Review: Three Collections from Graham Fulton
Switch On Your Own Electricity
A Day in the Life of Jimmy Denisovitch
This title is a double album of lyrics and rhythms mixed in an alien world where the ‘narrator’ hurtles through the random beats of existence from youth to the finale. Throughout, he keeps an obsessive eye on detail as “the seconds…are perfectly turned one by one.” Characters wait or seek “something to do,” while “a man dressed as death, or possibly death himself, shambles” towards them.
In ‘Traffic Light Boy’, “people stop and start…in the light and darkness” while the narrator and readers become voyeurs, watching people eke out a life in the rhythms of ironing or the love of alcohol, drugs, or consumerism: “A shirt, a heartbeat, switch on your own electricity… Keep it moving till it feels right.” These lines and their spacing mimic the movement of staying alive and mundane tasks such as ironing. In ‘Litre of Milk’, “We sit in our darkly lit and ridiculous capsule for the man to come back” and “save us”. A sense of impotence and fate combine with the disruption of order and expectation. In ‘Blue Bag’, the alcoholic “looks over his right shoulder to see if someone is there” before slowly and sensually taking a drink. And it is love. He “tenderly” lifts it up again to his lips, “like a kiss”.
In ‘Spacewalk’ consumerism and that potential bargain have “people ignoring each other as precisely as they can”. The early youthful excitement of watching ‘Apollo 13’ is lost to “alien life forms” “unaware of anyone” when shopping showing that we are energy and atoms that repel each other. The terror of otherness, aliens, aging and death is observed with razor sharp wit, both funny and apocalyptic. Characters try to take part: punk dancing at the ABC Minors, building a “tomb/home” until unable to fit inside it any longer, hiding in a toilet cubicle conspicuously ‘early’ for work until “the crowd” arrives and again assures invisibility.
Movement and travel feature on side 3 of the album where the “International Airport Toilet” plays host to a plethora of “arses”. The final side prepares for dissolution in ‘Closing Time’ and ‘Dave Sits’, where taking “it all. He sits, looks, he stands, falls, smiles when smiled at’” The absurdity of existence is here tenderly observed.
11 poems about the First World War
On the 11th hour of the 11th Month of 1918, the guns went silent. Last year was the hundredth anniversary and Graham Fulton has mapped this hellish geography of death and random chaos of destruction through the Somme, Gallipoli and elsewhere in each of his eleven poems which have eleven lines and are presented in a poetic prose style that is uniform in size and layout. Insightful language plays on the horrors of Europe’s battlefields, the poems depict particular locations where catastrophic loss on a grand scale was the fate of doomed soldiers from various battalions. The narrator is a war tourist who stands “in the shadow of a stone-kilted statue staring into the earth of hell.” The contrasts are forceful: meandering trenches, golf courses and green hills are lined up in ‘Beaumont Hamel’ with “guts bursting into the sun” and “a bandage of trees protecting the wound.” Nature has been involuntarily engaged, bluebells hide the still undiscovered 8000 bodies of High Wood. The war tourist too becomes involved in ‘Mons’, his senses travelling back in time, hearing the carnage; seeing ‘reflections in water’, feeling ‘a wire of sweat tricking down’ his back as his camera becomes a rifle.
This poetic travelogue with an accompanying monoprints by Hugh Bryden, is a hard ride across Europe, Africa and further afield. There are no soft landings as we bear witness, both back in time and within the moment, to a journey both reductionist and atrocious. The “pulverised” ghost fields of France, the contract killing in Kwazulu, all of these images leave a trace.
In ‘Wee Plebs’ time melts as the traveller carries the ghosts of the past and encounters the stray “cats and dossers” of Rome who “hump and hiss” in forums and empires indifferent to the huffing and puffing of archaeologists. In ‘Twin Tombs’ wars and their legacies are about “supply and demand” and glory is long gone. One-time revolutionaries and heroes have their “innards removed” and “embalming fluid” in their veins. ‘Ism’ describes Engels and Marx as “bobsleigh champs”, and Stalin is “a ballet dancer.” The beast of La Paz in Bolivia in ‘Local Time’ has become a “depressed Scooby Doo.” In ‘Dry Bones’ revolution has “failed to exist” and world history is up for grabs – at a price. The traveller/narrator is a player who pays “two sol for a camera pass” and gets “a shot of a mummified child”. He feels the shame of collusion as he “captures precious pain on film.”
In ‘Owl Interrupted’ consumer and consumed merge in a surreal play-off where the endgame is a return to the familiar: the town of Paisley with its “methadone babies and grannies on crack.”
Across the journey, exchange and barter are the most acutely expressed sentiments, but it is the dead who are bought and sold. In the Saigon of ‘Tunnel Vision’, “a well-trained local is eager to please”. In the Ukraine, “teenage hookers flash their flesh”. In the poem ‘Water Boys’ modern artful dodgers in homemade canoes “want something from the tourists”. In Africa, possible war relics of the red coats are traded for crisps in the chilling ‘Contract Killing’. Value is redundant and the old stories don’t hold.
This collection may be the darkest of Fulton’s thus far. As place and cultural history are delivered through a tourist lens to become poetry, the perspective is brutally honest. The imagery falls like an assault on consciousness and there is no way over or round what has been witnessed or retraced. Nor should there be.
–Baxter’s Old Ram
A Day in the Life of Jimmy Denisovitch, Smokestack Books, RRP £7.95, 119 pp
11 poems about the First World War, Controlled Explosion Press, RRP £1, 61 pp
Photographing Ghosts, Roncadora Press, RRP £10, 64 pp