Some poetry collections can be read from cover to cover, in one sitting, and you more or less “get it” the first time. That’s how I read both Michael Lithgow’s Who We Thought We Were As We Fell and Russell Thornton’s Answer to Blue. Jessie Jones’ the fool, on the other hand, required a little more effort. To be clear, distinguishing a one-sitting book from a multiple-readings-required book is in no way a judgment of quality, or literary merit, one way or another. There are simply different types of poems. And just imagine if there weren’t!
The ones in Jones’ the fool twist and turn in on themselves, much like the creature on the book’s front cover. It’s intriguing, but also perhaps a little off-putting, because of its lack of clear boundaries. Is it an insect? A plant? A feathered serpent? (Answer: it’s a sandworm.)
This in-turning motion, this spiralling, appears so frequently throughout the book that it might almost be regarded as Jones’ personal poetics. The book’s sections are numbered 0, I, II, III, and finally 0 again: the void, or a return to the beginning. In “Better manifesto,” the repetitive actions and comforting domestic cycles of a normal life are exemplified by the recurring phrase “to make the bed again” (Jones 19). Elsewhere the reader is directed to count “backward from one hundred” and “backward from the beginning” (47). The wonderfully titled “Leopold Stokowski is a man of the future,” which describes the music of the spheres, also seems to loop back on itself, beginning and ending with the speaker wondering about birds (Jones 34). The speaker of one poem suggests that their “self comes back in turns” (Jones 31); elsewhere, memory itself is misplaced and then found again, years later (73).
There are numerous allusions to other works of literature and art here, including nursery rhymes, nonfiction, poetry, paintings, and films, but like the “yellow room” setting of the poem “Sleep cure” (51)—get it? And that’s one of the easy ones—they may not be immediately recognizable.
Jones’ twisty “living image” technique (which I’m naming after a phrase from the poem “The moment before,” 33), takes the reader along on a spiralling, transformative path in fits and starts that are both playful and at times disconcerting: “I move through / the city like a bundle of kindling. / All day I wait for a bit of friction / to transform me” (37). There are spiral-like word puzzles everywhere, including a place described as “the other side of the other side,” and “a system with an unknown middle and a known end” (Jones 48). These poems will make the reader slow down, start again at the top of the page, and reread.
Many of the poems in Michael Lithgow’s Who We Thought We Were As We Fell are built of imagery from the land, and descriptions of the human place—or lack of place—on it. “Indignity of Design” details the experience of walking around a traffic circle, a familiar enough space, but not intended for people outside of their cars (Lithgow 36). Elsewhere, fields are “pocked with tired barns” (Lithgow 47); the poet realizes he occupies “so little of this landscape” (6). But there are also positive, and beautiful, nature images throughout the book, moments of connection and even kinship: according to the speaker in “Startled,” “[i]t feels like the jackrabbits / hold some part of me together” (17).
Moths look like “small disheveled blossoms” (Lithgow 27); frogs thrum “like badly tuned banjos” (28). I confess that occasionally I found the preponderance of similes a little distracting. Daisies “float like buttery eyes” (49), fireflies look like constellations, grief is “like a cold fat snake” (51). Lithgow’s collection is about (among other things) liminality, foreshadowed by the early line “[i]t’s the space between I’m drawn to” (8), and perhaps this sense of uncertainty, or greyness, explains the similes.
There are physical spaces of in-betweenness, like suburbs, which are neither urban nor rural, and the porch of a farmhouse, which is not entirely indoors or out. In the poem “The Confession” a Greyhound bus becomes a liminal space between point of departure and destination, a place of confession and even renewal (43).
There is the liminal space you occupy just before you get married, and the stretch of time, marked by aches and injuries, between youth and old age. There are touching moments of a parent acting as buffer between the child and the dangers of the world: “I am a cradle / in a windstorm” (13), a potent image later paralleled in moments with the poet’s father. The liminal zone exists between one state of being and another: between life and death. But as these poems show, it is also a place of belonging, which can be occupied by a loved one in the service of another.
Answer to Blue is Russell Thornton’s eighth poetry collection. Some familiar territory from Thornton’s previous books is revisited here: genealogy, architecture, the idea of home. Fittingly, for a North Vancouver poet, there is also water imagery everywhere. Raindrops on the window are “the hands of people with no memories” (Thornton 87); rain “arrives like a beggar at the door” (93). One of the book’s most striking poems is “When the Whales Return,” in which “orcas have been sighted / swimming into the inlet for the first time in eighty years” (104), and in which the poet’s mother, who has recently passed away, is lovingly remembered.
In “Breaking Into the House of my Father’s Father,” the poet trespasses in his own family history, and plants devices that will help him spy on a grandfather who has long since passed away: “I lie down in a bed somewhere within the house [. . .] and in my sleep conduct surveillance” (23).
Physical objects in these poems have the power to conjure memories and mythologies. The HVAC system in a library reminds the poet of a grandfather who worked on similar installations; a cup of coffee contains memories of an earlier time, a café, and an unresolved relationship. Other sensory, sometimes visceral images, starting with the front cover art (is it a map? Or does it show neurons, a visual representation of memory?), include a ram caught in the mist, in a personalized study of the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac, and a crow that blocks out the sun.
Elsewhere, an heirloom contains a different side of the poet’s family history: “[h]ere is the travel trunk that once carried the belongings of my father’s mother” (24). A nostalgic poem veers abruptly into mythical territory, as the grandfather is said to have sealed the grandmother into the trunk, sawed her in half like a stage magician, and then opened the trunk again, only to discover that she had already escaped. The reader is left wondering, with the poet, about what really happened. “If it is a memory,” according to the speaker of “The Other Life” (65), “it is written in your body.”
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