if nothing else by Harold Bowes
(Ravenna Press, Spokane, WA, 2004)
Everything about this book is beautifully packaged. For a start, its size (5 inches x 6 inches) is complementary to the text; anything larger and the shorter poems would have been lost on the page. Bob Dornberg’s cover, depicting a car being driven towards the viewer against a backdrop of trees and rose-coloured cloud, is bathed in a fantastic light, the kind you get for a fleeting moment when evening sunlight after rain reflects its colours on the ground. This carefully chosen cover mirrors the theme of transience and the celebration of the fleeting moment that recurs in the text. The title of the book is inscribed in a neat plaque not unlike a car number plate.
The book itself is structured into five sections: cloud; clouds; the clouds; some clouds; these clouds. It moves from a single cloud into an accumulation of clouds, it pulls us in like a zoom lens from the general to the specific. These headings illustrate how the slightest changes can hold different shades of meaning; a subtlety that is pursued with refined professionalism in the text.
Harold Bowes is a skilled practitioner in the art of the small poem. The title of the collection comes in the opening piece:
if nothing else
there are these clouds
Interpret this how you will. For me, it reads like a stoical acceptance of life as a fleeting moment. Many of the poems in this book, it seems to me, celebrate that moment. Like a photograph taken on a whim, they pin down something that is at once very ordinary but also extraordinarily beautiful. Take this, for example:
haloed moon -
in the dark field water spills
from a silver pipe
The words are so (photo)graphic you can almost see the pipe gleaming and hear the water gushing against the night silence of the field. A similar effect is achieved in the poem called “the dark yard”:
the dark yard -
a few grass blades
hold the moonlight
Light and the absence of light, the contrast between light and dark, the coming of the light and the leaving of the light permeate a number of the poems in this collection. When light and dark are at their half-way point in “Evening Light” there is a matching symmetry with life itself:
…Standing here in the half-light,
we talk about how far we have come
and how far we have to go,
where we were yesterday
where we will be tomorrow…
Sometimes light and dark are skillfully brought into focus at one and the same moment as in the observation enshrined in this short poem:
the curtain edges
with the idea of the curtain, precisely placed in the centre line, as the drawn divider between night and day.
Some of the strongest poems venture on this theme. In “The Night Has Murdered” Bowes makes use of an exaggerated vocabulary which energises the poem and lifts it from the description of a (literally) everyday event into something almost epic:
The night has murdered
a summer day.
It was an effort.
It took a long time.
The stars are like beads of sweat.
The division into individual sentences helps to emphasis the “struggle” and, by slightly prolonging the reading of the poem, to give an idea of time before the appearance of the last line which shows the true extent of this poet’s imagination.
The strength of many of the short poems in this collection is to be found in the way in which a single thought or several thoughts interconnect. In one poem, the moon, for example, is likened to a silver button dangling on a sleeve. Sometimes the “connections” are not immediately apparent which makes it all the more interesting for the reader in trying to fathom them out. Take this intriguing example:
the parking meter
In these few short lines the contrast between the static parking meter and the falling rain needs somehow to be reconciled; there is the sense that the parking meter is a clock ticking away time and this is seasonal rain; and, if nothing else, there is this enduring image of the parking meter in the rain.
In other short poems, it is the surprise of the last line that holds our attention:
white bread, white rice,
Longer poems also make their appearance in the collection. “Aerial Photographs” brings home the theme of transience in several ways: a farmer who has a chance to buy an aerial photograph of his farm to make it “immortal” and, later on, the making of an impression in concrete before it has set in order to leave a footprint.
Transience is also celebrated in the poem “In a Black Train, Tokyo” where the train the poet is riding on accelerates past another one on a parallel track giving him a window of opportunity to study the faces of passengers on the other train. It is at these moments, he says, when
…you feel the most
connected to society.
Cars are often mentioned in this collection. There is always this journey from one place to another…this moving imagery that never stays still yet is caught on camera in the mind.
In “Our Car,” Bowes reveals himself at his very best. In eight lines and four sentences he manages to convey a whole landscape. Once again, the piece demonstrates how a final line can of itself add a whole new dimension to what is already a brilliant poem:
Our car paces a truck.
The truck is hauling
detached automobile bumpers,
secured to a flatbed.
The mountains are white with snow
in the distance.
The clouds are as big as Montana.
Even now I forgive you.
This is a remarkable book that deserves a wide audience. For those who love the craft of the short poem, it will not disappoint.
Neil Leadbeater is an editor, author and poet living in Edinburgh, Scotland. His poems and short stories have been published widely in anthologies and small press magazines and journals both at home and abroad. His first full-length collection of poems, Hoarding Conkers at Hailes Abbey was published by Littoral Press in 2010 and a selection of his Latin American poems, Librettos for the Black Madonna, was published by White Adder Press in 2011.