The Poet Noir John Gartland: Taking Risks in Phnom Penh, Cambodia
(Photography by Eric Nelson)
Introduction by Kevin Cummings
I offer a short introduction to a superb long piece written by performance poet, John Gartland. For those taking the journey to the end, a reward awaits. For those who don’t you were not the intended audience. And that is okay. The focus of the writing is poetry and two performances John Gartland gave in Phnom Penh, Cambodia on May 31st and June 1st of 2014. On the latter date Christopher Minko and saxophonist Jimmy B were musical accompaniment at the renowned Meta House.
Things are as they are. Looking out into the universe at night, we make no comparisons between right and wrong stars, nor between well and badly arranged constellations.
JOHN GARTLAND IN PHNOM PENH: POET AS PROJECTIONIST
From…..POETRY ESCAPES DURING QUESTIONING.
Formerly, the better‑prepared students of literature
absorbed some well‑turned definitions of the art.
Quotations from Aristotle’s Poetics, Coleridge and Keats;
some gem of Wordsworthian self‑examination,
or glittering couplets from Pope;
an apercu from Hazlitt;
enough poetic rope to hang out any sensibility to dry.
Now, having been de‑constructed,
they lie in pieces like self‑assembly furniture,
awaiting someone with instructions
and a tube of something undefined that,
sniffed, will make you high.
2014. Two poetry readings in Phnom Penh, the first, on May 31st. as the guest of Chris Minko, and his band Krom, at Doors Club, the second, on June 1st. at Meta House Arts Centre, with Chris on guitar, and his sax sideman, Jimmy Baeck in support. Recently arrived from Bangkok, I’d been to Cambodia, before, briefly, but this was my first time in Phnom Penh.
A poetry reading is always a leap in the dark, but reading in a strange city, in a new country, where nobody’s heard you, or knows what kind of thing you do… that is like free-falling, it’s solo stuff, risky and exciting.
From…..SOCIAL FREE FALL
Abandoning the stable position
you fell through my evening
and out the other side,
still talking of sky diving
and cocaine, and trying out a new rig
(some flying aerobatic triangle
of a parachute you’d described).
You’d toss your curls
and flash a seen‑it‑all smile,
dropping in from the empyrean,
a mile still on your altimeter
and charlie in reserve.
Perhaps that’s why
I saw that flimsy triangle
bikini black, in silk; an arch,
coquettish come‑on to the sky.
And who, the hell, you may ask, listens (voluntarily) to poetry readings, anyway? Poetry? What has that got to do with anything, these days? Most people haven’t a clue what it’s for. Inscriptions on tombstones? Anthologies that induce paralysis quicker than a snakebite? So, as a visiting poet, you’re generally seen as about as relevant as a vacuum cleaner salesman in the desert. You’d better offer something of interest, pretty quickly, or they’ll be taking selfies and grooming their social network on a smartphone before you can say, “Alfred Lord Tennyson”. Challenging? I’ll say. Even hack writers dismiss poetry. They don’t generally understand it, or see any use for it. For god’s sake, what’s the point? It doesn’t even pay! Isn’t it obsolete?
Writing, and then performing your poetry, is equivalent to riding the Wall of Death in public. You’re glued to the moment by vertigo and risk, with an audience (if anyone bothered to show up) just wondering how long it will be before you fall off, and become another stain on the upholstery.
The poetic imagination is a twenty four hour newsreel of historical fragments, persistent memory and wandering orchestras, a cultural junkyard, a burned library, an amphitheatre of nameless heroes squandered in cynical enterprises. It’s fractured beauty, wounded justice, hypnotic mantras sold to gullible masses by politicians, priests and whores. It’s, lucidity, history dissolution and confusion, an epic of poisonous icons, X ray vision, contempt, defiance, sound and fury, signification and nothingness. It’s free-fall joy, love, and, of course, death. It’s, non-stop …
Of all the landmarks of the Forbidden City
which embellish this ruined quarter,
the Tower of Yearning still crackles
with lonely life.
Stored hereabouts is Dowland’s Lachrimae
and other melancholy data.
Here, gloomy church interiors,
journals of half‑forgotten wars
and maps of vanished cities crowd
the great soliloquies.
There, a Roman amphitheatre
vibrating to the late quartets,
a pocketful of lunar rubble,
huge with silence, older than God.
For ages, keeping this from crumbling
into other data, bleeding into becoming,
I’ve tried sealing off the entire sector.
But it leaks remembrance, unconsoled;
like old reactor rivets,
hot for another quarter million years.
When they give me my exit ticket, no need to say I was a worker in chemical factories, warehouses, steel mills, or was a student of Shakespeare, and Elizabethan drama, a driver, sales director, professor, father, swimmer, traveler, radical …. Just say, “Poet”.
It’s a life which is critique and concert, never still, never bored; irreligious and holy, outrageous and awed.
from…The Market in Cheongju. Night
A spring night in Cheongju.
A thousand mysteries
in the elixir of cold oranges.
Korean seamstress in the closing market,
floor littered with remnants of others’ finery,
your head is bowed, machining quiet hours
into a wrap of restfulness we slip on
like a comfortable coat.
We stare, the dreaming needle flies,
and you, peace-working,
never lift your eyes.
WIRED – A photograph in Phnom Penh by Chris Coles
A thousand obscure roads, a portfolio of oceans, crossed beneath skeptical stars, a jostle of passport stamps and a trove of encounters; love, and loss, history given an individual voice. The phantom of ambiguity is the keynote of poetry ….
From… LETTER TO JOHN WILSON
Vancouver Island. From this window at the forest’s edge, enjoy the
view; green, timbered islands, miles of glittering ocean, way back to
B.C.’s. Pacific coast. Sal manages the cement plant and plays a mean
jazz keyboard; fought with Castro and his forces in the old days.
When Batista and his cronies fell, he get another job, to run the
Ministry of Oil Resources, for Fidel. This long afternoon spent
drinking brandy, in a kind of seminar on jazz piano styles, George
Shearing through Thelonius Monk… I got more than a little drunk
but listened to the tale he had to tell.
John Gartland in Phnom Penh, Cambodia (Photograph by Steve Porte)
So, to Cambodia, many tales, and treks later; processing a new city, arriving through shabby, crumbling outskirts, still haunted with nightmare. The newsreel is running, projected on the trappings of modernity, on the cafes, the sudden, lockdown traffic jams, the insect swarms of motorcycles. Fear still occasionally crackles like background radiation; for, just decades ago, a black hole of communist terror sucked in civilization here. Often during my trip, there will be flashbacks of the torture and ideological madness imposed on these people by Paris-educated marxists; ideologues whose social engineering killed twenty-five percent of Cambodia’s population, and who made murderers and torturers out of children.
Their psychological clones, armchair commissars, infect the internet, with the same po-faced certainties. Mountains of victims’ skulls in Pol Pot’s blood-spattered torture centres are not allowed to sway glib Marxist certainties. When their political correctness is questioned, wait for reflexive smears straight out of Mao’s little red catechism. Mao was better at mass murder than Pol Pot; he killed some thirty million in the “Cultural Revolution”. When I was working in South Korea, I also met, and talked with refugees from the North Korean communist madhouse, with its death camps, starvation and terror. Sound like a familiar marxist recipe? They understand the communist’s “inevitability of history” there, all right. It long ago morphed into the inevitability of tyranny. The blood-stained newsreel is still running, and running….
Yes, Phnom Penh is a haunted house, a puzzle palace full of tormented shadows; but the survivors have their face forward. The night is Noir. The streets are busy, and the music is played loud in the big, crowded night- space and girlie bars of the Beer Garden, Phnom Penh’s sexual equivalent of a food court. At the height of the proceedings, the beat seems loud enough to drown the collective memory; loud enough for an exorcism; and the beat goes on..
Anna glides among the drinkers
and her girls at Anna Jet.
The customers pay tribute with their eyes.
Her girls are young,
available and beautiful, and yet,
as she irradiates the storyline
of evening with her smile,
and lets her hand rest lightly
on some shoulder for a while,
her backless dress of silken gold’s
as tight as gilt upon
an art collector’s statuette.
Her girls are young,
available, and beautiful and yet,
it’s Anna with her silken style
who dances in the memory
while we cross the floating world
to Anna Jet.
Hot night, the bar that’s open
to the dealings of the street,
the techno music, short-time girls,
a DJ who is seemingly determined
to defeat our death in this
sublime apotheosis of the dance.
I think of Wagner talking about Beethoven
and glance at strangers
rediscovering their stolen lives.
Here in the floating world, the dream survives;
drink deep, and dance, and banish sleep
for Anna shines among her girls
like some erotic statuette,
and it’s always short-time, you can bet,
And the bass is driving nails
into the past in Anna Jet.
Chris Minko is a laid back Australian expat, a musical perfectionist, who, in Phnom Penh, has put together his unique band, Krom. Chris’s ornate guitar style, originally inspired by John Fahey’s work, interweaves with the eloquent sax of Jimmy Baeck, and the exquisite Khmer vocals of Sophea Chamroeun and Sopheak Chamroeun. There’s something haunting and addictive about Krom’s music. It’s poignant, often, almost impossibly beautiful, but the material the band covers in songs, both English and Khmer, is dark and jagged. It’s a yearning and wounded blues that tells of the exploited and the abandoned. It is a multi-layered “noir” music, growing directly out of the Khmer landscape. And it’s fed by both its idyllic beauty and its hellish years under totalitarianism. Chris, who, in another incarnation, does invaluable work rehabilitating victims of Cambodian land mines, calls it, “Mekong Delta Blues”. It’s a unique sound from a unique band; music that speaks for our time, music that grabs you by the heart, and doesn’t let you go.
The heart’s manifesto
cradled in static,
her smell on your sheets,
and a hurt
automatic as waking.
Hypnotic the highway,
uncaring the ground,
the clichés of loneliness
fresh as a wound.
And a dawn cut with death
and the blue fog of yearning;
the slide of her absence,
the dirge of a steel string.
Here I am again, I’ve just once more done the artistic equivalent of jumping through the aircraft door, and stepped forward to the microphone to read, on a new planet, but with the familiar excitement. It’s the Doors club, Phnom Penh, and I’m reading some of my poetry before the Krom gig, on the last night of May. Alongside are Chris and Jimmy, injecting their musical expertise, to add to the impact of the poetry (poetry and music is a formidable cocktail) “Why, poetry?” You know someone is asking; no time for questions now. It’s time to DO poetry.
John Gartland and Jimmy B (Photograph by Steve Porte)
He’s got a quiet excitement, here alone,
sky-diver in the free-fall door;
his rig is clean, his harness is secure,
breathing a chill promise of vacant heaven,
new life composed before him on
earth’s tilting manuscript.
I wave, and he is gone.
The lonely rush; the poetry of falling
cuts away the nondescript.
June 1st, The Meta House reading; blessed with an excellent audience. A fine, spacious upstairs room with good acoustics and an adjacent bar. Poetic free-fall…. You’ve got the audience hooked, your newsreel is running. You, for “your masterpiece of minutes”, are part of that select band, that Shelley called, ” the unacknowledged legislators of the world”. You’re the voice of poetry. You’re not on anybody’s payroll; nobody owns your words. Your skills don’t go whoring with P.R. cut throats or advertising copy writers. You serve the art, and what Leavis, the English critic, once called, “The Great Tradition”. You stand “… on the shoulders of giants” (to borrow Newton’s words) and there’s no need to explain, here at least, to sleepwalkers and pygmies, that there’s something more to life than football and shopping.
from…… PRESTON TO PINNACLE HILL
Autumnal fire across the ancient scarp
would break a landscape painter’s heart.
Your masterpiece of minutes soon is gone,
but you, a breathless audience of one
for several moments have it stark and clear.
The puzzle palace vanishes, the moon looks on,
and this is why you’re here. The air bites:
you race the thrilling onset of the dark.
That is our life; a constant race against , “the onset of the dark”; the darkness of dusk, or the advancing darkness of our own mortality. Equally, it’s a race against the darkness of fanaticism, that pitchy, scream-haunted nightfall of tyranny. Here in Phnom Penh, the untold stories of lives destroyed by communist zealots, and the sense of all humanity degraded by their brutality, ripple like feedback behind the House music, the partying and the pole dancing hookers. When it comes down to it, and life throws the big issues at us, when we try to come to some terms with that madness, don’t look to the self-interested falsehoods of PR men or advertising hacks. You’ll need the utterances of poetry. You’ll need ..……….
THE COMPANY OF POETS
You’ve heard a kind of clown
as rarefied and precious, not real life;
till, cut and sliced by love’s
exquisite and inexorable knife,
he’ll find the bottle comfortless enough,
and fumble in his misery for rhyme.
Still craving for some vanished stuff of rapture,
attempting to contain the heart’s decline,
and learning there’s no science that will capture
or can resurrect a passion. It’s a sign that life
will seek out rhythms, incantations, dreams,
to celebrate its stature, and to wonder at itself.
Each dances, in his fashion, to that driving score it seems;
but poets live the fuller, by their nature, beating time.
And I’ll seek out the company of poets,
the company of poets I’ll make mine.
When poetry has bitten you you’ll know it;
it’s just an arc of words but in the overall design
of things, there’s everything in life laid out below it;
from birth to love, and death, and celebration;
and before the robot reaper can consign
you to your headstone you will ride imagination’s
launcher high above the milling cities,
be the Process speaking, for a time.
So I’ll seek out the company of poets,
the company of poets I’ll make mine.
They’re taking passion’s pulse
and they are signalling the future,
they’ve freedom for a mistress
and they’ve history for a tutor,
and they can image water into wine.
Each new day is their holy book,
and apparatchiks hate them
for scoffing at all priesthoods
while embracing the divine.
So give to me the company of poets,
the company of poets I’ll make mine.
Those black flags of mourning, who better to fly them?
The tender intrigues of the aspirant heart,
that life-shaking love that you have for your children,
how better to tell them? Where better to start?
Where else but the company of poets?
whose alchemical pilgrimage sets them apart…
Where else but the company of poets?
Those ephemeral fires of the beacon lights,
on the century’s headlands, glowing;
like poems, are markers we leave to rite
our passage and our going.
Bright seeds on the wind that flower despite
the perennial cloud of unknowing,
and they’re sown by the company of poets,
the indelible company of poets.
Phnom Penh Night by Chris Coles
John Gartland is returning to Phnom Penh in November, 2014 to work again with Chris Minko, and to read at Meta House and elsewhere. Krom’s forthcoming new album, “Mekong Delta Blues” will feature a track, with the lyric by John Gartland and music by Chris Minko.
Find more of his poetry at the Facebook page, Poetry Universe, and the website below. Some of his published works, now out of print, such as “Gravity’s Fool” (2009: Fourth edition) can be downloaded from his website, where tracks from his audio album, “Hologram Heart” (2014) can also be heard, with him reading some of his poems, accompanied by top Bangkok musicians and producers, Keith Nolan and Chris Healy.
Poetry Universe has landed.
Take me to your reader….
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