A review by Joey Madia
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.
TITLE: Blanc et Noir: Masters of Noir 2
AUTHOR: John Gartland and Mark Desmond Hughes (photography)
PUBLISHER: Lizardville Productions, 2016