Sep 17 2023
Poetry review – GIFTS OF THE DARK: John Mole follows Simon Bowden on his journey through serious illness and toward recovery
As I began reading Gifts of the Dark, Simon Bowden’s cancer recovery daybook – a sequence of thirty-two remarkably candid and authoritative poems written during and after being in hospital recovering from an operation on his tongue – I was reminded of the painter Francis Bacon who, when asked by an interviewer what he believed in, replied with the one word ‘Nothing’. ‘But don’t you believe in anything?’ the interviewer asked again. ‘Yes I do.’ said Bacon. ‘I believe in Nothing.’
In his first poem “Beginning”. Bowden adapts the opening of St. John’s gospel as
In the beginning was nothing word was nothing nothing was God
and three poems later in “Before Dawn” a footnote points out that its last line ‘echoes the title of a book on cosmology by Professor Peter Atkins which argues that primordial nothing is the necessary origin of all the laws of nature,’ The full range of Bowden’s challenging poems ‘feels his thoughts’ and seeks to experience ‘the gift of life / without light’ not with the consolation of a religious faith but through a vivid personal response to the instructive circumstances of his time in hospital.
Gifts of the Dark is, by turns, fearful and illuminating. It charts, stage by stage and in detail, Bowden’s physical condition as he experiences discomfort, often lying awake in darkness trapped between ‘the scratching absence of hope’ and the ‘dungeons of sickness’ while at the same time and with a metaphorical zest he determines to ‘leap from these white walls / warders with chemicals and blades, / orderlies with trolleys, probes, clean sheets’ into a resilient landscape of recovery. Apprehension and anxiety are relieved by a lyrical inventiveness, as in “When There is Nothing”:
Snowboard down the mattress, electric Alps of hospital bed. Covers come off, too cold, too hot: a picture window on blackness. Lay your neck on the quiet side, dug in a foxhole of pillows, arms sprawled over the sheet, a dread of malignant cells dripping into your gullet.
That ‘foxhole of pillows’ is characteristic of the subtlety with which Bowden introduces suggestive analogies, in this instance the hospital bed being experienced as a battleground and the warfare being between body and mind, suffering and hope. Throughout the sequence such analogies are explored and relished for their inventive possibilities which provide distraction and relief. In “In a Dream of Noir TV”, for example, Bowden playfully identifies with a Chandleresque protagonist in a scenario that shifts from the hospital ward to a bar where
In a drug-laced interlude, gobbets of meat refuse to enter your hero’s mouth and beer splashes the bar room floor. A lone woman dancing leads him into a doorway and up her beautiful stairs. He spies her garden, glancing into a bedroom where he breathes the flowers.
Poem by poem, and frame by frame, Gifts of the Dark takes us on a journey of discovery and recovery. But since recovery is gradual and ‘progress is relative / a backwards career’, even as we ‘watch the credits roll and ‘want to thank best boy / the post-production team / because it’s the end –
We have not reached the end. We sit together in darkness, not perhaps the right couple, and I hold your hand.
– but however tentative the affirmation conveyed by this final poem, Simon Bowden’s grip on our imagination remains as firm as it has been throughout this fascinatingly original and thought-provoking collection.