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
of the rat,
Blood on the
Where the sultan
out of nine
All heard the
That part of
the rosemary branch
Where the vultures hang,
and in 'A Place Named Ark':
overtaken the judge,
And the tea‑party's
hi‑jacked the jury
And the only
thing for Christmas
Is the Power and
and in 'Moonlight on the River':
Signs that go
Never to know
what sleep's about,
Just deep in
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 Ð 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,
hiding her nudity from the police.
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,
investigation played on a hunch
as well as
It was spur‑of‑the‑moment
in the back of the Beehive that night;
the blonde harbouring the nark
who fingered Dixon
she felt something folded inside
and it was
all concocted by coppers,
associated with the cameo killer
and its chorus:
swears now as he swore then,
been to the Cameo in his life,
and he swore
then as he swears now,
ever heard of Kelly
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:
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:
brought these other songs,
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
watch them suffer and die
Also in this poem we have:
bass and drums, himself on lead
as cute as those words of love
so the whole
world could see he's number one
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:
hardly read what he'd just written,
It was a real
effort, like DIY,
though he knew that memories,
like a sense
came in good
time, by and by,
rung by rung,
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:
her the month they met.
she sat him down
through it, saying
And what does
This use of recording thought processes sparked off by an action, or a visual
perception, is a technique Coleridge used in his Conversation Poems Ð
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
What does this
And what does
It is the presence of these questions which save the poem from being merely
prose. They leave us with an ambiguity Ð 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
In 'Nets' we have a man and woman in bed. The poem begins with the man
heavily and travelled light,
woke a minute
before the alarm,
his own nets,
feeling as if
he'd landed heavily
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
He could feel
her skin pressed against his,
the pins and
needles of being
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
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
stop doing this.
packing her bag.
it, he said
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