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.

1 comment:

  1. Spectacular post, Chris. This is a terrific poem by Thornton, too.

    ReplyDelete