“I Take Nothing Strong, Only Lightning” By Nathan A. Thompson WOW Books. 59 pages. Soft Cover. Amazon eBooks $7.95. Available soon at Monument Books
The Fix, a website about addiction and recovery, describes Phnom Penh-based journalist and former drug addict Nathan Thompson’s poetry as “both revealing and revelatory … baring all the sharp edges and dark corners of his own journey.”
His first book, “I Take Nothing Strong, Only Lightning”, launching this evening at Meta House, is a tour through the grimy streets of his London, love and addiction.
Thompson is a poet and journalist (and a colleague and friend), writing for organisations such as The Guardian, Vice, Al Jazeera and the South China Morning Post.
This is powerful stuff. As much for the raw emotion as for the versatility of the writing style in just 31 poems. All good poetry is personal, because it must come from the heart. But this is an intimate view inside the mind and the heart of a sometimes troubled soul, but one emerged into the sunlight.
“It’s not hard because I only write for myself so I don’t have any reason to hide anything.” Thompson says. “But I forget other people will read it. And when they do, yeah it’s embarrassing, but that’s the gift you give a reader, isn’t it? Otherwise it’s just pretty words. People want an ounce of flesh with their poetry – at least, I do.”
Thompson’s life in London was gritty, as can be seen from his poems. Then he moved East, working as a copywriter in Bangkok before coming to Phnom Penh about three years ago.
Every day is a challenge. Last year, he wrote in an article called “The Intimacy of Relapse”:
“But, even though life is better in so many intricate and beautiful ways, sometimes I’d love to relapse. I’d love to collapse like an exhausted marathon runner into the arms of the drug that gave me comfort when nothing else could.
But, I remain clean.”
A major part of Thompson’s recovery is meditation, and he has become a Buddhist, which he considers important in staying on his path.
Did his addiction affect his earlier writing?
“I’ve been writing poems since I was seven and it might have slowed down during the addiction, but not much,” he says. “Working an office job slowed it down much more.”
Although he has been writing since childhood, the poems in “I Take Nothing Strong, Only Lightning” are a chronological line through his decade from 21 to 31 – “beginning in sickness, travelling through first love, recovery, introspection and, finally, competence”, his bio says.
Levene, poet and author of “The Void Ratio”, says Thompson’s writing is “lost and found somewhere between tradition and new”.
He writes on the back cover blurb:
“From corruption of the soul to redemption in the flesh, his words flitter between total hopeless abandon of the self in the prison of our time and meditation on the simple natural things which promise salvation.”
But this is not a dark collection of poetry. Far from it.
One of the beauties about “I Take Nothing Strong, Only Lightning” is not only its chronological progression, but Thompson’s personal progression.
From the opening “Wrecked on Sunday Morning”:
Saliva drools down my pipe. / Tranquilizers don’t work. / Can you hear the fat queer / purr the dealer awake? / He’s here – buzzing desperation, / mouth full of jewels. He spits / small rocks to fuel the remains of the day.
To this, from “Am I from Round Here?”:
home where she’s waiting: / sprinkling the sky with sugar.
“I Take Nothing Strong, Only Lightning” is also a tour through writing styles. From the complex to at times bordering on the deliberately strange, like this excerpt from “Dark and Dusted”:
“Grandad had my wrong now!” she said. / “Dylan, Dylan?” I denial. /We all experience how her was / and I is.
To the simple, from “Leaving P”:
Time spoke its mind, / she ticked me a kiss / and we promised to talk / on her fag break.
“I think this collection charts the journey towards finding my poetic voce and style,” Thompson says.
“These last years have involved a lot of experimentation and the collection features the best of that. But I think, if I do another one it will be a more coherent style. Not that I think one is better than the other, mind.”
Thompson’s past is important for understanding him. But this collection of poems should also be enjoyed just for his artistic talent. No artist should be defined by what brought them to their art.
His poems are also about simple story-telling.
From 21 to 31. From the small town of Beaconsfield, 50 kilometers from London, to an apartment overlooking the Mekong in Phnom Penh. As he brings us with him towards the end of his journey in this collection Thompson writes of his Phnom Penh:
This is no city.
Phnom Penh is a slow rising sun.
The book launch for “I Take Nothing Strong, Only Lightning” is tonight at 7:30 at Meta House, 37 Sothearos Boulevard.
Aria Daranparamita. Supplied