Stephen Bone’s first collection offers deft and diverting insights into some everyday objects and events.

In-the-Cinema-Stephen-Bone-242x300In the Cinema
Stephen Bone
Playdead Press
ISBN 978-1-910067-24-6
56 pp   £7.99

Stephen Bone plays some of his strongest cards in the early pages of his debut collection In the Cinema. One of these cards is his ability to sketch a narrative in very few words. He does this in the first poem by a mention of my aunt, who wasn’t, leaving the reader to supply a plausible back story. He is also skilful at evoking mood from inanimate objects. A bar of coal tar soap is an orange threat and also something the “aunt” scrubbed herself with / as if she were a stain. Following this compressed psychological insight, the poem moves on to another enigmatic mini-story about the soap being used on me the time I slipped up. / I have never forgotten / the froth the taste.

Memories and hoarded artefacts play a large part in this collection. Bone rummages in an old wardrobe to show us an old fox fur like an unwanted rescue dog; and in a loft he finds some old 78s along with a wind-up gramophone. As the gramophone runs down, the forgotten pre-World War 2 singers sound like grotesque recordings from their / deathbeds; and it is only after cranking up [the gramophone] like a vintage car that their lungs are filled again with thirties’ air. ‘Attic’ startles me by making another, rather macabre, air-related link with the past in the form of a yellow beach ball // still limply holding / his father’s breath. ‘Inventory’ also involves the cataloguing of assorted items, but in the context of a division of shared possessions. It contains the delightful lines

The dog is mine.
But please remove
the parakeet.

Bone’s knack of finding small surprises in the seemingly ordinary occurs again in the (oddly titled) poem ‘Pre-emptive’ which is set in a seaside B&B and contemplates the breakfast things set out the night before

As if
a piece of tomorrow
had worked its way free
or broken off
and waits
cocksure
for the rest
to follow

Bone quite frequently uses short, one- or two-word, lines of the kind appearing in this extract. At its best, this stylistic trick can be like looking frame by frame at a movie-film, as when a vase

slipped through
my careless hands

to hit the floor
with a rich percussion

a jigsaw of glass
at our feet.

But on other occasions it struck me that a quite slight observation (that might perhaps have justified a haiku) had been stretched out to occupy a page. Here is part of ‘Fritillary’

airborne
dancer riding fragrant
currents

with skip and dart;
pealed slurper

of nectarines,
of ragged robin,
bugle, self-heal,
buttercup

The line and stanza breaks here seem to me to be rather arbitrary and unhelpful. (Although I have to admit that I recently came across another review of In the Cinema which singled out ‘Fritillary’ as one of the book’s high spots. Which only serves to show that criticism is not an exact science.)

I find myself to be more enthusiastic about poems where lines are allowed to take some deep breaths rather than short gasps. ‘Willow Pattern’ takes us imaginatively into the timeless landscape of a plate where a kingly figure is not only denied the chance to come down the steps and see / what we can see but is also forever unable to escape. In ‘A New Kind of Rain’ the relatively short line proves to be a good vehicle for another of Bone’s sensitively under-told anecdotes.

He   phoned
his grandmother
to fetch him early
Rained off, he sulked
not hearing the flatness
in her voice

Her eyes were red
and she was wearing
more powder than usual

I’m afraid I can relate all too easily to the youthful self centredness of the teenager who initially misses the signs of distress in his grandma. This poem once again shows Bone’s understanding of human nature and his knack of using tangible things (more powder than usual) to give emotional colour to a story. It is these two attributes, I think, which make In the Cinema an enjoyable and promising first collection. (It comes from a publisher I had not come across before, but whose website reveals an interesting poetry list: http://www.playdeadpress.com/p/poetry.html)   The book’s title did lead me to expect rather more references to cinema than I actually detected. In fact, still photographs (not to mention such heterogeneous items as ice cream, iced lollies and old records) seem to get just as much attention as film. But the collection is none the worse for touching on – and sometimes illuminating quite surprisingly – a wide range of familiar experiences, interests and sensations.

.                                                                                                                     Michael Bartholomew-Biggs