Ken Bolton, London Journal: London Poem (Vagabond Press 2015)
There are just two poems in this book. In the first, ‘London Postcard – A Quiet Morning at the Wapping Project’, which is 24 lines long, the speaker describes the image of a woman on a postcard advertising what may be a film, and ruminates:
'The fictive life of the tourist'? Or would I feel this way about this image anywhere?
The italics seem to signify that the phrase is a quote, but quote or not, it’s a nice way of naming a habit of mind common among tourists – a tendency to make up stories about things you see while passing through, or to see patterns in them. A couple of lines later the speaker rephrases that idea:
I attend to her in the idle moment.
The second poem, ‘London Journal’, begins with a reference to the first poem:
I have an intuition, that maybe that particular poem – very short – could serve to hang this – or anyway ‘a’ – longer poem from. And this is by way of being that long poem.
I’ll rush in where a proper critic might fear to tread, and say that this longer poem (more than 200 five-line stanzas) enacts touristic fictivity (if that’s a word): it attends to many details in a time that, however busy, could be described as an extended idle moment, a time spent being a tourist.
The speaker and his partner Cath are visiting her son Gabe and his partner Stacey in London, with excursions to Berlin and Barcelona. Tourist destinations – the Brandenburg Gate, for example, or the Miro Museum – are mentioned, but so are tiny particuliarities of the travelling life: an odd show on television (Pointless as it happens); the book you’re reading; a quest for a strange place someone has told you about, and the anticlimax when you finally find it (a ‘fanatics’ ping-pong club’ in East Berlin); street signs and advertisements that are unsettlingly unfamiliar; evidence of poverty and the problematic status of immigrants; restaurants and bars; encounters with locals; information about the work life of one’s host (in this case, Gabe); lots of people-watching; pieces of a giant puzzle that are fun to play with but are unlikely ever to form a unified image. There are poetry readings, and an occasional moment when Bolton’s colonial status is made clear to him – maybe. The travellers go to museums and art galleries. It doesn’t take a lot of Web research to find out that Bolton is an art historian, but one doesn’t feel obliged to understand all his ruminations on the art he sees – enough for me at least to enjoy the way his experience as tourist connects with his abiding interests.
There’s a scattering of photographs, some of them blurry, as if to emphasise that this is a journal. And a scattering of lines refer to the process of writing the poem, wondering if it will come together – yes, it’s also a poem.
Scanning for something to quote to give you a taste, I keep coming back to this at Canary Wharf:
of power and judgement. Shopping, food, all take place underground: no-one seen outside. At lunchtime vast crowds are disgorged below, moving at speed to their destinations – all very much suited (men and women), largely under 35, dressed in black for the most part: very Brave New World, and much whiter than the general population (only 45% of London identify as white anglosaxon). We go with Gabe to a Jamie's Italian. Good food. Very noisy. In the toilets I come across a middle-aged, middle-management type, seemingly doing an Al Jolson 'Mammy' impersonation, to the hand-dryer – down on one knee, both hands smacking his chest, then flung out – Drying his shirt front, he tells me. I think for a moment of joining him – 'Mammy, how I loves ya, how I loves ya!' etcetera. I nod encouragement.
In an excellent review in Cordite Poetry Review, Cameron Lowe suggests that ‘London Journal’ is a parody of a travel poem. He may be right, but ‘parody’ suggests a kind of formal imitation and/or mockery. There’s plenty of self consciousness about form and plenty of humour – like the photograph described as ‘Stacey with the author’, which appears to include only a solitary young woman, until you see half an arm almost lost in the page’s gutter. But I had no sense of a ‘proper’ travel poem that this was referring to. It’s just good fun, and interesting, in its own right.
In his elegant speech at the launch of Puncher & Wattman’s Contemporary Australian Poetry, David Malouf observed that while the poetry scene in Australia is extraordinarily vibrant in terms of the amount and quality of poetry being published, at the same time what he calls common readers have been turning away from poetry as if it is a foreign land, possibly because poetry has been turning away from them.
I think of myself as a common reader. And I want to say to other common readers: you can pick up this book without fear of being snubbed or made to feel somehow lacking. Cameron Lowe put it very well:
The poems here – as in Bolton’s other work – appear to imply that the process of writing poetry is an everyday activity (even while on holiday).
Hi Jonathan, did Malouf suggest how (or why) some contemporary poetry has turned away from a ‘common’ reader? It’s not a new argument by any means, but it does make one wonder about this mythic time when ‘common’ readers and poets all rolled around in the hay together.
And what constitutes a ‘common’ reader?
Hi Cam. To be fair, he was quoting other people and my report almost certainly crudified his statement. I had arrived late and part of my mind was on managing the logistics of the very full room. He did say some interesting things, and I hope his talk gets published somewhere, but I wouldn’t be a reliable reporter … I love the image of poets and readers rolling in the hay, and suspect in some cases (Byron comes to mind) it mightn’t be far from the truth.
Hi again Cam. I’m sitting in Sappho’s in Glebe waiting for the Poetry night to start, and the place is bursting at the seams. Presumably some of these are ‘common readers’.
Hi Jonathan, apologies for the delayed reply. Ha, yes, I imagine many/most/all of the folk in Sappho’s are ‘common readers’. I guess I should amend my original question: how would you characterise an ‘uncommon’ reader? Readers are readers, I reckon…
Waving to you from Lake Bled, Slovenia, where days are cold…