Verse for the City of Dark Angels
"My fixed smile aches like a wound," the poet laments, amid "embraces of a conjurer's scene, jazz and dangerous poetry, the kiss of methamphetamine"
POETRY, THE ART of waging war against apathy and ennui by deploying well-trained armies of words, is a joy to be immersed in. Too many people – and too many writers of prose – fail to appreciate the full potential that a word or a splice of words carries. Depending on the intent, the impact can be lethal, like an ignition trigger, or it can be redemptive, like rescue from the edge of a cliff.
In “Bangkok: Heart of Noir”, John Gartland – a Briton making his home in Thailand – chooses words like a champion archer selecting his arrows, and his aim is invariably true.
Bangkok is a quicksand of strange juxtapositions even for natives, and the city’s growing swell of expat “noir” writers make full use of the possibilities. It lends itself well to ruminations on the human condition. Gartland also casts his eye to Phnom Penh and Koh Chang (“Close by the sigh of breakers, a dog lies panting on the beach”) and the road north to Nong Kai, but remains a captive to the Thai capital’s neon-lit thrills and thrashings.
Illustrating the book are Chris Coles’ garish portraits and vignettes, almost like strobe-light or night-vision snapshots, yet with the colours not only intact but vivid in their lysergic reality.
Gartland’s verse crackles with memory and emotion, each phrase a signal to the others as the text gradually aligns, ready for catharsis. There is the full gamut of sentiment, reddening to rage, but most often there is resignation, a sadness that, a few thoughts and a few drinks later, distils into anguish.
Beggars keep showing up (“A bowl of coins precedes his belly creep”). From the poem “Rags”:
The newsprint condemnations of
corruption in high places
only reach his kingdom stuck
to people’s shoes.
Politics and its abuses are revisited over and over, as inescapable as the night. From “Five Acts in Search of a Tragedy”:
Some lit a pyre of brand-names;
vowed revenge for slaughtered friends,
returned in rage to village life ...
“Infernal Shades” has one of several direct references to the 2014 military coup (“‘We’re lodged between the cracks of tyranny,’ he smiles.”) You find abundant sociological observations to relish, such as this one on the “happy serfdom” of our online interconnectedness: “You’ve been cut and pasted here, out on Surveillance Street”.
Gartland considers corporate greed, globalisation, the enslavement of the masses and the subjugation of the environment, and yet he’s no liberal, more a reactionary judging from his public pronouncements about Islamists and the immigration crisis. Another memorable line from this book: “Your card got swiped, the truth is halal overnight.”
“Fugue on Freeway Nine” is pure Dylan (Bob, not Thomas), almost a lost refrain from “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”, and it ventures worryingly close to lese majeste.
In places the rhyme is merely occasional, a surprise in the proceedings in strange meter. In one crescendo in “Rictus Rooms”, though, the rhythm strikes a decidedly military drum beat. “Bangkok Profundis” shares the same maniacal energy, a swirling nightmare of wrath and foreboding – perhaps a hallucination brought on by the capital’s infamous flooding.
There are several long pieces and some quite short. “Crystal” is all of three lines, but it’s hardly haiku:
Night shrugs naked shoulders
and she blows her perfumed chaos
in your mouth.
And this is “The Lowdown” in its entirety:
In this part of South East Asia,
the insider understands
all that’s keeping it together
is cockroaches, holding hands.
Bangkok itself is given an assessment worthy of one of the lower circles of Hell in “Circumstantial Evidence”, a cascade of epithets delivered in tour-guide format, from the “hypocrisy monument” to your front door, with its “self-hatred and the breath of street dogs”.
“Gloria (for Clayton Wallace)” is a precise and poignant sketch of an expatriate former lawyer playing a game of striptease darts with the ladies of a Bangkok bar (“mere thongs and arrows of outrageous fortune”), far from his “bleak Canadian heartland ... rigid under snows”. As “the frozen sons of Canada” rejoice back home, Clayton “outscores Cupid with his darts”.
Another stand-out is “Unfinished”, an insider’s survey of the near-extinct beer-bar scene in Washington Square, long a “deep waterhole” for farang war veterans and spies who revel in the past and yet inwardly wish it would stop pursuing them. The poem grumbles beneath its breath about fallen comrades and concocted myths:
We drink again, and each seeks privately
for something we can learn
from barbarism, other than
corrosive hate and scorn;
and each seems unsuccessful
in the enterprise.
We drink, but no one makes a toast.
We do not raise our eyes.
Among many other choice lines issuing from this strange exile:
“He drifts through us, like a fish through interesting clumps of weed.”
“A pickup with thirty men, standing, packed solidly as brooms on that brush vendor’s cart.”
“Enlightenment flashes on and off like a faulty light bulb, leaking constellations.”
If there is salvation in poetry, perhaps it’s best not to ask the weary poet. In “The Institute of Mockery”, he advises “escapees” from the schools’ patriotic flag-raisings:
Don’t run this way, fugitives.
Poetry’s just the grappling
of language and confusion,
poetry’s just a groping for the light,
Sometimes it’s an act of love,
and sometimes absolution,
always, it’s a state of exile,
often it’s a fight.
Gartland posts his work almost daily on his Facebook page as well as on that of a local poet collective that has as its motto “Poetry Universe has landed – take me to your reader.”
Bangkok: Heart of Noir
By John Gartland
Illustrations by Chris Coles
Published by Lizardville, 2015
Available at Amazon.com, US$8 (Bt286)