James Nachtwey has seen a lot. But Matthew Loney has seen James Nachtwey.
As a child, I remember bedtime stories about the Priests of Baal, about fish-worshipping Philistines and depraved, calf-smithing Hebrews. They were meant to be a horrifying people, the idolaters. The kind of folk who lacked scruples, who succumbed, who were defiantly pagan and unremorsefully erotic. They were the kind we should strive to be the opposite of—a negative exemplary. Instead, a deviant, I imagined myself one of them. Bowing to a god of polished minerals, I craved to hail something earthly: I sought after deities I could touch.
I wrote the poem ‘Buddha Head: On Spotting James Nachtwey in Bangkok’ after stumbling across the renowned war photographer in Bangkok’s megalithic Chatuchak market. The four sections are related quadrants of that experience. Like many, I always found it difficult to talk to those who I admired in some way, people who cast a spell over my life through the brilliance of their work, directing the course of my artistic development and social perspective. War photographers, like idols, always fascinated me. They retain a kind of nobility like endangered animals, a nimbleness of survival, the masterful tempting of danger. A prolific, decorated photographer whose work deals in equal parts beauty of composition and baseness of violence, Nachtwey is Baal to me. His images are raw, nearly obscene in their accuracy, a paradoxical poetry of war, famine and genocide that is both gruesome and enchanting. Nachtwey’s biopic War Photographer by equally idolized Swiss director Christian Frei remains a totem to both men and their respective documentary feats. Certainly, Nachtwey existed in a realm to which I never thought I could have access.
Wandering through the market, a sprawling, almost gruesome amalgamation of stalls rendered all the more sublime by their labyrinthine layout, I relished my travels in the land of the idolaters. Golden statues of Buddha are everywhere in Bangkok: One bows to them in bare feet, supplicant, three times. So when I rounded a corner and he was standing, bartering with a merchant at a display shelf, I suppose I could forgive myself for wanting to bow, to venerate him the way we are instructed to venerate the Buddha, to honor him with our homage in gratitude for the message his image denotes. Nachtwey’s images, although a catalogue of atrocities, are ones that cry for peace. He is our witness to social and political nightmares, our proxy to the fires of hell. There, in the market, I was close enough to Baal to touch him.
Upon confronting the thing we worship our impulses can often surprise us. I didn’t fall to my knees crying hail! though I could have. I found a stall selling metal-cast heads of the Buddha, lined up in a strange kind of blissful roll call, hundreds of them, from which I chose one that now sits on my bathroom counter. It was the strange synthesis of moments one often feels compelled to sort out with poetry. As an older writer I want to go back and streamline the verse. There is a clumsiness I couldn’t let myself away with now. But I am happy with it as a record of that coming together of force fields that makes an encounter with the worshipped so powerful. I remain grateful to The Puritan for its publication.
Matthew Loney’s writing has been published in many North American literary journals, including the anthologies Everything is So Political: A Collection of Short Fiction by Canadian Writers and Carter V. Cooper Short Fiction Anthology Series selected by Gloria Vanderbilt. His short story “The Stampede” was published in Clark-Nova’s inaugural anthology Ten and a Half Short Stories by Canadian Authors Under 30. He has recently breached the Asian continent, publishing in Mumbai’s Nether Magazine and Hong Kong’s Cha Magazine. Poetry publications include Vallum, Plenitude, The Puritan, Ganymede, Ganymede Unfinished, and Assaracus. An arts writer, book and film reviewer, Loney is a contributing writer for The Puritan and The Maple Tree Literary Supplement.