Thursday, May 11, 2017

“The Reader as Mediator”: A Review of Rupert M. Loydell’s Dear Mary

 (Bristol, UK: Shearsman Books, 2017), ISBN-13: 978-1-84861-519-9
Dear Mary, Rupert M. Loydell’s twentieth collection of poetry, is a series of meditations on the Virgin Mary and the circumstances of her miraculous conception. True to form, Loydell, a painter as well as poet, approaches the mystery through the dual lens of words and images. And one does not have to be raised Catholic like myself to appreciate the large number of images available to us that take as their subject Mary’s receiving of the news from the angel Gabriel and her subsequent life as mother of the Savior, Jesus Christ.
Indeed, “the appearance/of the angel,” as Loydell says in the poem “A Process of Discovery”: “the event/the moment/as pregnant/as the Madonna” (18). With this encounter heavily weighted from the onset, Loydell explores the crafting of the image, as in “Colour by Numbers,” although he does not take the elitist angle of painting as something only for the highly trained—especially with religious matters as its subject—but something for everyone, something as simple as a color by numbers painting, which you can “take… to the next level” (26). This is more Bob Ross than Old Masters, and refreshingly so.
In the poem “Cimabue” he writes: “everything in Italy/is a love letter to God” (28) a statement that recalls to me the atmosphere and impact of the art in the Martin McDonagh film In Bruges. Even the lowest and bleakest of souls are not immune to such pervasive and powerful displays of Holy, Heavenly art. The next poem, “Hidden,” continues and expands this theme: “There are hidden angels/everywhere in Tuscany./If you find one keep quiet/and speak of it only to yourself/let meaning turn to whisper” (29).
Given that the Angel and Mary are the lead characters in Dear Mary’s narrative, we have to ask who or what serves as the Mediator between the Spirit and the Flesh. The very act of the Immaculate Conception (real or metaphorical) elevates Mary to near-Spirit, but she is still (and importantly) Flesh. Loydell’s poems and the vast array of paintings out in the world serve as Mediators, but the Reader must function as Mediator as well. I left the  Catholic Church at 21 to become the Mediator of my own experience, rather than relying on priests, nuns, and long-gone prophets.
“How to Say It” uses the Painter as Mediator: “He does not know how to say it,/how to talk about the moment/he has been asked to paint,/so he simply colours the story in” (39). Loydell leaves ample space in his poems for the Reader to do the same.
Let us not confuse “simple” for “easy” here. On some level, even the Writer “colours the story in” with a transcendent element beyond words, if the angels/Muses are kind and the artist remains open to the experience, as Mary was. Extending this metaphor, the Inspiration fills the artist’s vessel like the Savior fills Mary Mater’s womb.
From pages 51 to 59 is a multi-part poem titled “Shadow Tryptych” (“after Francis Bacon”), a rich tapestry of insight on the Vision and Voice of the artist. It sits at the exact midpoint of the collection and serves appropriately as the central Furnace and Core of Dear Mary.
A highlight of the collection is “Alien Abduction.” The nexus of angels/demons and aliens is inescapable to ponder, and Loydell’s well-informed but tongue-and-cheek take will get you smiling while you think.
“How Grey Became” takes us back to color, and keeps you thinking. Loydell writes: “The colour grey is preferred by people who are indecisive;/grey is also the colour of evasion and non-commitment.” He then goes on to say: “Grey is the colour of intellect, knowledge, and wisdom” (65). This latter interpretation is the one I tend to favor. It’s a proposition put forth even further in the Live song “The Beauty of Grey.” As I exist day after day mourning the death of Complexity, I wish there was more grey. More mix. More middle. Given that, perhaps both interpretations work.
“Out of the Picture” is about none other than Joseph. My namesake. The biblical character I have most pondered in my life. Loydell gives him a voice too long in coming. Talk about Complexity…
A more modern take on Mary and Gabriel is “Surveillance System Annunciation.” What if it all was recorded. Would it clarify or even further muddle?
The collection is bookended by two essential pieces.  First is the Preface by Dr. Jim Harris, who is the Teaching Curator at the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology at the University of Oxford. I highly recommend taking the time to read it, even if it means reading it after the fact so that your own experiences of the poems are not colored by his insights, sound as they are. 
The collection ends with a Notes section, which illuminates the source material and inspiration for various poems (for instance, “Dear Mary” is assembled from the song lyrics of 11 musical artists and other texts).

Like Catholicism itself, the sources and inspirations that make up Dear Mary are myriad, and the Mystery is left to the Reader as Mediator to ponder.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

“How to Manage the Void”: A Review of Sharon Heath’s The History of My Body, The Fleur Trilogy, Book 1

(Deltona, FL: Thomas-Jacob Publishing, LLC, 2016), ISBN-13:  978-0-9979517-0-7
I am going to be up front here. I love this book, which is in large part due to its main character, Fleur Robins, daughter of an ultra-Conservative US Senator from Pennsylvania and an alcoholic mother who had Fleur as a teenager. Fleur is one of the most delightful, complex, and often contradictory child characters since Holden Caulfield in JD Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye and Sheila Tubman in Judy Blume’s Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great—two characters that had a profound impact on my childhood and, subsequently, my life.
Perhaps it is my own growing fascination with Complexity and Chaos Theory, but I have been noticing a recent trend in storytelling—be it novels, television, or (to a lesser extent) film—that comes into play with Sharon Heath’s approach. It began with the male anti-hero in television shows like The Leftovers and Walking Dead, who is flawed, isolated, and oftentimes just plain Wrong. That trend has now broadened and extended to not only female characters, but to entire families. I just finished watching the debut season of Santa Clarita Diet on Netflix. Not only are the relationships between spouses, parents and children, bosses and co-workers, neighbors, and so on incredibly Complex and always on the verge of or in the midst of Chaos, but these multi-level flaws create a much richer, deeper view of Life as We Know It than I think was ever possible before.
It is through this lens that I read Sharon Heath’s novel. Fleur is a study in Dichotomy. Her Nobel-level brilliance couples with a naivety that makes her the prey of the opposite sex; a brilliant vocabulary and a tendency to misinterpret what people are saying make for socially awkward instances and relationship troubles; a dynamic tension between the Private and Public drives her onward through her pre-teen and early teen years with a speed and recklessness fraught with peril and outsized Consequences.
Indeed, aren’t we all, in this post-post-Modern age of sound bites, tweets, and swiping left or right, struggling with the same? The connection between brilliance and lack of common sense; our struggles for True Communication in a world of digital shorthand and diminishing attention spans; of the Public and Private masks that we switch on and off with increasing rapidity; the lessons that come so fast while we are multi-tasking and trying desperately to problem solve on micro and macro scales—it all adds up to a life of Contradictions and Complexity.
This is the life of Fleur Robins. We know from the subtitle that the first book is part of a trilogy and that Fleur is talking to us, not from the present, but from the future.  This is a brilliant device on Heath’s part because we experience two points in time simultaneously—Fleur’s experiences (and they are myriad and at times cringe-worthy) and her later self’s recording them after the benefit of time, processing, and maturity.
Given that Fleur, mistaken for learning disabled when she was actually capable of groundbreaking discoveries in Quantum Mechanics when she was barely in double digits age-wise, is obsessed with questions of the Void and Time and Life and Death—questions that work in tandem with the events unfolding in the novel.
But Fleur is not on her own as far as the heavy lifting in all of this relentless Complexity and Chaos. There are her aforementioned parents, who have clear arcs of their own; Fleur’s grandparents; the domestic staff; and the classmates, teachers, and colleagues whom Fleur encounters on her accelerated journey through the educational system (which takes her from a loose version of home schooled to a school for the gifted and talented, to Stanford University).
Although I am tempted to reveal details of Fleur’s experiences, they are all so wonderfully delightful in their unfolding that I will instead keep my remarks general and focus on the overall themes the author employs. As indicated by my choice of title for this review, the Void is a central feature. Calling to mind the alchemical term nigredo, which is the starting material from which everything is created or, even better, a place of infinite possibility, I began to notice the myriad alchemy at work in The History of My Body. There are gardeners and cooks, and quantum physicists—masters of alchemy all. And the journeys of love and forgiveness the reader experiences are of course the heart and soul of alchemy—the transmutation of baser emotions into love. And the journey is difficult for everyone involved: It was hard to see Fleur’s starting condition of “she is too dim to be helped” morph into “she’s such a genius, she doesn’t need help” before continuing on to something resembling a healthy balance. In line with the quantum physics elements of the book, Fleur’s philosophy demonstrates an early working of a Theory of Everything—a rich landscape of overlapping, intertwining, complementary, and at times contradictory metaphors, thought-arcs, and theories Fleur is always apt to test with full fervor.
Heath must be commended—there is a thin, dangerous line for a novelist between such complexity being the beautiful quirk of main character and an indication of poor planning and execution by a writer unable to bring their broad worldview into manageable scope. It is clear that Heath has been purposeful and exacting. Like the best sit-com writers, she repeatedly sets up a “plant” that plays out more fully as the story it resides in reaches its crescendo, creating a “mini-explosion” of meaning of which Fleur would wholeheartedly approve.
Because of her inclination toward diving in head first and asking questions later, Fleur really does remind me of Holden and Sheila. And also of Michael from the hit sit-com The Office. As much as I loved and rooted for him (and precisely because of this connection) I cringed at least once an episode as his incomplete understanding of a situation or some mixed-up mathematics that altered the actual equation of his reality led him to embarrassing and hurtful moments. And Fleur has more than her share of all of these for a girl her age.
To paraphrase Fleur, stories were made to fill the void. Especially ones as richly written as this one. I look forward to continuing Fleur’s adventures when Book 2 comes out.

Friday, January 20, 2017

“Of Redemption and Forgiveness”: A Review of Smoky Zeidel’s Redeeming Grace

 (Deltona, FL: Thomas-Jacob Publishing, LLC, 2017), ISBN-13:  978-0-9979517-1-4
By Joey Madia
Some writers have a gift that sets them well above the rest. Being a teacher of writing as well as an author, Zeidel deftly augments her natural talent for storytelling with sharply drawn characters, tight plots, seamlessly woven research, and a high level of symmetry and macro/micro structure.
            I was first introduced to her work several years ago, when I received The Storyteller’s Bracelet for review. I was very taken with the mythological nature of the Native American–based tale she told, so it was with great pleasure that I received this special release.
            Engaging the dogmatic/religious more than the mythological, Redeeming Grace centers on a family’s ongoing struggles following the separate deaths of two children and their mother in late 1920s rural Maryland.
            The title character, the oldest daughter of a hardcore minister named Luther, marries a somewhat older man, Otto Singer, to get her and her sister away from Luther’s physically and emotionally abusive ways. His grief has poisoned his mind and instead of being the kind-hearted family man and well-respected religious figure of years passed he has become an abusive mis-interpreter of the Bible.
            But all is not well as Grace and her sister Miriam move in with Otto and his brain-damaged brother Henry, because, as good a man as he is, Otto holds a terrible, terrible secret.
            With descriptions of Depression-era America that rival those of John Steinbeck, Cormac McCarthy, and Nick Cave’s And the Ass Saw the Angel, and a subtle but inescapable resemblance to George and Lenny in Of Mice and Men in the relationship between the two brothers, Redeeming Grace examines the foundations of family and cautions that the ways in which we interpret the Word of God and the stories of the Bible can be as destructive as they are uplifting.
            Perhaps the greatest compliment that I can pay to this well-told tale is that I could not put it down during the final third of the book despite surpassing my allotted reading time on three consecutive days. I found myself genuinely rooting for redemption, vindication, and forgiveness and Zeidel ratcheted up the tension in the most delightful of ways.

            If you are looking for a well-crafted, insistently paced story with good old-fashioned humanity and complex characters, I highly recommend Redeeming Grace. In an age of CGI and blockbuster building-bashing, both on screen and in our literature, it’s all the more necessary for us to engage with books like this.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

“Past Lives Matter”: A Review of Giving Voice to Dawn, written and illustrated by L. S. Gribko

(Morgantown, WV:  Milkweed Rising, 2016). ISBN: 978-0-9978388-1-7
by Joey Madia
“I am a neophyte mystic…”
Thus opens the debut novel from L. S. Gribko. I hesitate to use the word novel, as this book is so much more. Its use of amalgam characters engaging in the Socratic method to explore the spiritual journey evokes Carlos Casteneda’s The Teachings of Don Juan and Dan Milman’s Way of the Peaceful Warrior while the vivid descriptions and level of research of the Civil War battlefields and leaders that form the core of the book would make both a historian like Bruce Catton and a novelist like Michael Shaara proud. It is part travelogue, part spiritual handbook, part Ted Andrew’s Animal Speak, and part family saga. That Gribko weaves it all together in such a way as to make a deeply moving page-turner that speaks to the Seeker in all of us is no small achievement.
As though the rich prose were not enough, Gribko fills the book with poems and illustrations that bring her words and encounters to life and give the reader a reflective pause from the at-times dense, descriptive action.
The book’s first person narrator (whom we find out near the end is named Ellie) is an archetype with which I have become quite familiar in my work with the small and independent press as both an editor and writer. She is someone who has had her fill of the shifting sands and endless compromises of the Corporate Life into which she and several other characters have bought and is at the threshold/precipice of committing to a more Artistic and Spiritual Life. Gribko’s array of characters create a continuum of attitudes, stories, and hopes that is so well represented that any reader, no matter his or her place on their own journey, can find someone with whom to identify.
Reminding me of Socrates in Way of the Peaceful Warrior, Ellie’s main guide is a mysterious figure named Mick that she talks to while she rides the Metro in and out of DC. Commuter trains are a sobering metaphor of those who, as Sting sings in “Synchronicity II” (pay attention to that title) are “packed like lemmings into shiny metal boxes/contestants in a suicidal race.” We can’t help but root for Ellie and her co-worker, Neil, as they throw off the chains and go in pursuit of answers to a series of questions their mystical experiences provide.
Once again showing Gribko’s depth of research, her narrator visits (and exquisitely describes) the National Museum of the American Indian. I had the pleasure of visiting there several years ago and Gribko took me right back. Her descriptions of the landscaping outside and the dome above the main entranceway call attention to how much care and detail went into honoring the elements and nature in the architectural design. This same descriptive flair is repeated when Ellie and Neil experience the National Portrait Gallery.
One of the strengths of Giving Voice to Dawn is how it operates on numerous levels at once, a point I touched on earlier. For instance, it can be read as an historical adventure, albeit with what could be called paranormal aspects. But Gribko opens the door for those skeptical of the “New Age” of spirituality by giving creed to the notion that all that the main characters experience can be chalked up to Imagination. This is in no way meant to give the power of Imagination short shrift—hence my use of the capital “I.” On the contrary, as Einstein told us: “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world.” Imagination in this book goes even further, embracing the entire Universe. Without spoiling the surprises, it must be said that Gribko makes a great case for the importance of history and getting to know—beyond dates and dry facts—those leaders who shaped our country and our world. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s phenomenon of a musical Hamilton attests to this as well.
Perhaps the most challenging spiritual facet in the book is the notion of past lives. More and more research is being done in neuroscience and memory, and quantum physics makes a strong case for time being nonlinear and effect operating on cause as well as the other way around, but past lives are still largely a matter of faith. Regardless of where you stand, the experiences of the main characters as they visit the Antietam battlefield and its surrounding area are deeply profound and Gribko’s writing shines in these moments most brightly.
For those readers who pay attention to animal totems, Giving Voice to Dawn is full of references to especially our flying companions. There is excellent advice sprinkled throughout the book about paying attention to and interpreting the signs of animal totems, as well as the correlations between certain personality types (i.e., those of the prevalent military men and politicians that figure into the story) and their animal totems.
I mentioned Synchronicity when quoting Sting. Although it is nothing we learned in Literature class or in reading groups, the resonance of a book, especially one such as this, can be measured on some level by the amount of synchronicities it generates. Giving Voice to Dawn generated synchronicities for me on an almost daily basis. Its energy derives from a potent combination of Gribko’s research, writing skills, and ability to translate the spiritual into understandable, applicable examples and suggestions.
I believe that Giving Voice to Dawn could (and should) hold a place in the spiritual seeker’s library beside the books I mentioned in the opening and such best-sellers as Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love. It resonates with the messages of contemporary adept spiritual practitioners and lecturers such as Caroline Myss and the late Wayne Dyer, offering numerous pathways to enter its fields of wisdom no matter where you are on your journey.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

“Saving the Best for Last”: A Review of The Journal of Vincent du Maurier III, by K. P. Ambroziak

(Published by the author, 2016). ISBN: 9781535511193
by Joey Madia
Why are we so satisfied with trilogies? I think of books like the Lord of the Rings cycle, the Blake Crouch Pines series, and the Oedipus cycle of Sophocles, and film series like The Matrix and the original Star Wars and I can think of little more satisfying than a triadic installment of a well-told tale.  In my book on storytelling I talk about trilogies and triads; about 3-Act structure and the Rule of 3s; and about Aristotle being the first to point out to us not only that good stories have a beginning, middle, and end, but what each of them should accomplish, a launching point I have built on for years in my “Three 3s of Good Storytelling” worksheets and workshops.
There is no doubt that there is something fundamental in our DNA as storytellers and story absorbers that makes a trilogy one of the perfect delivery mechanisms for a tale worth sharing—sharing being a two-way feedback loop of writer–reader on a journey that takes the writer’s IOUs and spreads them out over not just a chapter or book, but over a series of them.
K. P. Ambroziak has accomplished a great deal in the Vincent du Maurier trilogy, as I’ve examined in my reviews of the first two books. All that succeeded in the prior two books is strengthened here, with much added in the way of mystery and elegance in how the meta-mystery origin stories unfold.
Before I get into the structure and tone of the book, I’d like to make a more general comment on where vampire novels such as this and monster-based horror stories in general tend to be going in the twenty-first century. By the late 1800s, when the world was getting acquainted with such characters as Dracula, Victor Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll and Dr. Moreau, the operative metaphors were the suppression of sex, the fear of Western European blood being polluted by Eastern Europeans, and Eugenics. Underlying it all was the struggle to come to terms with rapidly advancing fields in the sciences. In the twenty-first century, as those scientific fields have grown into the many-headed hydra of genes and their mapping, isolation, and manipulation, the vampire/monster genre’s metaphors have become ever-more concrete: The Strain, Tru Blood, and Prince Lestat all take aim at the blood–gene bulls-eye and their vampires are fascinated with the potential for power and control it promises (making them more like politicians and the military than ever before). Even men-as-monsters use genetics, as evidenced in Dan Brown’s Inferno. In this new world, as in the old one, scientist is synonymous with either God or God-maker.
Ambroziak embraces this evolving trope, making it the driving force of the final book of the trilogy. She takes complicated science and makes it understandable and plausible, while twisting and turning the plot like the double helix. On a parallel track, with all the complications of a strand of DNA, the plot moves back and forth in time, in and out of reality, folding over and back upon itself numerous times. Not wanting to give anything away, I will talk only broadly about the narrative “how” of it all.
Intertwining with what I’ve just described (as if that weren’t enough of a feast) is a strong rooting in mythology (once again making me think of Dan Brown. Honestly though, Ambroziak is an equal storyteller and superior writer).
As many trilogies do, this one goes from small in scope—centering on Du Maurier and the pregnant woman he protects in book I—to quite large, spanning countries and timelines as back stories are illuminated and mysteries are solved. Du Maurier is right in line with the twenty-first-century male anti-hero—the deeply flawed man who tries to keep his family together while making mistake after mistake. And what constitutes “family” in this third book is expansive and complex, which is an apt parallel with present times, where family is ever-more nontraditional and broadly defined.
Vampirism as addiction is further developed in this final book of the trilogy, interlocking thematically with humans and hybrids who willingly give their blood to the most dominant of the vampires. If we consider that vampirism in the sense of psychic vampirism is a very real thing in most people’s lives, this device gives us plenty to think about in our own familial and social networks.
Coming full circle, the brilliance in this trilogy is that the story unfolds through numerous perspectives, akin to Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, which celebrate 40 years with its twelfth book arriving in November of this year. Du Maurier, in the third book of this trilogy, chooses a young Norse monk-like figure to set down his tale, reminding me of the opening of Rice’s Blood and Gold.

Without giving away the end, I hold out hope that one or more of the facets of the diamond that is the newly defined family of this trilogy goes on to continue the tale.

Monday, October 17, 2016

“Bangkok Shadow and Light”: A Review of John Gartland (poetry) and Mark Desmond Hughes (photography) Blanc et Noir: Masters of Noir 2

“Bangkok Shadow and Light”: A Review of John Gartland (poetry) and Mark Desmond Hughes (photography) Blanc et Noir: Masters of Noir 2 (Lizardville Productions, 2016)

A few months ago I had the pleasure of reviewing John Gartland’s Resurrection Room: Bangkok dark rhetoric, a complex, riveting piece that seamlessly blended sardonic autobiography and social commentary with fantastical leaps through time and subject-space.
Blanc et Noir operates as a companion piece and, although it showcases Gartland’s poetry (as did sections of Resurrection Room), it comes at its subject matter—Bangkok and environs and the myriad personalities who populate this space—from a series of different angles. It is no less (and at times more so) sharp and biting than its predecessor. Add in the stunning and at times disturbing photography of Mark Desmond Hughes and the written/visual cocktail is both potent and lasting.
Gartland knows Story, and talks of it often in his poetry and prose. The opening line of the collection is “That fantasy of a well-rounded life in three acts,” calling to mind Joseph Campbell’s oft-stated observation that, although our lives seem random, looking back at the end, they seem as well-crafted as the best of novels. As expected, Gartland is throwing down the gauntlet against Securities, Platitudes, and Falsities, because he—and his characters—have seen behind, around, and thru them.

A note on the relationship between Gartland’s poems as they are laid out and Hughes’ photography: there is not always a clear one, which I prefer. One has to dig deeply into the composition and qualities of the photographs as well as the poems in order to mine connective meaning. Besides, they are sharing landscape—Bangkok—so anything beyond is not needed. They operate in counterpoint at times, which is also value-added in terms of the overall experience.

Hughes intertwines the human landscape with his city and country landscapes, intermixing several provocative photographs of females with those of Gartland and his stunning place-pictures.

Gartland begins the journey through the eyes of the “Eye”—a film-noirish detective who parcels out the performances he witnesses in the local bar at the Mambo Hotel. The character is grizzled, jaded, and brutal in his truth-giving: “listening to others’ production-line prose, self-published wunderkinds who believe their own hype,
burned-out actors on valium bogarting the mike…” A man out of time, who has “conversations with shadows and ghosts” (and what are photographs if not compositions of the same?).

Following the philosophical–psychological survey poem “Thinkers and Drinkers (you’reonlyjungonce)” there is a photograph of a woman shooting pool. She is skeletal—her hair a wiry mass of energy, but rendering her faceless. Her thin legs swim in her knee-high high-heeled boots. Her ribs are showing, and (perhaps) a nipple. This photograph can be juxtaposed with an earlier one of a woman in a short, tight dress, her body full and athletic, crossing one spiked-pump leg across the other, offering a glimpse of her black panties. Her face, although with eyes closed and looking down and to the side, is visible, and her hair, long and straight, is pushed off to the side. It would take an essay in itself to fully explore these two photographs (especially given that I found out in the final stages of the review that they are Bangkok “ladyboys”: transvestites), but they offer a glimpse into the counter and complimentary forces at work in this collaborative collection and Gartland’s larger body of work. In the next poem, “Civilisation 101,” the professor in the poet instructs us to “Discuss” and then “Reflect.” He gives us ample material with which to do so.
A little less than a quarter of the way is the first of Hughes’s landscape photos. My notes upon contemplating it were as follows: “foreign landscapes with monster-spectres in the sky, a figure on the ground parting the waves of a stand-in Red Sea—or are they fields of wheat?” Throughout the remainder of the collection there are similar “haunted” land- and cityscapes, full of phantom figures in much the same way the city—and the poems—are.
In “Shellspeak” Gartland calls to mind Shelley’s Ozymandias in these somber lines: “Your drama is a flicker/by the wide and wasteful sea,/your tower of words is drowned/and lost, by tidal law’s decree,/and nothing you have built will stand/in the sideways-running universe of crabs.”
Returning to London, and the idea of juxtaposition, in “Nothing but the River,” Gartland writes of “Saxon swords and junkies’ needles,” illuminating the hard truth that socioeconomic warfare on the masses through the dispersal of drugs is equal to that of conquering armies’ bloody invasions.
Approaching the midpoint, we have the first image of Gartland interdicted into a photo (although there have been previous photos of him in his “The Poet Noir” persona), with his face on a poster behind stacked bicycles. This reads as a return to the Eye, ever-watching, ready to report. In the poem that follows the photo there is mention of the “lizard eye” (lizard is a recurring symbol-image in Gartland’s Bangkok cycle).
Next comes a photo. On the horizontal plane at the top of the photo are a dozen or so scooter riders, perhaps stopped at a stop light. In the lower horizontal plane is the blurred image of what seems to be a lone rider zooming through the frame. Looking carefully at the stopped riders, one seems to be wearing a Captain America symbol on his shirt.
A later photo provides another dichotomy as the foreground (a line of empty lounge chairs) plays at odds with the background, which is a foreboding landscape, mediated by what may be a pool and a lone figure moving from left to right (the pool itself foregrounded with a series what might be diving platforms or treadmills). In this world of Blanc et Noir, all appears at odds, yet coexists within the frame.
Just past half way we have two more photographs in juxtaposition. The first is also the cover photo: A girl—late teens?—lifting the bottom of her shirt, showing her muscular abdomen (the “goods”), leaning against a fan that is not on (so no Marilyn Monroe [or even Willem Defoe] sexuality). Some pages later is a photographic story told from top to bottom, left to right. If you scroll down in the e-book, you can see innocence turn into something more lurid. Hughes’ photograph tells a story in Quadrants within the frame, reminding me of a technique used by Nicolas Winding Refn, the director of the film Drive.
In another photograph, Gartland’s image is superimposed on the panels of a dress worn by supermodel Gisele Bündchen. The layers of co-optation demonstrated here are self-reinforcing and almost endless.
“Ahab in rehab” is one of Gartland’s angrier poems, with lines such as: “The fact that you believe that happy ending after Calvary, makes you less of a grown-up, more of an accessory.”
In a beautiful summation of the meat of the metaphorical matter of Moby Dick, we get: “I have chased leviathan in an unforgiving ocean. I learned the demon is no whale, albino white, no superstitious notion of old sailors, but a sounding evil, alien, deep, implacable as night, and certainly I fear him.”

The photograph that follows is of a glass office building reflecting the slums opposite. Integration is a lie, a false reflection. Illusions, as we are nearing the end, are breaking down. A bit later, there is not only a lack of illusion but purposeful separation: a photo of a graffiti-scrawled, broken down van that doubles as someone’s home and one of a beautiful seascape—full-leafed tree in the foreground and two figures at water’s edge.

In a two-part poem called “Thoughts from the West” Gartland gives a summation of Thailand’s central city: “Bangkok – hacked into/by charlatans and magnates,/dystopian projection, or a games programme/for madmen, sprawls below” before journeying to Donegal, Ireland: “The straight road to old friendships … the healing whisper of the trees … I’m breathless in the land’s embrace.” While the opening to the second part shows a kinder, gentler poet, the piece quickly turns. He meets a priest who “greets me with suspicion, sniffing out I’m spoiled by travel, reading” and he soon begins to talk about the darker truth of his homeland: “My grandfather, run off the road/in Galway by the Black and Tans,/my father’s father, reaching/for his gas mask on the Somme.” More dichotomies and juxtapositions.

Back in Bangkok, there is a photograph of a building that, for lack of a better explanation, looks as though it is being engulfed by nature. The poem that follows speaks of “City Limits” and “city limits.” As I write this review, the southern coastal United States, where I live, as well as Haiti and the Bahamas, have just been through Hurricane Matthew. Being engulfed by nature—an imminent threat beyond the city limits.

The final piece in this collection is a photo of a city center, its billboard filled with the previous image of Gisele Bündchen’s body, the dress panels containing Gartland’s visage, gazing out—not from the shadows and alleys, barrooms or poetry stages, but from the center of it all.

Within the City Limits, and well above and beyond.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

“Pinprick Ekphrastics”: A Review of several chapbooks by Rupert M. Loydell and others

 (publishers: original plus, Analogue Flashback Books, Smallminded Books; all published in 2016 with the exception of Lost in the Slipstream, 2009)

It is rare when a reviewer gets an opportunity to review numerous works from a single author all at once. I start with two mini-books, 3 inches by 4 inches. A Light Shines Down (Smallminded Books), is based on photographs by Gregory Crewdson (which are not included). Hall of Mirrors reminded me of the postcards and other self-made visual–written works that I used to receive by the dozens monthly in the early 2000s when I was an active mail-art poet. It is ingeniously cut and folded from a single piece of paper—a piece of two-dimensional origami that adds an extra layer to the experience of the work.
A good bit of Loydell’s writing is in the form of Ekphrastic poetry (where the poet creates a response to an existing piece of art, be it visual or written/musical). In Love Songs for an Echo, the titles of the poems for the sequence “Nine Postcards” are taken from Hiroshi Yoshimura’s album, Music for Nine Post Cards.
The main themes of Love Songs for an Echo are places, real and imagined (“invisible cities” “crystal city”) and the experiences of travel (“anonymity in a crowded street”): “From the fragments of the world we make meaning, from the notes that we hear we make a song” [“The Notes that We Hear”]
Loydell also extends the boundaries of Ekphrastic works by writing about other poets, musicians, and artists. The writer may be in isolation in the act of creation, but the creative space is crammed full of echoes, Muses, and ghosts: “I always return to the same few writers’ work, which … struggles to find faith in something as the world bewilders and blinds” [“One by One”]
And, of course, on the act of writing itself: “By scattering fragments of text, juxtaposing them with unrelated events or images, you make them appear precious” [“One by One”]. This is the first of many pinpricks in the reviewed works (hard to argue with, and I have no intention of doing so).
Lost in the Slipstream works as a meditation on the nature of time, replete with lines like: “Newspaper cuttings from tomorrow [“Forget”], “the present only exists to stop us being confused by time” [“Middle”], “we all have our own version of you, invented past…” [“Seed”], and “Memory floats back to the surface, mumbling and slightly out of tune” [“Circle”]. This collection’s titles are taken from the D.N.E. album 47 Songs Humans Shouldn’t Sing.
Nerve Damage, which Loydell edited, features texts written in response to a photograph called “The Poet,” taken by Joel-Peter Witkin. Titles such as Paul Sutton’s “The Failed Poet” contributed to the name I gave this review. Sutton’s poem, which leads off the collection, says, “God, is he still writing?/No one reads his stuff, or cares.” Note the layered meaning of “God” here as an general expletive but also, perhaps, as God “himself.” From Alan Halsey’s “The Poet”: “…he was a poet ‘among other things’ but that wasn’t what I’d asked. What interested me were the other things.” In an untitled poem by George Ttoouli: “The audience wilfully ignores the intentions of the poet.”
The responses provide a wide variety of approaches and styles, from literal interpretations of the contents and mise en scène of the elements in the photograph to narratives that use the “characters” in the photograph to create a story to highly experimental pieces that have used the photograph for only the briefest spark of initial inspiration. Ekphrastic poetry should operate this way. Kudos to Loydell for bringing such a wide array of responses to a single prompt.
John Phillips gets the penultimate word in his poem “This”: “Whatever else it is a poem/is often nothing/more than thinking/there’s something there to be/found when there’s/nothing but thinking so.”
The last chapbook I review is The Gospel According to Archbishop Makeshift. The first offering is by Rupert Loydell. I liken the seven pages to the Proverbs of Hell in William Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell. A sample:
“Archbishop Makeshift says this game has no rules but we should all keep playing.”
“Archbishop Makeshift says the voice of the world is hidden deep inside every word he speaks.”
“Archbishop Makeshift says he is pure diamond no his body has been burned away.”
“Archbishop Makeshift says the things you do do things to him.”
“Archbishop Makeshift says starve the guards and feed the hostage.”

Who is the Archbishop? On the cover, in a sketch by A.C. Evans, we have the Archbishop in elaborate, highly detailed mitre, with skeletal face and his shoulders and chest lighter and lighter as they move downward. As Mike Ferguson tells us, “The Archbishop waxed/lyrical in loose sonnets/with themes found in real life…so sermonizing/without scripture.”
The Archbishop is also contextualized in “Two Fragments from the Makeshift School,” written by H.L. Hix, which opens: “These two fragments, discovered in the pocket of a plaid jacket at a Salvation Army thrift store…” It further declares that they are deemed to be forgeries by one of his disciples. Indeed. Is the Archbishop only his (mis)interpreted sermons? In poems by Daniel Y Harris and Irene Koronas, we get the run-on sermonizing of Emmanuelle and Paulain Makeshift: Disciples? Counterparts? Echoes?
In a title-nod to the Beatles, “Poem (Revolution #19)” gives us the provocative: “Who can live/where happiness is considered a disgrace?” and “this brute of a country is more than I can stand—/let it be delivered into the hands of foreigners.” Not even the Archbishop’s admonishments, observations, and prescriptions can save them.
In another poem by Loydell, “The Shape of Paradise,” he says, “the magician in me has run out of spells.” Considering that “spell(-)ing” of words goes back to a time when mystics, alchemists, and orators better understood the power behind words and their sounds, this is a hard statement indeed and resonates with the larger thesis that poetry and poets have lost their power.
Book-ending with the original story of Archbishop Makeshift is the final poem, by Charlie Baylis, which reports that “The following Sunday I see the Archbishop collapsed in a deckchair, sporting a pink cagoule. ‘Oh Father!’ I always knew it would end like this.”
Loydell and company seem to know the same of all of us poets, everywhere.