“NEW USES FOR OLD IDEAS”: GRAHAM FULTON’S ‘PHOTOGRAPHING GHOSTS’
Graham Fulton, Photographing Ghosts (Roncadora Press, 2015).
by Stephen Watt
Graham Fulton’s new collection of poetry, Photographing Ghosts, is a breath-taking appreciation of both the past and the present;ordinary life intertwined with the horrifying truths of bygone wars. Accompanied by unassuming, gifted illustrations by Roncadora Press’s Hugh Bryden, this is a fascinating expedition that encompasses Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Southern America and more, rallying the reader to linger in uncomfortable situations, survey the pedestrian customs of local inhabitants, and ponder what purpose this life truly has. Admittedly, this is perhaps a little on the intense side – something which Fulton often dismantles in his own Paisley-saturated, sagacious, but always endearing ways.
This is true in early poem ‘Wee Plebs’. Rome’s grand heritage is pulled apart, from the ancient ruins of the forum to the city’s stranglehold on the world. Using the unremarkable townsfolk and stray cats, the speaker’s introduction demolishes the perceptions of the Empire, allowing the ordinary stock to appear beneath the spotlight. This mode of attention is true for a large portion of this collection. Rather than lay precedence on the war heroes, the leaders, and the notorious figureheads we are all acquainted with, emphasis is upon the current-day folk, labouring to make a living for their families as a subsequent result of war.
In ‘Shell Collector’, the focal point is on the remnants buried or forsaken at the Battle of the Somme in 1916. Expectedly, weaponry and explosives, which failed to detonate, are recovered, “exhumed and carted from local fields”, but the monotonous chore becomes markedly distressing when human bones, and more personal possessions, are removed by a truck. This theme also rears its head when the speaker visits Kwazulu-Natal in South Africa, using the local, poverty-stricken children in a way untarnished by Western influence, and yet wise enough to recognise an opportunity when visited by tourists. The speaker is overwhelmed by the patience of their young hagglers who have waited months for an opportunity to exchange valueless gimcrack for food and drink.
[…] Flattened bullets that shattered bones
necks of redcoat army bottles
copper bands from ammo boxes
things that killed
This need to survive without any sentimental regard for what bestowed these provisions would appear primitive at first, but the speaker’s ability to demonstrate humanity in the face of deprivation keeps the piece tender and engaging. Fulton responds to the greed of the West by cascading depictions of extreme indignance where the mouths to feed are numerous, the workload is endless, and the passing tourist trade is worthless. This is no Comic Relief cry for aid; only an impassioned description of how things are. The speaker’s unease in the poem ‘Distribution’ at being drawn out of a comfort zone is alarming, knowing all the time that this is unknown territory and a swift escape is not an option: They know these tourists aren’t worth a damn.
The distressing observations which Fulton opts to share come together in the Belsen-based poem ‘Sculpture Of A Pregnant Woman’, wherein the allocated time afforded to guided tours rushes the troupe past grim, unnoticed tools used to terminate new-born babies in the concentration camps. A scrap of twisted metal lying at a path side is only a few feet away, but the scheduled tour and approved yarns prefer not to mention this unsavoury implement.
World Wars are clearly at the forefront of Fulton’s thoughts at the present time. As many different cultural and political voices celebrate the Great War’s centenary and with Fulton’s continued interest in this field (he has published his father’s WW2 diaries in 2011, and has another poetry collection, entitled 11 Poems About The First World War) it should be no surprise that the deep scars of war feature in this collection. ’Tone Deaf’ considers a crass phone call received whilst among a group visiting the concentration camps. The speaker’s choice of words leaves an unpleasant taste in the throat: “Nauseous”, “rotten”, “callous”, etc. until the final indignity of an unknown stranger laughing at his current location triggers the derision of the listening pack.
It is, surprisingly, in Berlin and Nuremberg that the past is quashed by young Germans’ ignorance to the significance of where they choose to socialise. The wonderful ‘New Uses For Old Ideas’ uses the location of Nazi rallies at Zeppelin Field for the stamping ground of skateboarding Goths and hormone-filled teenage girls “finding their way” and “not looking back”. This astute piece is a firm message running through the bloodstream of the book, capturing something which has already passed and moulding it into something present. This is true also in the poem ‘Monster’s Lair’ wherein the underground hideaway where Adolf Hitler took his own life contrasts with the current-day, gentle surroundings of a children’s playground. This is a believable fairy-tale, taking more from the imagination of the Grimm brothers than the delicate fantasies of Hans Christian Anderson, and presents the future firmly back into the hands of the youth:
[…] benches where
the mothers can sit
and tell their babies
of ogres and goblins
This disdain for ignorance and violence is tempered by moments of remembrance and graciousness. Fulton’s ability to raise French villages that were “pulverised” during the war (‘Minute’s Silence’), to offering kindness in the Vietnamese Museum of American War Crimes (‘Brief’), and to giving reverence through the silhouettes of young New Zealanders and Australians visiting the WWI site of Anzac Cove in Turkey (‘Backpack Pilgrims’) allows breathing space in between the bleak and sombre stories which Fulton peppers throughout this collection. As he puts it, “Ordinary men are all that matter”.
After the simplicity of the speaker’s meeting with a smiling Vietnamese lady couriering ducks to the marketplace in a small canoe on the canal (‘Encounter’), the speaker addresses the ordinariness of commuting through London (‘Text Message’) and how severed communication prevents us from reaching out to the buskers, the homeless, and the disadvantaged. It is an interesting observation written from a weary perspective, and augments the question over whether or not progressive technology is a positive step in today’s society. Even in the slower, serene surroundings of ‘Gaddafi Café’, the speaker appears to be waiting for something to happen from his perch in a coffee house in Tripoli, while nothing but smoking appeases the locals.
If ordinary folk in ordinary situations were ever considered to be too colourless for a poetry collection, then Fulton may well be the artist that the literary world was waiting for. The young Egyptian boys, described in two of this collection’s poems, capture the poet’s imagination simply by playing football in the street or paddling a canoe:
Near the Nile
of scrub ground
they call a park
between two torrents
of maniac traffic
jinking keepie-upping showboating
their subtle silky skills.
It is around the midway point in this collection where, arguably, the finest poem appears – and it is one of homesickness; that point where we start pining for bittersweet impressions in our lives, itching for routine and familiarity. The admiration for South Africa is never under question during the wonderful ‘Owl, Interrupted’, but Fulton’s uncanny propensity to steer distant memories and locations towards affairs in the west of Scotland are unrivalled. Using a safari trip in Kwazulu-Natal, the speaker relates to the purity of the host land being too overwhelming – “something to do with a state of mind”. Whatever the reason, this spellbinding piece of poetry marries Fulton’s wanderlust with his requisite for creature comforts.
The globalisation of American culture embedded in Asia also comes to the forefront. In ‘Tunnel Vision’, the speaker describes the Cu Chi tunnels that were used by the Viet Cong for military campaigns during the Vietnam War:
Inside the Cu Chi tunnels
a section has been widened
to take the monstrous bottoms of
Indeed, the guide appears so “eager to please” his visitors, that a rendition of the West’s favourite son, Elvis Presley’s ‘Heartbreak Hotel’, appears as an entirely awkward and obvious attempt to earn a favourable tip. This is a continuing reminder that the integrity of the past pales in comparison when a dollar is to be made. This vulgar method of making a livelihood is emphasized in the harrowing ‘Boat Person’, whereby a local entices passing trade on the waterway with t-shirts emblazoned with quotes from American films concerning the Vietnam War. As the reader is sold down the river (pardon the pun) with a large glob of distaste in the mouth, it is only when Fulton raises the boatman’s family, reliant on the draw of his salesmanship, that it becomes palpable that this is simply an occupation – not the career which perhaps the trader would have opted for, given the choice.
The speaker is in far more tongue-in-cheek form during ‘Lean’, where selective truths in the Middle East are tendered by the tour guide. This poem is not so stitched in Old Glory, but leans towards Hollywood parables on religious events; “a poetic spin in Cinemascope”, as our speaker eloquently puts it.
Fulton’s poems never outstay their welcome. It is a tried and tested format that keeps the reader engaged, and the sharp-witted stories/situations flowing thick and fast. Graham Fulton’s poetic prolificness makes this collection all the more startling that it has taken him decades to complete, and a substantial number of air miles over those years. As a long-time admirer of Fulton’s work, the beauty and sincerity that has been applied to each poem in Photographing Ghosts makes this one of the finest collections Fulton has produced. The clarity which prevails in each publication continues to endear him to new and emerging writers across the country, and perhaps a few other countries after this one.