Saturday, November 28, 2009

Open Season On The Real

Tim Bowling is a Canadian poet with extravagant gifts of association, high-powered technical dexterity, and a rich effortless voice all his own which have served him well over the course of eight volumes of poetry. His poetry is both regional and international in scope for he is equally comfortable talking about fishing for salmon in the Fraser River or writing eloquently about Thomas Hardy’s personal life, or even elegizing a forgotten collector of books, Harry Elkins Widener, who died with the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, a man now the subject of the title poem in Bowling’s latest collection The Book Collector.

In his poems, memory, loss, and celebration all share bunk-space together, but always he goes back to poems about the Fraser River in British Columbia which appears to be a particular source of inspiration for Bowling. Although some poetry critics have viewed this repetition of subject matter as stasis, this is an inadequate view of Bowling’s private obsession with the Fraser River for it acts as a personal symbol or triggering subject for him.

It represents the ethos of his poetry; one that makes all those other poems he writes on different subjects possible. It helps to trigger his need for words and to create his inner life as Richard Hugo once remarked about such recurrent images an individual poet uses in his essay “The Triggering Town”:

Your triggering subjects are those that ignite your need for words. When you are honest to your feelings, that triggering [subject] chooses you. Your words used your way will generate your meanings. Your obsessions lead to your vocabulary. Your way of writing locates, even creates, your inner life. The relation of you to your language gains power. The relation of you to the triggering subject weakens. (15)

If you follow Hugo’s way of thinking, it is precisely because of Bowling’s continued private love affair with the Fraser River that ironically enables him to leap off into unknown poetic territory and to write all those other poems of his on diverse subjects. Although I love many of Bowling’s poems about the Fraser River, I thought I would veer away from its importance in his oeuvre by looking at “The Childhood Wall”, one of Bowling’s new poems from his collection The Book Collector:

The Childhood Wall

A child climbs the childhood wall
unscrews the glass eyes from
the mounted pheasants and mallards
and plays a game on kitchen tiles
over which a mother’s shadow
seeps like a tide. The stakes
are the rest of his life. For now,
he’s winning. His wild eye gazes
through the manufacture of the world
and sees another world – a man
at a desk who’s trying to rise
above the burnishments
of hunted autumns. The man
wants to see death as it is
to a child – remote, intimate,
the firelight in the glass eye
of the flocks a vitality
from the heart of flight.
Child’s play. Man’s work.
The bird the gun is always raised at.
Among the approximating instruments –
open season on the real.

What first came to mind after I read this poem a few times was the contrast of different worlds— the boy playing with the glass eyes of the stuffed birds and the taxidermist trying to approximate life—that coexist simultaneously within its lines. It is this overlapping of worlds which put me in the mind of an essay by Stanley Plumly called “The Abrupt Edge” where Plumly talks about the phrase the abrupt edge taken from ornithology to mean the edge between two different types of vegetation so birds have the advantage of “living in two worlds at once”(6). Plumly extends the idea into the realm of poetry by suggesting the abrupt edge is a doorway between endless juxtapositions:

The edge is the concept of the doorway, shadow and light, inside and outside, room and warlde’s room, where the density and variety of the plants that love the sun and the open air yield to the darker, greener, cooler interior world, at the margin. It is no surprise, then, that the greatest number of species as well as individuals live at the edge and fly the pathways and corridors and trails at the joining of the juxtaposition. (6)

In Bowling’s poem, the juxtaposition of two different worlds, the real and the imagined, is what creates its strong tension and dramatic underpinnings. It begins with the boy playing with the glass eyes of the birds on the kitchen tiles while his mother’s presence looms large nearby:

A child climbs the childhood wall
unscrews the glass eyes from
the mounted pheasants and mallards
and plays a game on kitchen tiles
over which a mother’s shadow
seeps like a tide. The stakes
are the rest of his life. For now,
he’s winning.

The phrase “childhood wall” in the first line immediately signals to the reader this is a recollection as do the lines “The stakes / are the rest of his life. For now, / he’s winning.” The idea of the abrupt edge, however, enters the poem in the next section as one of the glass eyes becomes the doorway through which this child sees the man whose hands first mounted these birds as trophies:

His wild eye gazes
through the manufacture of the world
and sees another world – a man
at a desk who’s trying to rise
above the burnishments
of hunted autumns.

This is where the element of transcendence arises in the poem as the boy imagines this other man as an artist trying to recreate the warm-blooded vitality of life from the cold matériel, the inertness of death. For the man to accomplish this task, however, he must see death as the child does, which is to say he must not recognize it; for instead, he must be negative capable, to borrow a phrase from Keats, and imagine amongst the birds “a vitality from the heart of flight”:

The man
wants to see death as it is
to a child – remote, intimate,
the firelight in the glass eye
of the flocks a vitality
from the heart of flight.

The juxtapositions that make this poem so remarkable—the child’s innocence and wonder versus the man’s dedication to his art; the stuffed bird as a symbol of life versus the always raised gun as a symbol of death—are made acute in the poem’s conclusion.

Child’s play. Man’s work.
The bird the gun is always raised at.
Among the approximating instruments –
open season on the real.

It is these several juxtapositions of different worlds which creates what I see as the abrupt edge in this poem. Or to put it another way—it is by using that image of a boy playing with glass eyes on the kitchen floor and then having the boy imagine the hard determined work of the taxidermist elsewhere that Bowling shows poetry for what it is, an act of transcendence, by declaring “open season on the real” in its last line.

If you enjoyed the poem “The Childhood Wall”, please pick up Tim Bowling’s latest volume of poetry The Book Collector published by Nightwood Editions.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

“A Science of Subjectivity” by Christian C. Thompson in the APR

Christian C. Thompson has a fascinating essay called “A Science of Subjectivity” in the November/December 2009 issue of the American Poetry Review. Thompson begins his essay with the following paragraph:

The standards for measuring numerical precision are not the same as those for judging literary accuracy. In ‘The Serious Artist,’ Pound says, ‘You can be wholly precise in representing a vagueness.’ This paradox is an example of an area of experience in which only forms of non-numerical expression are capable of precision. It is an instance within the domain of emotion. The numerical scientific method can measure physiological responses to different kinds of emotion, yet it cannot evoke emotion itself. Only the artistic manipulation of non-numerical images, symbols, or sounds can reproduce emotions. The forms of communication within the arts are not purely mathematical yet that does not mean their methods are not scientific.

Has your curiosity been piqued? Why don’t you go out to a newsstand or your local bookstore and pick up a copy of the APR for yourself? I especially love the concluding sentence of Thompson's essay: “The poet is a scientist responsible for expressing truths the other sciences are not capable of revealing.”

Monday, November 23, 2009

The Fiddlehead No.451 Autumn 2009

The autumn issue of The Fiddlehead, Atlantic Canada’s International Literary Journal, arrived at my door last week and I have to say I’ve been spending a lot of time with it ever since.

I think Ross Leckie, Jesse Ferguson, James Langer, and the whole staff are doing a terrific job. The American poet Norman Dubie, already a favorite poet of mine, has five poems inside.

Likewise, the Canadian poet Blaise Moritz, whose debut poetry collection Crown And Ribs I have enjoyed since it first came out two years ago, has two new sonnets in the magazine.

I also like poems in the issue by Shane Neilson, Hillel Schwartz and Paul Tyler, the latter two being new poets to me I had never heard of before. The international aspect of the magazine is also a big draw for me since I am already a wide reader of American poetry.

If you do not have a subscription already to The Fiddlehead, I would strongly urge you to get one based on this issue.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Brian Palmu Responds To Why He Snarks Books

Brian Palmu, poetry reviewer for Canadian Notes & Queries (where Zachariah Wells resides as the poetry reviews editor), writes “what the hell is wrong with some malicious fun? Gawd!” in a defense of why he snarks books.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Louise Glück’s “In The Plaza”




“It is so obviously the most miraculous thing to do” responds Louise Glück to the question of writing poetry in the short documentary film series The Poet’s View put together by the Academy of American Poets ( a great gift, by the way, for that "hard-to-buy-for-poet" in your family). I picked up her new book A Village Life published by FSG the other week and a few days later another copy of it arrived in the mail. It seems my good friend and fellow poet Paul Vermeersch had bought it too and finding it a “warm, open and generous collection”, he sent me a copy of it in the mail at his own expense. Good guy, that Paul.

In an earlier essay called "Staying News: A Defense of the Lyric" in Poets Teaching Poets: Self And The World, Joan Aleshire repudiates those who tagged Glück earlier in her career as “a confessional and idiosyncratic subjective poet” by explaining Glück “is interested in ‘gospel,’ not in ‘gossip,’ the experience itself, not the literal details.”

Aleshire goes on to talk about one of Glück’s more well known poems Mock Orange, calling it “an argument between two parts of the self: the one that needs to believe—in love, in union with another; and the one that knows such belief is self-deception, but will go on being deceived.”

This started me thinking about a new poem called “In The Plaza” from Glück’s new collection A Village Life. Here is the poem in its entirety:

In The Plaza

For two weeks he’s been watching the same girl,
someone he sees in the plaza. In her twenties maybe,
drinking coffee in the afternoon, the little dark head
bent over a magazine.
He watches from across the square, pretending
to be buying something, cigarettes, maybe a bouquet of flowers.

Because she doesn’t know it exists,
her power is very great now, fused to the needs of his imagination.
He is her prisoner. She says the words he gives her
in a voice he imagines, low-pitched and soft,
a voice from the south as the dark hair must be from the south.

Soon she will recognize him, then begin to expect him.
And perhaps then every day her hair will be freshly washed,
she will gaze outward across the plaza before looking down.
And after that they will become lovers.

But he hopes this will not happen immediately
since whatever power she exerts now over his body, over his emotions,
she will have no power once she commits herself—

she will withdraw into that private world of feeling
women enter when they love. And living there, she will become
like a person who casts no shadow, who is not present in the world;
in that sense, so little use to him
it hardly matters whether she lives or dies.

That same tension found in Mock Orange between sex and its resulting unfulfillment, the longing for union and the awareness that such union is never truly possible, situates itself again in this poem, but here Glück, in the role of omniscient narrator, conceives of a young couple in a plaza within her fictional village to play out this struggle between human desire and human folly.

In the poem’s beginning, the man is gazing at the young woman who is completely unaware of his interest in her which is the main source of her sexual allure and power over him:

Because she doesn’t know it exists,
her power is very great now, fused to the needs of his imagination.
He is her prisoner. She says the words he gives her
in a voice he imagines, low-pitched and soft,
a voice from the south as the dark hair must be from the south.

Glück lets readers know through her spare, almost clinical regard that the young woman will eventually “recognize him, then begin to expect him” and later “after that, they will become lovers”. This is when the young woman will lose her uniqueness, her great power over the man, for such a union, the consummation of desire, comes with a price—a lessening of one’s self:

she will have no power once she commits herself—

she will withdraw into that private world of feeling
women enter when they love. And living there, she will become
like a person who casts no shadow, who is not present in the world;

It is her separateness from the young man that he actually covets; her unconscious mind wholly unaware of his conscious assessment of her. It is the young woman’s essential mystery that he yearns to possess, that holds him prisoner, but once this is gone, shortly after he has possessed her, she becomes “so little use to him / it hardly matters whether she lives or dies.”

In Louise Glück’s poetry, sex and love are viewed as abandonment, the surrender of the self, but tempered by the knowledge that such surrender is always momentary, never lasting. In her essay, Joan Aleshire makes an interesting statement about the earlier poem Mock Orange but she could just as easily have been talking about this new poem: “The longing for union combined with the knowledge that union can’t be truly achieved makes the poem’s argument acutely complex and dramatic.”

If you liked this poem, treat yourself to Louise Glück’s new collection A Village Life.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

William S. Burroughs, from "A Review of the Reviewers"



"Critics constantly complain that writers are lacking in standards, yet they themselves seem to have no standards other than personal prejudice for literary criticism. (...) such standards do exist. Matthew Arnold set up three criteria for criticism: 1. What is the writer trying to do? 2. How well does he succeed in doing it? (...) 3. Does the work exhibit "high seriousness"? That is, does it touch on basic issues of good and evil, life and death and the human condition."

- William S. Burroughs, "A Review of the Reviewers"

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Reviews Editor of Quill & Quire Steven W. Beattie Responds To My Question of Book Reviewing Ethics But Not To The Question Of Tribal Poet-Critics

Steven W. Beattie has responded to my questioning the ethics of reviewing over at Quill & Quire, the magazine he edits for, after a debate turned nasty in the comments section of Bookninja between myself and Q&Q book reviewer Zachariah Wells. The post "On Reviewing" was about a potentially serious conflict of interest between a reviewer George Packer who allowed his personal disagreement with an author Mark Danner to enter into his review of Danner’s new book Stripping Bare The Body: Politics Violence War which appeared in The New York Times Book Review.

I agreed with the blogger Moby’s original post that book reviewers as journalists must approach the books they review both critically and objectively. Mr. Wells then made the derisive comment that an objective review is plot summary. After pressed further, Mr. Wells responded to Packer’s review of Danner’s book by saying, “why is there this burden of neutrality placed upon the review as a work of journalism?”

I found this to be an incredible bald-faced statement.

When I suggested to Mr. Wells if he does not believe in objectivity or ethical standards for book reviewing, then I would certainly like to hear from those magazine editors (Steven W. Beattie, Anita Lahey, Dan Wells) he writes reviews for because I now have serious reservations about his abilities as a reviewer for those magazines, his response was typical: ”Well, I have serious doubts about your ability to write poetry in this or any other country, so I guess we’re square on this ‘important … topic,’ dude. Toodles.”

To Steven W. Beattie’s credit, he has not taken his response to the level of ad hominem or defamation, although I do believe he has misrepresented what I originally said in my post (which for the record, you may read here) for I am not in favour of critical relativism of any sort. In fact, I think negative reviewing does have its place. What I am against, however, is poet-critics writing negative reviews as a kind of ‘terra-forming’ process to acclimatize the Canadian poetry landscape to one more hospitable to the type of poetry they themselves write or to satisfy a personal vendetta. This smacks of opportunism and conflict of interest. Anyways, I am more than happy to grant Steven W. Beattie his right of reply. This, of course, being the ethical thing to do in these circumstances.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Behold! The Evil "I"!



Every so often, I come across friends of mine or poet acquaintances who take on certain aesthetic stances which appear, at least to me, to be self-limiting or antithetical to how poems are really composed. Some will no longer write poems about poetic composition, or about place, or childhood, or gardens, or for the purpose of this post, the use of the personal pronoun “I”. Everybody is free to use whatever means that works for them but I think this kind of talk can be dangerous when it takes on an all-or-nothing orthodoxy.

I am more apt to agree with Margaret Atwood when she writes, ”I don’t want to know how I write poetry. Poetry is dangerous: talking too much about it, like naming your gods, brings bad luck…you may improve your so-called technique but only at the expense of your so-called soul.”

Thus at the expense of my so-called soul, I will simply state that for me writing in the first person point-of-view is a way to project my consciousness into a poem. It is a single grain of “the real”, what Richard Hugo might have called a known quantity in which all of the wonderful unknown quantities may collect around in a successful poem. If a poem is simply autobiography, then it is a kodak moment or a mere confession. However, if the “I” in the poem seeks to enlarge the self through thoughtful contemplation of a place or a person or a time period, something other than itself, then the “I” really acts as a “we”, and the poem suddenly takes on greater historical and cultural significance.

One of my favorite American poets Jack Gilbert talks briefly about the suspicion that has grown up around the usage of the first-person point-of-view in poetry in a fantastic interview in the January/February 2009 issue of the APR:

“And this whole absurdity about doubting the ‘I’ in poetry I don’t understand at all. The ‘I’ is the source of communication of things that matter. At least, that’s what I feel. I want to trust the speaker of the poem. It’s like biting into gold, to see if it’s true metal. Poets work by insight, not by cleverness. If not through inspiration, then through intuition.”

Needless to say, I am in complete agreement with Jack Gilbert about the use of the "I" in poetry. There is still gold in them hills.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Small Is Beautiful

Poets do not appear to be writing as many small lyric poems in Canada as they once did, probably out of a misguided notion that such poems are slight and without substance, or out of a fear they will be pounced upon, which is a terrible shame because they can be really quite lovely. The best small lyrics can be carried around in your head all day to be puzzled over like a riddle, or held up against the light like a polished gem.

In his essay Ritsos and the Metaphysical Moment, American poet and essayist Stephen Dobyns pinpoints what makes a small lyric poem truly excellent is the metaphysical connection it creates between what is known and what is unknown. Take, for instance, his consideration of the poem “Triplet” by Yannis Ritsos:

As he writes, without looking at the sea,
he feels his pencil trembling at the very tip—
it’s the moment when the lighthouses light up.

For Dobyns, the lighting of the lighthouses “is neither rational nor scientific. It is not governed by what we might think of as logical systems of cause and effect. It suggests a series of sympathetic affinities and a sensitivity to these affinities on the part of the poet.” He calls this metaphysical moment the introduction of a “mystery” but he could just as easily have described it as that aspect of the imagination or subconscious which suddenly enters a poem. Dobyns explains that this mystery “is communicated with the ripple effect of a stone dropped in a pond” and I quite agree.

One of my favorite poems that works like this one is by the fifteenth century Zen master Ikkyu as translated by Stephen Berg:

this ink painting of wind blowing through pines
who hears it?

For me, this poem ripples forward through time creating a metaphysical moment that connects the ancient poet to our present. The mystery he introduces is the larger question he poses which widens to include all poets who have ever felt "the intense profound sharp longing to make a true poem", as Roethke once described it.

Another favorite short lyric poem is by the American poetry master Hayden Carruth who passed away last year. He wrote many, many poems in every imaginable form including some marvelous haikus like this one:

Hey Basho, you there!
I’m Carruth. Isn’t it great,
so distant like this?

This poem always makes me smile because it is so full of the poet’s obvious delight but a real seriousness too. In contrast to Ikkyu’s poem, Carruth’s poem ripples backward to catch Basho unawares and they smile mischievously at one another across the great expanse of time. The metaphysical connection in this poem collapses past and present, influence and tradition, so that two poets can momentarily talk to one another as equal participants in poetry. How wonderful.

Lastly, one of my favorite collections of small lyrics is Thirty-seven Small Songs & Thirteen Silences by Jan Zwicky published by the terrific Gaspereau Press. Take, for instance, the ‘sympathetic affinities’ created in this poem:


Small Song

It’s the first lesson, loss.
Who hasn’t tried to learn it
at the hands of wind or thieves?
Yet my heart grows old
not knowing. Things:
their fragility, their faithfulness.
Who will love you now?

If loss is indeed the first lesson, what saves the poet from the deeper sadness that human existence is finite and our lives impermanent? The answer is the fragility and faithfulness of things. The poet has grown old having not learned loss because the writing of poetry is also an act of renewal. Things may fade from one’s life but ultimately the imagination brings new things to take their place. The question posed at the end of the poem “Who will love you now?” ripples out to include everyone and invokes what happens at the moment of writing. The poet has asked a question of the imagination and is waiting for an answer. This is the metaphysical moment. The world of sympathetic affinities. I imagine it to be the moment the lighthouses light up.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Aesthetic Tribalism in Canada

In the July/August 2009 issue of the American Poetry Review, Tony Hoagland wrote a provocative essay about Dean Young and his emulators which has started me thinking about the various poetry camps we see here in Canada. In a section of his essay called “Followers”, Hoagland writes, “We are living in a time of poetic explosion; the university creative writing systems have not just trained a lot of young poets in literary craft, they have fermented these young artists in a broth of language theory, critical vocabulary and aesthetic tribalism, which the age apparently demands.”

It was the phrase “aesthetic tribalism” which jumped out at me because we are seeing this on a number of fronts here in Canada: the new formalist movement, the experimental avant-garde set, the smart-alecky surrealists, and, of course, the shadowy cabal of lyric-narrative poets which have been apparently running everything, including the CBC, since the 1970s. I jest.

In some ways, I think aesthetic tribalism in Canada is just an outgrowth of the old garrison mentality, a catchy term first coined by Northrop Frye. Today, poets choose their “forts” not based on place but based on the like-minded people they find within them. They serve as communities and communities are necessary to all poets.

I think where the real problem lies, however, is when there is little or no interaction between these various groups. I say this for once the doors of these gated communities are thrown open, the more partisan among us panic. Seeing the world outside as either indifferent or entirely hostile towards poetry, they form a kind of press gang mentality looking for fellow initiates or sycophants, cannabalizing all those who dare not agree with their point of view.

This is especially of concern when this becomes an entrenched attitude as it has been in recent years amongst some reviewers. Most poetic forms are arbitrary and anyone who attacks or trivializes another poet’s work for not working within the same set of poetic conventions or formal restraints as themselves is either a propagandist or a pretender. Such talk simply propagates the pointless form versus content argument. Reviewers should be asking of every poetry collection they read what is the intent of the poet? How well have they used image, language, metaphor, thought, musicality, emotional sensation to embody one’s consciousness within a poem, or to unfold one’s human experience, or to manifest a desire to transcend one’s circumstances, or to break down the barriers that exist between one’s private life and the world at large?

Whatever the goal is of the particular poet, I think it is the duty and responsibility of any reviewer to understand how the poetry is working before passing judgment on its merits. That way, even if a book is reviewed negatively, the review will serve as a dialogue and not merely as a shallow denouncement.

We need more honest reviewers in this country who will read poetry, all poetry, with this kind of high-minded seriousness. What we do not need is anymore influence-peddlers or favour-traders or ass-kissers. We get the critical culture we demand of our critics, and of our magazines, for that matter. Besides, there are no winners when aesthetic tribalism attaches itself to critical circles. Look at any anthology from thirty years ago and you will see how quickly literary reputations die and fade away.

Ultimately, aesthetic tribalism is a useful term to describe a series of smaller communities found within the larger poetry community in Canada, but as a nationalist pursuit found within the book reviewing status quo, it is about the homogenization of literary culture, and robs poetry of its natural tendencies toward innovation and change.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Russell Thornton's "Brothers"

I first came to the poetry of Canadian poet Russsell Thornton through a poem called The Beginning of Stars from his wonderful book A Tunisian Notebook published by Seraphim Editions. I find the ending lines especially lovely:

The body is the wine flask and the wine;
the lover is the veil on the beloved’s face.
And what we hide within, and hides from us
through all our hours of light, seems dark, and yet,
now in the dark as in the one centre
of the fusions that are stars, is pure time,
when the bodies we are wake in their day,
and we taste that day’s wine, that endless beginning
of nameless fate, when we give ourselves up
to our lives, and enter another life.

This poem evoked in me that wonderful mixture of awe and envy that the more bold among us would call inspiration. Since that first encounter with his poetry, I have come to know Russell Thornton as a poet who writes some of the most skillfully crafted lyrics in Canada, poems that seek to transcend realism, but also a writer of expansive, longer-lined “story” poems which remind me a lot of the Italian poet Cesare Pavese. Take for instance, Thornton’s poem Brothers which first appeared in his book House Built of Rain published by Harbour publishing.

Brothers

One spent nights on the junior high school roof.
My mother had kicked him out when the police told her
he was selling drugs, and before that, selling tires
he stole from gas stations. One stole a teacher’s car
from the senior high school parking lot at lunchtime,
got a case of beer, and drove around drunk all afternoon,
then smashed the car’s front fender when he reparked it.
One threw a Molotov cocktail into a teacher’s home
when the teacher accused him of copying an essay.
The same one beat up his P.E. teacher. One beat up
the leader of a gang. With that gang after him,
he started his own gang, he himself its only member,
and wore a red bandana and red old lady’s jacket
to school every day. No one along the gauntlet
that had been set up to stop him touched him.
Each one headed to “alternate school.” A year or two,
and the school was the bar, the drunk tank, jail.
But each one changed, and turned himself around.
Here we all are, suddenly in our mid and late thirties,
with everyone fooled. Clean-living, clean-looking,
all of us successful and good middle-class boys.
One a CEO, one a president of marketing…all
with pretty partners, nice cars, nice paid-for houses.
And smilers and jokers around a dinner table.
Until something comes out after a beer or glass of wine
too many, a note in a voice, and we are all there in a row
and looking to either side of ourselves at each other,
trying to see the thing looking out of our faces
as out of cold, dark trees it stands at the edge of
yet blends in. Each of us knowing it is there, each of us
ready to kill it, even when we know it is one of us—
though none of us knows which of us it is, only
that it is there and it is a lone, long-absent animal,
starving and afraid and ready to kill, and our father.

In an essay called “In Search of the Real Thing” from his book of essays Hunting Men, the American poet Dave Smith asks “Is there, then, a ‘real thing’, a poem independent of vagaries and fashion, a poem that fuses the felt life and percolating significance always shadow to life’s events, a poem in which the self stands forth like Whitman stating ‘I am the man, I suffered, I was there’? The poem of the ‘real thing’ will have to embrace the moving targets any man or woman is in time.”

I think this is exactly the kind of poem Russell Thorton is writing here. He takes readers deep inside the felt experience of his life and if there is a moving target in the poem, it is the implacable voice of conscience and awareness, diligently sifting facts and memories, trying to create or, at least, to restore a pattern of significance that will make this poem somehow true, that will make it, in fact, “the real thing”.

In the beginning lines, we learn the brothers as teenagers engage in all manner of self-destructive behaviour – selling drugs, getting drunk and stealing cars, throwing a molotov cocktail into a teacher’s home – as if it were this undercurrent of anger and rage, and not family ties at all, that connects them. This behaviour changes, however, for the boys are able to make the difficult transition into men later in life with their moral characters intact:

But each one changed, and turned himself around.
Here we all are, suddenly in our mid and late thirties,
with everyone fooled. Clean-living, clean-looking,
all of us successful and good middle-class boys.

But what about that “percolating significance always shadow to life’s events” Dave Smith was talking about earlier? Thornton hints it is still there breathing, lurking on the peripheries of the mens’ shared history in the lines:

Until something comes out after a beer or glass of wine
too many, a note in a voice, and we are all there in a row
and looking to either side of ourselves at each other,
trying to see the thing looking out of our faces

It is only in the poem’s conclusion that we discover what this percolating significance actually is along with the poet: “ that is there and it is a lone, long-absent animal, / starving and afraid and ready to kill, and our father.”

I can tell you unequivocally this poem is the “real thing” because I have read it many times to troubled boys in my classes who find themselves feelingly impersonated within its lines. To say they like this poem would be an understatement. They are changed. Please go seek out Russell Thorton’s books The House Built of Rain and The Human Shore, both published by Harbour Publishing.