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  • Vik Shirley

(REVIEW) Bubblegum Portents & Wax Cathedrals: Greg Thomas’s Candle Poems exhibition at Dunoon-MOCA and Poem Atlas collection

Vik Shirley takes a pilgrimage to Greg Thomas’s Candle Poems exhibition (2024) at the MOCA-Dunoon, exploring the language games held in these tender objects, in which poems are ‘perceived rather than read’, as well as navigating the move from the page to the physical space, in doing so, alighting on expansive and therapeutic moments of perception and expansive discovery.


There was a definite pilgrimage element to my excursion to Greg Thomas’s Candle Poems exhibition at the MOCA-Dunoon. Which is fitting, considering the religious connotations of candles, and my visit taking place between Christmas and New Year. Fire can be thought of as a relic of sorts, something otherworldly to which people are drawn, an untouchable entity to worship, and a candle is often used, or thought of, as a meditation. The ferry trip to Dunoon from Gourock is a portal to another world. We meet the gallery owners, couple Alastair Noble and Kathy Bruce, on the way over. All your stresses melt away as soon as you get the ferry, Kathy says. It seems appropriate that a therapeutic journey should be undertaken to arrive somewhere that is full of these calming fires, despite the fact that calming fire seems like a contradiction in terms. Maybe a candle is much like a poem already, in that it takes something wild and out of control and transforms it into something small and contained.


Dunoon-MOCA is a small but perfectly formed gallery, the dream vessel for the candle poems to converse in the first person with the real world. MOCA owners, couple Alaistair Noble and Kathy Bruce, are both artists themselves, who met and lived in New York for some time. They both have workshop studio space above the gallery. Kathy makes surreal collages; Alastair’s creative concerns are more in the realm of the concrete. The gallery website states that it likes to exhibit Text Art, Visual Poetry and the Book Arts. What a rare gem of a gallery in a place you’d least expect it.


In the exhibition, the Candle Poems are gathered as such: Central panel of candle poems, three shelves on each side, also print pieces on walls. For those new to concrete poems, you need to change your mindset a little. These are language games. To reference Mary Ellen Solt in her influential book Concrete Poetry (1968), it’s more about reduced language, about poems being perceived rather than read, in the conventional sense.  


The central panel opens with the book’s dedication ‘For the Bees’ and features circular tryptic ‘drowning’ ‘burning’ ‘turning’. Three flat, round poems, almost an elemental cycle. A key candle poem sequence. The left-hand side of the show, before we reach the candle poems themselves, opens with a playful wall piece ‘peeph le’. Peep hole without the ‘o’, so that it’s missing a hole. The piece also plays with the word ‘people’. In the sense the ‘o’ is a hole and also a mirror, reflecting us, the people, back at ourselves. The exhibition takes us off the page and points out that we are here in person to experience these poems in real life, physically.


There are a lot of water related poems, or ones that feel at home in Dunoon, given the trip over the water to get here, poems that breathe new life into the nature poem. These definitely follow in an Ian Hamilton-Finlay vein. The Scottish poet’s influence can be seen and felt throughout Thomas’s work. Thomas, whose PhD studies were on Hamilton Finlay, is the author of Border Blurs: Concrete Poetry in England and Scotland, which features Hamilton Finlay, Edwin Morgan, Dom Sylvester Houédard & Bob Cobbing, published by Liverpool University Press in 2019, is skilfully, carrying the Scottish concrete baton and managing to do something evolved and different with it.


‘Treelinetreelinetreeline’ on the wall, gives us reel and line fishing imagery as well as trees and we as perceivers are caught in this endless reel and net cycle, which fades to nothing on the canvas, disappearing, melting like a candle. Underneath, there is a bunch of five candles, all aquatic in colour, including a long, tall candle that reads ‘longlonginging’. As well as playing with the word longing, by lengthening the word, the text seems to emphasise and accentuate the idea of longing. Fires of desire can last a long time, but will eventually be extinguished, like candles, and like us, and be gone.


On the next port in the show, the middle-left shelf, is an arrangement that resembles children’s building blocks. ‘Lost to themselves’ is one of the most eye-catching pieces, and aesthetically one of my favourites, although it doesn’t work the same way as a lot of the, essentially concrete, poems do. There is no play with words or letters or sound or puns. ‘Lost to themselves’ seems to say something about what is lost in adulthood, and replaced with the anxiety and the screen time etc. We are all lost to our adult selves in some way. But perhaps this also references how art keeps the child in us alive and free.


On the wall, on a white canvas, ‘WLIGHT’ contains all the letters needed to make the word twilight, which, like the candles contains light, and is displayed on the daylike evoking white canvas. Just under this piece, on a table at the far end of the gallery are candles that were lit at the launch of the Candle Poems exhibition. Kathy tells us Thomas burned the ones that he felt were ‘imperfect’, causing a minor panic to the gallery owners. The candles were crafted with aesthetic in mind rather than their practical usage, so things got a little smoky. One small candle, still intact, reads ‘little precious’, which says so much about the exhibition, and feels again like a little nod to Hamilton Finlay’s outdoor sculpture garden, Little Sparta, the seven-acre outdoor exhibition, contrasting so nicely with this 20 X 10 ft. one.


I like how the candles are huddled together in clusters of colours. On the right-hand side, we hit pink. Different shades of. Powder pink, flesh pink, peachy pink, earthy pink in blocks and cubes. One poem reads ‘Fractural’/’Guttural’, each word running down two sides of a rectangular block candle. Another, ‘Wound’/’World’ on the same side of a candle but with ‘world’ upside down, perhaps acknowledging the metaphorically upside-down world, as well as representing our spinning earth. On ‘barely there’ ‘bare’ is alone on one side of the candle, the colour is pink like bare skin. The ‘ly’ hides around the corner and is barely there, just two lone letters, gesturing towards sound puns: lie and lie bare. The idea of something being ‘barely there’ also supports the subtlety and gentleness of the poems and their intent.


The next are greens. ‘Tracks’ and ‘Traces’ flips the neological phrase Track and Trace from the time of Covid, and their original organic nature-set meanings. ‘BIRCHLARCH’, two types of trees written on green. A birch and a larch. You can read into these poems and get as much out of them as you wish. If you would like to go deeper rather than just enjoy the simplicity, there is always much to be discovered. For instance, birches have been present in Celtic cultures, in relation to ballads and folklore, for centuries, often associated with death or fairies, or a return from the grave. And in learning about Larch, you find out that the male flowers are small cones, orange-yellow in colour and the female flowers are long, green and purple, with brown shades during ripening. Small coloured objects, like the candles.


‘Tracks’ and ‘Trace’s relates to the ‘Contrails’ candle poem in the next, blue, section. ‘clouds’ and ‘capes’ adds a layer of surreality. Surreal juxtapositions as well as images that sit nicely together can be found here. Maybe you could see capes in the cloud, or wear a cape cloud? Again, these visual concrete poems, in the modernist sense, require the reader to do some work, but this is far from unpleasant. The words on the wall in this section include the green and blue of the elements, with a blue ‘desire line’ on the diagonal and ‘theperambulationsofaforest’ all bunched together in one continuous word around the picture, green for a forest.


One of my favourite pieces ‘Wind Poem’ is a framed print, a simple sky blue with forward and back slashes in white. This perhaps symbolises wind blowing in two different directions. This reminds me of the wind pieces in Yoko Ono’s Grapefruit in their simplicity, which offer childlike, playful instructions:


                  PIECE FOR THE WIND Cut a painting up and let them be lost in the wind.1962 summer


Each of the candles is a little guide and light, and in trying to think about them or work them out, we are, kindly, tricked into a meditative process where we can escape from our busy minds. The candles, which were created over two years, have been described on social media by Thomas as ‘little anthropomorphic talismans, transitional melting objects, signs felt in the body, bubble gum portents, wax cathedrals.’ Further insight into his work and approaches can be found in a piece he wrote for SPAM zine a couple of years ago: ‘it’s not inherently problematic to make poems that are small, simple and express a kind of emotional warmth (I find ‘edginess’ quite a facile quality in poetry). The reader or viewer can feel they understand your work, feel a gentleness and love from it, without that signifying some sort or complicity with a damaged world.’


These candles first appeared in Thomas’s Candle Poems book, which came out with Poem Atlas last July. It is the fifth title published by Poem Atlas, a groundbreaking visual poetry press whose books have a stylish and distinct aesthetic. Edited by prolific and accomplished visual poet and artist Astra Papachristodoulou, the cover is sky blue, crisp and uplifting. A single candle is pictured on the front, its unflickering, static, flame perhaps acting as an unwavering sun in a blue sky. This indicates warmth and positivity. The dedication, in candle form, as already mentioned, is “For the Bees”. The candle poems within look like sweets, soaps and fireworks, in places, buttons too, ecstasy pills, even. The difference between the book and the physical show is you only have access to one view/angle. The positioning, of the letters on the candles and of the candles themselves, is vital.


‘Secretes’, meaning to hide and release, is four-cylinder candles bearing ‘secretes’ in parts only visible when turned. The candles’ superpower is to release fire, not revealed here and unlit, hiding the secret, the word and wick on the candle. ‘Trap’/’rapt’, sounds like wrapped and trapped, too. The words are lovingly wrapped around the candles, and the letters are trapped on them, also somehow communicating that we are all trapped on this dying planet with global corruption. But more in line with Thomas’s positivity, when rapt we are falling in a good trap. Maybe then this poem is inviting us into the trap, or, alternately, we escape the bad trap when we are rapt. It’s a choose-your-own meaning poem. Again, this is play with language, it is fun to see what else you can find, like a game. This aligns with the serious play of Oulipian language games, except is purposely less complex.


‘Even out’ / ‘Even ing’ in two yellow square blocks seem to illustrate the similarities and the differences of everything. The closeness and the distance. ‘world wound’ seems particularly apt for 2024. ‘Barely there’ an almost mantra for the candle poems, the subtlety. I love the candles towards the end of the book which are placed in outdoor settings, forests, autumnal leaves etc. ‘Teardrop (globe poem 2 flame-shape)’ is one round ‘Teardrop’ candle poem unlit, and one lit over two pages, the second picture, the flame is the teardrop, just elements switched.


‘drawn with held with (Heidegger backwards)’ (Heidegger believed that thinking involves ‘holding oneself in the draft of what withdraws’) is three different block candles moved around, making ‘drawn held’ / ‘with drawn’ / ‘drawn with’ / combinations over three pictures. The first is an actualisation; in the picture the two block poems the word ‘drawn’ is literally held by ‘held’, which is in turn held by a hand. The second combo, ‘with drawn’, suggests quietness or symptoms of being without, of needing something. Maybe that thing we need is light from the candles, in this case. ‘Drawn with’ … fill in the gap here … hope? The reason why there isn’t a ‘with held’ combination is suitably withheld.


The marbled poem dedicated to Scottish poet Nicky Melville ‘ink sink sin skin’ is a single cube with SINK, a letter showing on four sides. It is inspired by a tattoo Melville has on his arm, one line of which reads ‘inksinksinksinks,’ working on a meta level, of sorts, the ink literally sunken into his skin.


Interpreting these poems feels like writing poetry. That’s the thing about concrete poems, like modernism, it requires the reader to do some work, another reason why these poems seem therapeutic.  


The afterword by Colin Herd gets the reader thinking of their own relationships with candles throughout their life. Written with Herd’s signature energy and humour, it’s much like reading one of his poems. He leaves us with the striking language of swimming through the solidifying wax of language, thinking through the poems as a flickering of words, which seems like a good moment to blow this candle out.



Book available to buy here from Poem Atlas.


Text: Vik Shirley


1) Vik Shirley

2 & 3) Alexander Hoyles

Published: 17/02/2023



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