John Bowie is well-known in the crime noir writing community. He’s a highly accomplished novelist, with successful books like Transference and Weston-Super-Nightmare under his belt, and he champions the work of other writers as editor of Bristol Noir. ‘Dead Birds & Sinking Ships’ is especially exciting because it’s his first poetry collection, and I’m so thrilled to discover that his talent for prose translates seamlessly into his poetic verse.
‘Dead Birds & Sinking Ships’ presents the bleak reality of everyday emotional suffering with sharp insight and devastating lines. The opening poem ‘box made shallow from a body so deep (black butterflies)’ is the perfect starter. The darkness of the human psyche as it reluctantly exists in an increasingly confusing, contradictory, sometimes senseless world is perfectly captured in lines such as: “he pretends, hopes, he could be a little better – another day, / maybe tomorrow.”
From the off, there’s an overarching sense of doom, near-nihilism, sheer and utter despair as Bowie reflects on memories from previous lives the speaker has lived/endured/survived with a melancholic eye and tired heart. “to dwell now would be to give up altogether” but dwell he does, and it is these musings on loves lost and dark days that provide the most fascinating portrait of man as depressive, man as artist, as lover, as creator/destructor, man as a vehicle for suffering, as an example, man as being capable of and vulnerable to failing, falling, fighting. Bowie pays keen attention to the speaker’s thoughts and feelings, expertly dissecting the human experience, unpicking all of its darkest parts and displaying them unapologetically in all their brutal glory in ways which jar the reader. These poems can be confrontational in their frankness, shocking even – Bowie refuses to sugar-coat (and thank goodness he doesn’t) so these poems may be challenging to readers who haven’t experienced the lowest lows, with lines such as “start engine, / attach pipe, / prepare to breathe the blackness, / the pain, /all down.” particularly devastating and poignant.
I really enjoyed how Bowie employed classic noir imagery (for example, guns, bullets, blood, cigarette smoke, “broken windows cast fractured light”, booze and dark bars, “a car abandoned near the bridge. / key in the ignition, / small cash withdrawn, / passport missing.”) and applied them to his poetry in new ways, never ‘for the sake of it’ and not even used fictitiously for effect, but as thoughtful metaphors for real life depression and hurt and heartbreak. I also really loved the musical references peppered throughout the collection, again, none used frivolously, but effectively as a kind of background soundtrack to the misery at the forefront of the speaker’s days.
There were also moments of wry humour amid the sadness, which further serve to bolster my opinion that this is an incredibly intelligent collection of poems, finely balanced, artfully constructed. This is an incredibly raw, refreshingly honest, important book of poems that provide a valuable insight into the depressive mind, a book that I know I’ll return to on my own dark days. I’m so pleased that Bowie took this leap into poetry and I can’t wait to see what he does next.
Poem that stayed with me, that I couldn’t stop thinking about for days:
Know Your Enemy
Other personal favourite poems:
box made shallow from a body so deep (black butterflies) / how was it supposed to end? / respite for a slight return (forevermore) / like a scene from a bad book / fucking writers
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