Strangely Contemporary

Nowhere's Far: New and Selected Poems 1990-2008,
Phil Bowen
(147pp, £9.99, Salt)

As Brian Patten says on the front-cover blurb to this splendid collection - 'Phil Bowen's poems have always been unique'. It's the mix of influences and styles that makes them so, however, and Bowen's poems are a strange melange of post-60's pop poetry and an almost-Georgian sense of formal device. Given that his hometown is Liverpool and that The Beatles, at times, displayed a similar sense of stylistic eclecticism, perhaps this isn't so surprising. There's also an intriguing tribute to Philip Larkin in an early poem - 'About Larkin' - which is a robust defence of Larkin's quiet conservatism, a quality which is certainly evident in Bowen's own work, though his 'music-hall' relish for colloquial language and a tendency to work playfully with 'cliché' is gleefully at odds with Larkin's more dour and pessimistic outlook. Don't get me wrong, there is certainly a concern with the dark side in Bowen's poetry and a sort of 'sensitive withdrawal' at times, which speaks mournfully of the human condition, but his irrepressible comic touch and 'stand-up performer' persona puts him into an altogether different category. This is fortunate as I can no longer bear Larkin's poetry and wouldn't want the comparison to be a determining factor in this review.

This book contains work from four previous collections, from the early 1990's to 2004, together with a substantial selection of more recent poems. Some of the best material, in my view, comes from the collection entitled Variety's Hammer
, which includes the impressive performance poem 'What a Little Scarecrow Can Do', a piece which works well live as well as transferring effectively to the page:

     The scarecrow felt he had a poet in him.
     The poet felt he had an apostrophe in him.
     An apostrophe that wanted a page.
     A page that wanted a bride.
     A bride that needed a husband.
     A husband who wanted a housewife.
     The housewife who wanted a lover.
     A lover who wanted to feel safe.
     The safe that wanted the money.
     The money that made a speech.
     The speech that needed an actor.
     An actor who needed the part.
     The part that needed the whole.    …..

My only possible criticism of this poem is that it's not bizarre enough but the fact that Bowen can write in this vein and then switch to something like '
Gallery', is the sign of a versatile talent. 'Gallery', in fact, is one of the best pieces in this collection, one of those rare poems 'about' painting which really works, due to a compressed yet arresting descriptive style - 'massive boulders slamming into an astonished coastline' - and an apparently throwaway ending which keeps the possibilities open and yet manages to feel exactly right:

     so the fat man beside the pool who invited us, says,
     when the sky's the sky by somebody big.

It's a poem filled with interest and a variety of references and which has just the
right conversational tone for its subject, an extremely skilful piece of writing and very pleasurable to read as well.

Bowen is exceptionally good at evoking a mood and he does this quite minimally and without fuss. It's easy to underrate this ability because the poems often read through so smoothly yet it's an aspect of his work that I've come to really admire while re-reading these poems:

     that bohemian clatter
     on the verandah - your own -
     the barefoot women
     of Beautiful Street - there to kiss -
     painted toe-nails, painted sky,
     basements heaving with garlic
     and everyone in flowers tonight.
            (from 'Sticks and Pipes')

There are a number of poems here which refer to music-hall and comedy stars and which all mix an earthy irreverence with a sense of melancholy and occasional foreboding, yet the one I enjoyed most was Bowen's tribute to Tommy Cooper:

     Take a card.
     Any card,
     Now eat it!

     Ha ha ha!

     I had a very strange dream last night
     ladies and gentlemen

     (Thank you)

     Is that your dream?
     Have a look in there.

     Ha ha ha!

     I dreamt I was awake
     and when I woke up I was

     dead …

     Ha ha ha!

     (Thank you
           (from 'Take a Dream - For Tommy'

Now I'm usually averse to writing which attempts to manipulate feelings in this manner, however skilful, but Bowen carries this off with flair and it's a genuinely poignant poem. I guess it helps that I'm a Tommy Cooper fan (impossible to resist) but it's the way that Bowen steals Cooper's style and then sells it straight back to you - barefaced cheek or what! - that makes it work so well, a mix of sharp observation and love, I guess. Powerful stuff, even as it pretends, again, to have a throwaway quality.

Many of Bowen's poems are ballads, or near-ballads - Charles Causley comes to mind - and his use of repetition and rhythmic regularity still finds an audience in these post-modern times. It's probably the fact that his writing is sophisticated and aware that enables him to move between an unpretentious 'pop culture' and something darker and more serious but this conflicting feature of his work seems to be more prevalent in the final group of poems in Nowhere's Far.
The title poem is a good point in question with its echoing refrain, melancholy questing and its sense of a narrative, though this is fractured and filtered through a sort of nightmare dreamscape. Bowen has written a formally traditional poem but it's one which is disrupted, 'psychologically troubled' and concerned with the inability (or rather the limits) of language to deal with its subject. There's the hint of a narrative but this is inexplicit and the jaunty style of the piece is at odds with its 'dark heart'. There's a degree of abstraction here which you don't experience in an average pop poem and some of its imagery is chilling:

     Where I got the thought of a footpath
              From the scarecrow there by the style,
     Something about that footpath -
              That scarecrow's missing smile:

     Where nowhere's far and nothing's new
              And nowhere's near as ever,
     'Row that boat!' - you told me to -
                No not me I never!

I've already mentioned Causley in terms of the poem's style but its puzzling, riddling quality is closer to some of Williams Empson's writing than anything Larkin ever wrote. Its components are disconnected and disturbing, hinting, perhaps, at childhood trauma and loss but you can't ever be sure.

Drew Milne talked about the relationship between pop lyrics and poetry in a Stand
article a few years back and while I don't think he had the likes of Bowen in mind when he was discussing possible futures for poetry, I think there's a case to be made for Bowen's writing and one that stands up to scrutiny (no puns intended!). What makes his work so interesting, apart from its value as entertainment, is precisely this sort of 'awkward crossover' between popular culture (or pop poetry) and a more serious poetic intent. The fact that Bowen doesn't put that High Art tag on his poetry makes his work all the more intriguing because it certainly isn't 'pop poetry' in the sense that I understand the term. Despite his harking back to The Georgians and to the 1960's there's something very contemporary about his work that I can't quite put my finger on.

       © Steve Spence 2009