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.