What creates and sustains the solitude of a given book of poetry? The Double Lamp of Solitude offers an incomplete answer to this crucial question, showing that there is always a network-like multiplicity at work in tandem with the generalized solitary-ness of authorship (but is anyone every really alone?) and this is all here structured together into a unified visual field…through the intervention of certain ‘identity points’. It’s not just text, but also striking black & white original photos which relate in many cases the personal, wandering experiences of the author: Joshua Edwards. It is effectively like a ‘quilting’ of words, history, etcetera; they are fixed on the pages and take on new meaning in concert with one another. As one turns the pages, in this process one may be reminded of the method of developer and fixer chemicals in old-fashioned darkroom analog photography, fixing the image out of the negative, out of the chaos of experience, if you like…and then eventually it’s on paper. Poetry is made of such non-bound, non-tied, fugitive elements: ‘floating signifiers’ whose very identity is ‘open’ and sometimes overdetermined by its articulation in a chain with other elements—be they other poems, prose, fashion, politics, foreign vocabulary, images, or even death. And on a lighter note: tourism, for example…one can be a poetry-oriented tourist (perhaps one believes that poetry inherently can endow certain activities like tourism with a kind of sacred aura) a conservative, ecologist tourist maybe (if one preaches that man must again become deeply rooted in his native soul), and so on.
If we ‘quilt’ with this book’s author through another poet ‘Federico Garcia Lorca’ for example, it is an interesting way of re-understanding, let’s say, certain larger concepts like the former dictator Franco, or the natural landscape of Spain, as Edwards photographs and notes down in both verse & prose things and their details along his walking pilgrimage through the Spanish countryside: “[the] homes and fields along the way…tree nurseries and canals…latticed branches bleached by sunlight…a vacant discotheque or a group of children carrying balloons”. He journeys further from the place where its believed the remains of Lorca’s body are buried, onward, with (35mm?) camera in-hand, to the maestro’s former summer home…and then finally to the place where he was unfortunately arrested by the police state of that time. But at least there is still to this day a park with the hallowed poet’s name. We learn as well that “two anarchist bullfighters, and a teacher were executed together and buried somewhere near here on the night of August 18th, 1936. Their bodies have never been found.” This short prose introductory section of the book (“Lorcapath’”) is laden with second-person narration, and there is something a bit cumbersome about it, as if it were some half-hearted incantation or riddle-speech to draw us under the author’s spell, however that might come off better or be more compelling if the photos (to address the reader) were somehow involved in this process more immediately, with the words: “You regard your face in an ornate mirror…maybe you’ll look up at the sky…you might sit on a bench to read ‘Vuelta de paseo’…” but we don’t exactly see the mirror or the park in the pics…and it seems likely that this second-person is superfluous, an attempt at poetic flare, almost flimsy in a way.
Hung over the doorway to the rest of this collection are the wreaths of two more figures who will be familiar to lovers of poetry-all-over-the-globe and throughout varies epochs: Friedrich Hölderlin and Miguel Hernández. More photographs, and Edwards original translations appear in-between here and there, and this is in addition to the already fluid hybridity of the alternating prose and verse…it does give the feeling of refreshing novelty with the book’s overall design: the elegance of black & white, the raw sparse-ness of it, even the unique style of the book cover front and back: no title printed on the outside, merely a shot of a sheep in solitude amid some broken-down yet charming farm ruins. There is a deeper truth here that Edwards is certainly revealing in an articulate, artistic fashion: that one is alone physically, perhaps, on a long walk…but one is never alone in the more metaphysical, inspirational, or let’s just call it ‘poetic’ for short…sense. The final sequence, “Five Plans for Walking Around a Mountain” also works in the tradition of the prose poem, plus the pictures, this time more in a tight visual sequence, almost serial: as many as 8 small photo reproductions in an imposing grid.
Given this bold visual element, Double Lamp is surely more striking than your average poetry book in terms of its design, and some of the translations are sparkling, appearing cut like diamonds, it would almost seem…they are excellent reminders of the greatness of some of these old historical figures; there are further cameos by Gabriela Mistral, and “Waking Up in a Stagecoach” by the French Gérard de Nerval:
This is what I saw.—Trees along the way
In chaos, like an army in retreat;
And beneath me, as if moved by strong winds
The ground churning with rusting dirt and stones.
Steeples rising up from verdant fields seemed
To guide hamlets of plaster houses, clad
In tile, which meandered along like flocks
Of white sheep, a red mark on each one’s back.
This phantasmagoria of the backseat passenger feels eternal…waking up drunk in an Lyft on the way home after a night of partying. But by comparison, this book begins to falter along its route back to more verse. After traveling to the diary form, and then to the prose poem and all the photographs in their bold design…we come back to the author’s vast set of original creations: the so-called “Lamps” which are one-pager verse poems in tight stanza forms; they are in fact formally identical each one, and there are about thirty straight pages of them. In effect, all the rest of the collection is merely garnish for this main course, it would seem. But sometimes the garnish is tastier than the main course. It’s hard to match the brevity and piquant imagery, the pure spare-ness, for example…the mot juste thing that Nerval has going on in the above poem (credit where credit is due, of course, that Edwards translation brings out these qualities; it is a team effort, without a doubt). Having the Nerval poem here is like bringing one really nice peace of furniture into a house where nothing else suddenly seems quite up to snuff with that one piece. The chair is networked with the rest of the interior, but some nodes are stronger than others.
Edward’s verse poems’ line-breaks have an off-handed, casual quality, suggesting broken-down prose, and like a monologue: with more second-person narration (why?) while it is obvious that the author is attempting to camouflage themselves again. Now they are no longer in the rural romantic wind-swept landscape, but the Museum of Natural History. Or in ‘The Lamp of Questions’ we read: “What dark, funny observation / brought warmth to the office party / for the two strangers standing close / enough to their boss to see him / weirdly eat a plastic garnish.” It feels almost like a different book, stuck in the humdrum city, unlike the prose meditations and photo sequences from the countryside…this seems more like a high-Cosmopolitan poetry that would be found printed in certain magazines beside advertisements for diamond jewelry, luxury cruises and timeshare properties. All these “Lamps” seem to bog the book down in a way, seemingly too aesthete, whereas the other parts of the book were starting to lift us somewhere new and timeless. The Lamps reach for a certain ornate belles lettres style and traffic in the poetry of places names, the poetry of proper nouns, because these certain names maybe have talismanic quality for the author…perhaps this would just work better in fluid prose like the Path section of the book, but as they are, they seem overly mass-produced, or artificial, almost straining.
The photographs throughout invite us to explore textures, as they are ominously abstract, somehow emanating beyond representation…it’s not just a water-well and some rocks and some sheep and some plants…there is a kind of haunting going on that Edwards’ camera has captured beautifully, a stillness that gives one pause. By contrast, The Lamps feel just too literal, with way too much ego on the table, too much self-glamorizing, a repackaging of the mundane to make a new sort of bathetic sublime (a frequent tactic among urban poets): “The Lamp of Intimacy / I first saw you / March 16th, 2007, in front / of a bookstore on Bergen / Street in Brooklyn at 7 o’clock. / You wore a long, puffy coat.” It’s a formula many of us will be familiar with and have imitated, truth be told…poems not from ‘nature’ per se but more from a tony Uptown Parnassus where many of us begrudgingly reside despite our financial malaise. At least, for a quarter or so of this book, roughly the rest of it, there is an offering of a certain bucolic escape…and that’s what really makes it worth the price of admission in the end.
Ben Tripp is a poet, critic and performer based in N.Y., his reviews can be found in Brooklyn Rail, Hyperallergic, BOMB and Heavy Feather Review. He blogs and archives his various works at https://benjamintripp.wordpress.com.