There is something about poetry and photography that seems to keep them both on the fringes of their respective areas of expression. While most writers and visual artists are considered as somewhat suspect by the mainstream of society, poets and photographers appear to occupy their own special niche even further removed.
While writing prose for a living is still considered a slightly freakish thing to do with your life, especially if your not the one in a million who makes a fortune from it, at least you write in plain English which most decent folk can understand. But poetry hardly ever makes sense and when it does its always about emotions and things that you're not supposed to talk about in public.
How can photography be an art? Everybody has a camera and take pictures of trees and people – what's so special about some guy taking photos that he can't even get in focus. At least with those painter types you can see that it might be difficult to pick up a brush and paint a nice picture of a flower or a bowl of fruit. But my Aunt Mavis has a camera and she doesn't get her pictures hung on a gallery wall even though she takes some pretty snaps of flowers and the kids.
In spite of those attitudes, and the fact that fewer and fewer people seem willing to make the effort to appreciate and/or see beyond what's in front of their faces, there are still men and women out there willingly laying bare their emotions on paper and offering glimpses of how they see the world via the viewfinders of their cameras.
Admittedly they are a much more difficult medium to appreciate than say television or the majority of movies. The instant gratification factor is noticeably thin on the ground in poetry and in photography, but with a little effort the rewards are significantly greater.
One need look no further than Viggo Mortensen's recent book of poems and photography, I Forget You For Ever for confirmation of that fact. On a purely visceral level alone the work in this collection has an immediate impact through the sense of urgency that pervades the whole collection.
"This is how we pass the little time we have, what we do in our waking hours while we may or may not be dreaming, planning, rehashing, regretting, and occasionally feeling that we understand what in the world is happening". Mortensen, Viggo; "With These Hands While We Can"; I Forget You For Ever, Perceval Press 2006, pg. 6
In the paragraph directly before these lines is a listing of the numerous things we do to "pass the time". What little time we do have to accomplish anything, is being wasted by our willingness to fill it with trivia and inconsequential activities. We have lost sight of our own mortality and its significance in regards to our actions and therefore don't pay enough attention to what is important.
Open the book to any page, photograph or poem, and you'll either be given a moment stolen out of the while of time and frozen for you to look at and think about. Or there will be a presentation of time speeding by so fast as to be nothing more than a blurring of light or the flicker of images from an old super-eight-movie camera.
In "Leaves", the books opening poem, he uses missed opportunities to play with his son when a small boy as an example of a failure to realize that one day there won't be another day for you to do that thing you've been putting off. Sometimes the deadline on later comes due and we're not ready for it but it doesn't matter because clichés are right some of the time and time really doesn't wait for any man no matter how many regrets you have.
In the same poem Mr. Mortensen also reflects on how even when time is made, we are jealous of sharing ourselves, surrendering our valuable time, and parts of us are off somewhere else. In his case it's his imagination thinking about images for photos or ideas for poems. He says of himself that "I am what I imagine, not what I what I am". In other words he's living with his next creation somewhere in the future, not in the here and now with his son.
The photographs that stick out for me the most are the ones like "Toronto, 2004" where the lights of the city speed past and everything is a blur of visual noise. Toronto Canada isn't the only city to be depicted in this manner; Sao Paulo Brazil appears a few times as bright oranges and reds blurring past your eyes.
Time can vanish in cities on occasion and gets eaten up by distractions. It's very easy to lose track of where you are, where you're going, and even to an extent, who you are. Any time that I have ended up in a foreign environment it has taken me a certain amount of time to adjust to my new surroundings. When they are a city it's even harder for all the reasons listed above. Sometimes it really does feel like everything is a blur whizzing by you because you feel so out of your depth.
In contrast are those photos that Mr. Mortensen has taken of places he is familiar with, or comfortable with. The series known as "Winter Light", which depicts him and a group of other artists going out into the desert and each using his or her own media, recording the winter light. If one wanted to stretch a point you could say they are an example of an attempt to freeze a very specific moment; immobilize time so to speak. Why else call it "Winter Light" if not to immortalize that specific moment in time?
In the final long poem of I Forget You For Ever called "Forever". (You could make a real meal out the fact that poem uses one form of forever and the title of the book the two word format, but I figure why bother, just ask yourself what you feel is the difference, or if there even is a difference) Mr. Mortensen talks about feeling like he's on borrowed time, or has gone into extra time.
It's not that he feels his life is any imminent danger; it's just that perhaps if we stopped taking it so much for granted we would get more out of it. "Surely we could learn to look at our entire life spans that way…?" As a fluky bonus gift from creation we are given the opportunity to be on this planet, which quite frankly couldn't care less about us. Except perhaps it may wish that we didn't all hold on so tight. It's not like she is about to throw us off into space or anything so there is no need to cling to her like leeches.
I Forget You For Ever cements in my mind that Viggo Mortensen is a poet and photographer to be taken seriously. This isn't the idle passing fancy of a bored star; this is the work of a dedicated and thoughtful artist, who at a way station in his life, his child leaving home to go out on his own, reflects on his life and career.
It's probably a topic that quite a few people would be able to relate to if they would take the time to sit and read the pieces in this book and then look at the photographs keeping the words in mind. Poetry and photography really aren't what you think them to be; one is a lot more sophisticated then you think, and the other a lot simpler. Give them a try, especially the work of this man as he does speak to universal themes that we can all identify with.
I Forget You For Ever doesn't seem to be listed on Amazon.com yet so you'll have to pick it up from the publishers Perceval Press I think it's running for $38.00 US, but considering that its trade paper back size and full of colour and black and white photographs, plus the poetry, you're getting good value for your money.
(Originally posted February 2007)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.