by Tim Cumming (8.50, Stride )


Starfly by Phil Bowen is a welcome collection of predominantly rhyming poems presented in a demotic register and employing Dylanesque gnomic‑like generalisations to enable reader identification ‑ - something that is seldom seen in modern poetry but which is the reason for Dylan's enduring appeal. For instance in 'Starfly' we have:

     The tail of the Jesus bitch
          The gospel of the rat,
     Blood on the corduroy
         Where the sultan sat

and

     Nine spies out of nine
         All heard the bang;
     That part of the rosemary branch
        Where the vultures hang,

and in 'A Place Named Ark':

     Where sleep's overtaken the judge,
         And the tea‑party's hi‑jacked the jury
     And the only thing for Christmas
         Is the Power and the Glory

and in 'Moonlight on the River':

     Signs that go on forever,
     Never to know what sleep's about,
     Just deep in some concern,
     Learn, despite darkest doubt

These stanzas have no meaning outside of that invested in them by the reader. They contain no description of the natural world, political comment or laboured confessional existentialism. Neither do they acknowledge the presence of a single, stable and identifiable authorial voice. The language of the poem has no external referents. We, as readers, are the authors of them. Dylan (like William Blake) intuitively knows this hence the meaningful significance of his lyrics to the largest possible audience. This is how the best poetry functions.

Where Bowen is less successful is in the poem 'The Cameo Killer'. This is a true account of the killing, in 1950, of two workers at the Cameo cinema in Liverpool after a botched raid. The poem is too closely influenced by Dylan's song 'Hurricane': with its quick scene changes, vivid imagery, vernacular, witness bullying and police fit‑ups etc. Bowen's use of British vernacular to tell the story of the cinema murder is less effective than Dylan's American vernacular to tell his story. In comparison to 'Hurricane', the 'Cameo Killer' is embarrassingly twee:

     A man named McBride said Judd had done it,
     his wife hiding her nudity from the police.

and

     What with Miss Sixpence‑a‑trick's botched account,
     the police in Preston in two minds over Judd:
     you say I was ‑ I say I wasn't
,
     the investigation played on a hunch

as well as

     It was spur‑of‑the‑moment they reckoned,
     they'd been in the back of the Beehive that night;
     the blonde harbouring the nark who fingered Dixon
     saying that she felt something folded inside

and

     and it was all concocted by coppers,
     constantly associated with the cameo killer

and its chorus:

     And he swears now as he swore then,
     he'd never been to the Cameo in his life,
     and he swore then as he swears now,
     he'd never ever heard of Kelly

As well as the Dylan influence (Dylan's singing voice is also mentioned favourably in the poem 'Blue Docs') Bowen is influenced by  the song  form in general, as is evident in his copious references to song and music. In 'Anyone Who's Anyone' we have:

     the hardest part is the start of the song

whilst in 'When it was the Ace of Clubs' we have references to Noel Coward, Gertrude Lawrence and the following:

         Whatever crew rolled up,
     Sailors brought these other songs,
         The piano wouldn't stop

In 'The Old Matinees' we have: 'The old hits' , 'opening chorus and solo' and references to the musical The Boyfriend
. In 'No More Mr Nice Guy' there is an allusion to the line 'I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die' from the Johnny Cash song 'Folsom Prison Blues' :

                            [. . .] and liked to shoot
     coyotes to watch them suffer and die

Also in this poem we have:

     Two guitars, bass and drums, himself on lead

     vocals, smile as cute as those words of love

and

     so the whole world could see he's number one
     on the Billboard, hot as Kentucky soul,
     nine hits out of nine: Hail! Hail! Rock 'n 'Roll!

In 'Can Birds Sing Over the Sky?' there are these lines: 'their bluesiest tune', and 'Someone is the song of the year'. 

The poems in Starfly
are a welcome antidote to the tired and over‑hyped outpourings of many of today's contemporary poets. As Roy Harper once said, in another context, 'There's no need to name them. There's absolutely no need to name them. They know who they are'.


The overall quality and skill of execution of Tim Cumming's The Rumour is good, despite a tendency for many of the poems to slip into discursive prose. In fairness to Cummings, this is more the fault of the pervading influence of British and Irish poetry (which tends to foster a highly mimetic and denotative approach to poetic writing) than any stylistic deficiency on his part. Despite the poem's being content driven and assumptions about the transparency of language, one senses that Cumming is trying valiantly to pull back from the brink of empiricism. In many instances he succeeds. One such success is 'Handwriting' which begins with the customary conversational register familiar to most readers:

     He could hardly read what he'd just written,
     like he barely remembered
     what happened last week.
     It was a real effort, like DIY,
     though he knew that memories,
     like a sense of direction,
     came in good time, by and by,
     rung by rung, like hardwoods

This is a good piece of prose writing. It is concise, flows well and is easy to read. And it is part of a poem that investigates memory and the way thoughts can be triggered by actions. In this instance the thought associations are triggered by the poet practising his handwriting for a job application form. This act causes his mind to firstly drift onto thoughts of his absent pregnant wife, then onto the nature of the writing process itself, then from this he is brought to a consciousness of his handwriting's appearance on the page which, in turn, causes him to remember an occasion when he'd written to his wife soon after they first met:

     He'd written her the month they met.
     Months later she sat him down
     and went through it, saying
     What does this say?
     And what does this say?

This use of recording thought processes sparked off by an action, or a visual perception, is a technique Coleridge used in his Conversation Poems particularly 'Frost at Midnight' and 'This Lime‑tree Bower My Prison'. It is based on the dubious theory that a good poem should be triggered‑off by perceptual input which is then ruminated upon by the poet, and which then leads to thought, which then returns to perception and back to thought again etc. In this way the thinking processes of the perceiver become objectified and are rendered more palpable to the both the poet and the reader of the poem. This mimesis of consciousness, though, has little to do with any notion of the poem as an artificial linguistic construct amenable through connotation to a plurality of interpretations by the reader. It has more to do with the egotistical notion of the poet as having important insights which the reading public will, in some mysterious way, benefit from by merely being privy to them. 

Fortunately, Cumming does not go this far and ends the poem with two cryptic questions:

     What does this say?
     And what does this say?

It is the presence of these questions which save the poem from being merely prose. They leave us with an ambiguity an open‑endedness that allows us to participate in the creation of meaning for the poem. The poem becomes more than merely the recounting of the poet's thought processes to a largely disinterested audience.  

In 'Nets' we have a man and woman in bed. The poem begins with the man waking:

     He slept heavily and travelled light,
     woke a minute before the alarm,
     jerking in his own nets,
     feeling as if he'd landed heavily
     into the wrong personality

The use 'nets' as a metaphor for tangled sheets is skilfully handled and the expression of the confusion that is present during the transition from the sleeping state to the waking is conveyed originally. Further into the poem we have:

     He could feel her skin pressed against his,
     the pins and needles of being
     in love slipping down the wind
     in the blood, its crooked history.
 
Despite the rather prosaic metaphor of 'pins and needles', other metaphors such as in ' [. . .] slipping down the wind/ in the blood, its crooked history' are well handled.

Many poems in this collection fail, in my view, to fully distinguish themselves from prose. The most obvious example being 'The Hair':

     She tied up her hair
     then asked him to call a taxi.
     He picked up the phone and pulled
     one of her hairs from his mouth.
     I know you're unhappy, he said
     but please stop doing this.
     She continued packing her bag.
     Well that's it, he said
     but she didn't believe a word of it.

This sort of writing is best configured in the following way:

She tied up her hair then asked him to call a taxi. He picked up the phone and pulled one of her hairs from his mouth.
  'I know you're unhappy,' he said, 'but please stop doing this'. She continued packing her bag.
  'Well that's it,' he said. But she didn't believe a word of it.

But overall this is an intelligent and well-written collection that attempts fairly successfully to recuperate itself from its empiricist influences.

                Jeffrey Side 2004