Shades of cool


Landscape with Light,
Jon Thompson (78pp, 8.95, Shearsman Books)


   Every morning dawn hits the ochre desert with the force of a
   lost ideal. A wispy lavender rises off the desert floor, gauzy &
   ethereal, until the sun burns it off, leaving behind the day's
   hard edges
      [from 'Letter to Martin Scorsese']

Cinema and poetry don't necessarily go hand in hand. They are two markedly different art forms. Poetry is a sparse medium, it works primarily on three levels: the visual i.e. how the words are arranged on a page, the auditory i.e. how the melody of the words resonates with the reader, then finally, once the words have been digested, another layer is added, perhaps the most important: what does it all mean, what memories and desires does the poem stir. For example, immortal opening gambits like 'shall I compare thee to a summers day' (Shakespeare) or 'Sylvia, do you remember' (Leopardi) do not just sit blankly on a page, they paint the air with candour and reach into deep realms of the reader's past, present and future experience. Poetry is, and should be, emotive, but it is not usually instantly emotive, at least not in the same way that cinema is, typically in a poem - unless you're reading coffee table bound toothless exercises in money making (100 poems that make grown men cry, poems for life, poems for death, poems for weeping newt blood etc ) - there is a small amount of intellectual work that has to be done by the reader.

Anyway, why am I talking about film? Jon Thompson's second collection of poetry Landscape with Light concerns itself with film, or moreover it features poems (prose poetry and verse poetry) written in response to classic American films, the poems are furthermore contemplations and commentaries on the American landscape (hence the title). Jon Thompson offers a link between the two art forms, Landscape with Light is a moving, deeply reflective collection, and one worthy of high praise. Here's a telling moment from 'Letter to Chaplin':

   The language of eyes has always been greater than that
   of tongues. But, as it turns out, it does help, at least, to cry out
   - to address the ones you love, even as they're being separated
   from you.

These ideas are interesting, they are also well expressed. The chasm that exists between silent film and the brave new talkies that Chaplin famously resisted remind me of the chasm between poetry and cinema. Film as a medium has much more immediacy than poetry, think: image, texture, colour, noise. In part because of its celerity film has a much wider audience, a much bigger market. The stars of films are all over the tabloids, the stars of poetry are practically unknown (go outside and ask a random stranger who won the last T.S. Eliot prize). Where Jon Thompson excels is creating a world that casts both poetry and film as alone but together, separate entities and art forms that feed into each other. The best poetry yearns to be cinematic (the stars of the Imagist movement were as visually orientated as any Hollywood art director). The best films are highly poetic (If you don't find Sunset Boulevard, Badlands or One flew over the cuckoo's nest in any way poetic then you, my friend, are a clod). A link between the two worlds is tangible, especially when the poet writes as well as Jon Thompson:

   Dusk a pink-&-vermilion-gashed sky -
          the big screen beauty of it says, learn to die
                 & afterwards cars with their headlights on race
                       into darkness
     [from 'The Emigrants Go West, Go West, Go West']

Bleak, black, and in equal parts thrilled and threatened by modernity, Jon Thompson shapes the landscapes of the American city and the country in the same way a magnificent film director uses the various tools in his or her kit bag to shape a magnificent film. Landscape with Light is a serious work and one that deserves and rewards being read and read again.

One name that feels especially prescient when reading Jon Thompson, particularly his prose poetry, is Arthur Rimbaud. The prose poetry, which is finer than the verse poetry, couldn't have been written in the same way without the influence of adolescent prodigy Arthur and his shooting star like, futuristic, psychedelic, apocalyptic career highlight Illuminations. Of course Rimbaud himself was an incredibly visual, or dare I reuse a phrase, cinematic, poet.

I am not the first writer to link Arthur Rimbaud and Illuminations to film and, almost but not entirely impossibly, the other way round (film began around twenty years after Rimbaud's death). Jean-Michel Espitallier writes in the introduction to the pocket edition of Illuminations (incidentally the best 1,50 you will ever spend) that Rimbaud's colourful prose-plates were the first ever collection of video clips. Furthermore it is not only the cinematic that links Jon Thompson and Arthur Rimbaud. There is something in the way Rimbaud describes the 'opera fabuleux' around him that has flipped its way into Thompson take on the world, lines like:

   The landscape is cruel in its monotony, in its lethality. Cleverness
   here can lead to intolerable frustration...

   Death makes us statutory. Though few seek it, everyone finds the white
   gift of oblivion. Everyone forced to forge new oaths if exile through an
   unknown land
      [from 'Snow as different versions of different things']

Could well have come straight from the pen of Eric Cantona's favourite poet (Rimbaud not Thompson!), at least if they were written in French. Rimbaud is not the only Gaelic influence on display in Landscape with Light
, (a translation of) Paul Valery's masterpiece 'The Cemetery by the Sea' is name-checked in the note section. Aside from the French influences that the collection contains the other name that springs to mind when reading is the father of modern American verse, Walt Whitman. However, Whitman has left such a devastating impression on the American landscape that a poet would probably have to write against Whitman to obviate his influence (and that would be knowingly avoiding him - which doesn't really count).

So, in the end, cinema and poetry can stroll around the parries, the pastures and the plains hand in hand. They are both great mediums for expression, especially when tied to landscapes, especially when tied together to the American landscape. Unfortunately for those of us with literary ambitions, new toys like film, video games and television have put poetry in a very lowly place when it comes to entertaining the masses. Exactly how many poets make a living out of poetry itself? Unless you're Sylvia Plath, no one cares for your pain, they just want to share their own. However, I've the vague impression that some readers still value poetry on an intellectual level (that's why you're reading my Stride review right?) and as such poets will go on creating interesting and intelligent pieces of art (like Landscape with Light
). Jon Thompson will never be Leonardo di Caprio, but then perhaps that's a blessing. Perhaps with all that fame, money and glory we'd all end up writing poetry like James Franco (i.e. badly). Thank god for life's small mercies.

    Charlie Baylis 2015