Where does the romantic notion of travel and exploration come from? It is perhaps an overstatement to suggest that every social media page or profile dedicated to posting beautiful pictures of far-flung destinations is run by someone with a deep and intrinsic wanderlust woven into their very DNA, as much as they would like to pretend otherwise.
We cherish the notion of travel because we often have an imagined experience of the destinations we covet, an experience which is distilled as often as not through the lens of popular culture. For anyone that has never visited New York, the images that arrest the mind when we hear its name will inevitably be some derivation of scenes from a film, soundtracked by whichever of the thousands of songs have paid tribute to the city that never sleeps. For those who have been, the images will be more visceral and informed by actual experience, but even here the lived experience is both informed and influenced by the imagined one.
This idea, that an experience can be simultaneously lived and imagined however the imagination distils it, and the fact that both of these realities remain completely interchangeable, is the underlying thread that ties together Bright Angel Proof. Nick Power’s latest poetry collection, released by the Liverpool-based independent erbacce-press, takes us on a sweeping tour of America’s most arresting cities and monuments.
Written in 2017, the collection charts Nick and his recently-married partner Aja’s month-long glide from the East to West Coasts. Power has a knack for distilling both wry and poignant observations from the hazy, boozy tumult of life, and this time he runs all of that through the filter of imagined experiences, on a quest to discover how the small, strange details of reality clash with the curated visions we see and hear in the culture we consume. Power looks ahead to this quest in ‘Jet Park 3-3’ with a rush of nervous adrenaline: ‘A beautiful and violent land awaits us’.
This quest begins on a plane, the aptly titled ‘Dissolve’ finding Power watching an in-flight movie in an example of intentional thematic stage-setting before the scene itself dissolves and cuts to the ‘Way In To New York’.
“The language of cinema kind of runs throughout the entire narrative,” Power told me. “I think it’s useful when trying to describe a certain feeling or emotion, but wanting some detachment too.”
This detachment is everywhere in evidence through Bright Angel Proof. Phones, screens, pop culture references – these are the filters through which all of these snapshots pass, as in ‘First Impression of NYC’, ‘Feller’, ‘Holiday Inn Lift’, ‘On Entry Into Vegas’ and many others. One poem, ‘Vivien Maier Said’, goes behind the lens, channelling the famous 50s & 60s Chicago street photographer to contemplate the quiet, profound moments in life that might not make the final cut of a script or movie: ‘photography is the/capture/of purgatory’.
Power spoke to me about the influence photography had on Bright Angel Proof, not just in terms of theme but also on the technical aspects of the poems, the framing and construction: “When I was in my twenties my older brother Kev (who designed the cover) got me into photography. He kind of taught me how to ‘see’ a photograph. We were into the New Brighton photographers like Tom Wood and Ken Grant. William Eggleston was a big one. In a way photography informs a lot of the poems. ‘Vivian Maier Said’ is a prime example. Her photos were never published in her lifetime. It was almost like she was living a secret double life. Photography was a really private, sacred thing for her, that she was totally committed to. I really admire that.
“One poem, ‘Those Moments’, talks about synchronicity, when you hear or think of a certain word and then see it printed on a billboard, or hear it from the TV, or somewhere. It happened a couple of times on the trip and I always feel strangely heightened in some way after it happens; the internal world syncing with the external.
“I was interested in the juxtaposition between moments like these in the shadow of America’s greatest and loudest monuments, like The Empire State Building, The Hoover Dam, Grand Canyon, or the Las Vegas Strip. They’re not the sort of places I usually cover when I write but I thought it would be interesting to see how it worked.
“Growing up, America to me was always Movieland. And being there is exactly how it is on the screen. Especially in New York. You walk around gawping at the steam coming up from the sewers, yellow cabs humming past. There’s nearly an iconic movie set everywhere you turn. You half imagine the ‘Stay Puft’ man to come bouncing over the skyline.”
This sentiment is exhibited best in two early poems in the collection, ‘Gawper’ and ‘Central Park Incident’. Gawper sees Power frozen, stunned by the realisation that these people, the people of New York – so often seen as toy figures or faceless extras – are real, channelling the concept of sonder, the realisation that each passerby is living a life every bit as complex and vivid as your own. ‘Central Park Incident’ follows immediately after, observing a ‘platoon of project kids’ going wheelieing past on their bikes, ‘drilled as sherpa fleet’.
The beauty of this collection is not just in its warts-and-all exposé of the real behind the imagined; here there is intimacy as well as scope, as we view snapshots from Power and Aja’s relationship as it faces up to the future as well as to the present, as in ‘Instead of the Road’:
‘from nowhere I say:
“I dunno. I would wince through my kid’s life
watching as they made the same mistakes I did.”
And we do notice the sense of ourselves
In a sense, the entire arc or structure of the collection mirrors that of a relationship; there is the initial giddiness, adventure, some fraying and then a return to a sort of sleepy but content equilibrium.
With this arc we, along with Power and Aja as they travel, mature beyond the distilled view of America as they do. As we all know, travel broadens the mind, but can also focus it.
“Absolutely,” Power agrees. “When you go to new places your eye opens up, I think, like the aperture in a camera. You’re removed from your day-to-day comforts and routines. And even something as small as seeing, say, the different fonts that road signs are written in can be completely inspiring. But you’re also surviving. Where are the late-night stores, the subway, the pharmacy, the affordable restaurants etc. A great city will always impose itself, I think, and elevate you.
“I think it’s impossible to do a travelogue and pretend that technology isn’t a massive part of it. Even spending a couple of hours each day thumbing through your photographs seems like the standard thing to do. I like it. I was always a recorder of events. I like text abbreviations, too. As much as these legendary landmarks I mentioned are magnetic, a lot of the time I found myself viewing them from say, a dumpster alleyway or a Chinatown dive bar, off the map places on the outskirts. These are where a lot of the real colours and experiences are, I think.”
This perspective has been at play in Power’s previous collections, Holy Nowhere and Small Town Chase, which channel an in-betweenness, setting the shine against the shade and interrupting the haze of dreamy experience with the smudge of reality, and he uses it to excellent effect in Bright Angel Proof, too, like in ‘Bellagio’, where ‘One day it seems like everything is for instagram’ but blurred index fingers intrude on the frames of Polaroids; or the prose piece ‘Grand Canyon’ which shows us sleepy Vegas in the naked and unglamorous light of morning.
These latter poems, towards the end of the collection and as Power and Aja reach the West Coast, see the veil of distillation fall away. Sights, sounds, occurrences – these begin to be viewed not through phone screens or interpreted against cultural reference points but instead felt immediately and directly, sparking existential contemplation (‘Hoover Dam Rumination’) and cathartic clarity (‘The Travellers’).
“When we first arrived, say in New York or Portland, I was really fixated on and inspired by the concept [of the collection]. Then I think by the time we hit Las Vegas we had a kind of come down, and we returned to who we were before we left; two people surviving in the world instead of characters in our own film, which is how it began. Each state of mind is as interesting as the other I think. Like any new experience, the excitement eventually dissipates into the familiar and mundane, which has its own language.”
Luckily for the reader here, Power is able to find that language of the mundane and deliver it back to us in beautiful snapshots so that even as the giddiness fades, there is insight and enrichment, like the best of post-session comedowns, where the frayed edges and the grime and the cold blue light of morning embalm us, and contentment – rather than regret – reigns. Witness, for example, the moment of pure comfort in ‘Brahms’:
‘n sometimes I realise
wholly n fully
realise feel accept
asif we never pulled the
dozing like fossils
in two-star flophouse
this is one of those moments.’
It is in this embracing of the mundane alongside the magnetic that Bright Angel Proof excels, and comes to embody the idea of anti-travel. Rather than the transience with which so much social media wanderlust is imbued, this collection seeks – and finds – a more permanent imprint of place, and that imprint is inevitably to be found just out of frame, where the everyday unfolds, lives are lived and all the tumult of survival rages.
But the trick that Power pulls which, I think, elevates his work above so much of what would attempt to achieve a similar effect is that there is no cynicism here for that social media wanderlust. As his quotes illuminate, Power accepts and encourages this distillation, blending it with the lived experience of travel to create something unique, and it is an approach that inspires hope and fondness for all of these places that pass through us as we pass through them, leaving indelible marks for us to interpret as so many others have done before and so many others will once we leave.
This inner showreel, as Power shows us, is every bit as important as the outer one we exhibit to the world, or that the world exhibits to use, and in between the two is where the experience is purest. As Nick and Aja’s time in the beautiful and violent land of America comes to an end, the scene fades out, and we rejoin Power, two years later, in Verona, Italy. Life feels more immediate, evidenced by the ‘rich couples in tuxedos and ball gowns’ attending operas in an ancient colosseum, the barrier of screen shorn away and the distance between the past and the present closed. As all of these swirling dichotomies converge into one, Power’s final realisation is one that sums up our headlong rush to wanderlust with spine-tingling clarity: ‘I know now it’s as simple as this: to travel anywhere, even in the imagination, is to be alive.’
Nick Power is a musician and author from Wirral, Merseyside. He has written six collections for erbacce-press, including tour diary ‘Into The Void’. His forthcoming collection is its sequel. Bright Angel Proof can be purchased here.