Poetry Review by Phoebe Wang

Russell Thornton, Birds, Metals, Stones & Rain (Madeira Park: Harbour, 2013). Paperbound, 96 pp., $16.95.Birds, Metals, Stones & Rain

There are powers of observation, but there are also powers within the act of observation itself. Both are hazardous to the poet who sees and records, then undertakes to transform himself or the world through his particular gaze. Russell Thornton, in his fifth collection of poetry, Birds, Metals, Stones & Rain, is well aware of the perils and the potential for alchemy that a close attentiveness can engender. Some poems, such as “The Rain Bush,” contain the speaker’s wonder that “in a mirror a rememberer could meet / himself in immediate new transparency / haloed in haze and glitter” while in “The Work of the Creek,” his anguish is palpable—“My eyes are the bandages of my eyes.” Self-knowledge arises from observing his surroundings, yet Thornton seems less certain of the capacity to transform others, or the place itself, though perhaps that is his deep wish.

The book’s title suggests its contents as though birds, metals, stones, and weather are all we should expect. But in the book’s opening poem, “Squall,” it’s evident that what Thornton catalogues is not only the “vastness of metal” or the “clear mirror door of the rain,” but also our desires and the forces that bring us to what we need. In “Burrard Inlet Ships,” the speaker ponders the possibility that the ships neither depart nor arrive, that the cargo is never unloaded. The consequences of this imagined immobility unfold until he concludes that his sense of self and belonging hinge upon the inevitable movement of goods and even upon the gulls’ “insane-sounding cry of unfathomable / emergency in a wilderness of water.” Throughout these spiritual poems, the self is a locus, but one with inexact coordinates. A line from Delmore Schwartz, “What am I now that I was then” is an epigraph and also incorporated into “Greenness.” In the poem, the sight of a simple lawn elicits an elemental vision of the “greenness that pierces me” and that “shoot[s] me / full of starlight.”

Throughout the poems of the book’s first section, the dream of origins recurs. Thornton aligns the awakening of a new consciousness with the biological, even chemical, energy of the natural world, as in:  “The baby being born pauses. The sky casts itself / in precise quietness” (“North Vancouver Snow”). The poems remind us that nothing, including our thoughts or our bodies, can be made without the vast organization of the universe and the “invisible forge of the air.” It’s a simple message, and one that is healing, although like all elementary lessons, takes such a long time to learn. Thornton wants to help us along, applying his words like a poultice: “there is more love in matter / that we can utter.” In the book’s second section, these lessons present themselves in the “animal outlines” of “Palomino” and in the messages carried by herons, cormorants, and, of course, that mythic raven who stole the light. “Tales retell themselves like returning waves,” and in these narratives Thornton intertwines lessons received from his young daughter and his father with the cacophony of clinking metal, screeching gulls, “poison winds,” and “hot rain.” The cries and laughter of his daughter grow louder in the book’s third and last section. Here, his child’s wide-open first experiences are also entrances for the speaker, who hears the music of the world rearranged in “My Daughter and the Seagull’s Cry.” In poems such as “Arrivals, Departures,” the poet strives to remember the “shared dream” of instinct. It does not promise to equate all things, only to provide an “entry into a silence we now know in ourselves.” 

The voice in these poems holds something back, even as it reveals, an effect of the plain diction and primary colours that accentuate Thornton’s candour and exploration of core experiences. At the same time, the use of repetition, recurring diction, and multiple connotations can obfuscate. The lilting rhythms and swirling lines are song-like, and Thornton has the ability to make the stresses feel effortless and natural. In certain poems, the use of the imperative, a blunt tone, abrupt phrases, and dialogue keep our attention. In others, the long, galloping lines require several readings before their sense is clear, even when the language itself is unambiguous. Yet to be lost in Thornton’s tidal rhythms and to share his “brilliant / dream of Earth come back,” is almost impossible to resist. This is the poetry of incantation, vital and holy, and it seems we have always heard it.

—Phoebe Wang

As in The Malahat Review, 185, Winter 2013, 89-90