Writing The cool threat of death (or loss) in all things – poetry review by Greg Ormson

                  Review By: GREG ORMSON



The Cool Threat of Death (or loss) in All Things





Father, Tell Me I Have Not Aged by Russell Thorburn. (Marick Press, 2006) 99 pp. $14.95 (paper) ISBN 978-0-9779703-6-0 (review 2,206 words).



You can imagine the poetry in Russ Thorburn’s latest work Father, Tell Me I Have Not Aged, if you can fathom poems set to attack, or at least expose the myriad complications of the generation gap. “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” While that’s from Chapter 31 of Jeremiah, the sentiment is expressive of these poems from Thorburn.


I can’t help but think back to my study of theology, over 25 years ago, listening to one of my instructors discuss the correlation between sin and the generation gap. Those words must have stuck, because here I am, nearly 30 years later, thinking back to the correlation of sin and generational tension when reading these poems.


These poems feed you with a large dose of yearning for innocence mixed with a liberal dash of courage. Note well Thorburn’s hefty presentations of cultured intellect, mixed with existential honesty, and you have 57 poems begging for you to peel the onion one layer at a time.


Thorburn wants to go back to a time when all things were innocent and good; but the reality is that they never were. Our memories trick us; however, those tricks serve us too, for they are the necessary deceptions that help us stay with the journey.


By the third poem in this collection, innocence is notably shattered when in “Renoir’s Nude and The Gentle Thief,” Thorburn and a friend are robbed of a Renoir print they bought at the downtown Detroit art museum. That’s life. The cool threat of death (or loss) in all things.


Yes, memories trick, and the author acknowledges that when he thinks back to that theft in about 1973. “…He was a gentle / thief; he blocked the cars, / shoulders lifted to the honks. / I made him gentler than he was / because he was stealing something / from us, young and in love.”


Seldom does Thorburn expose self-consciousness. His point of view is often third person, as when sketching out one of Einstein’s silent tasks in “At the End of a Pencil the World Was in Jeopardy.”



Overlooking a sleeping street;

he crawled through formulas

that flashed their lyric


across an evening sky

and bent over numbers,

his hair in his hand still brown


while long after his wife’s departure

the hands of a clock

clasped together in thought,


his physics jotted down

in the shorthand of genius

that erotic quivering.



In both this volume, and in Approximate Desire (New Issues Press, 1999) Thorburn delights in presenting, via the rope-a-dope technique of Muhammad Ali, Albert Einstein and his wife Mileva. He lets us get very close to Albert, Mileva and their humanity, and then suddenly puts them out of our reach.


But in “A Cemetery as a Place of Culture,” we find Thorburn’s rare and energizing self presentation. “I have read everything before. / This cemetery, I know, has boundaries / but I wander around, searching / for ways to escape my death.”


Just in time to remind you of your mortality, Thorburn presents that thanatos instinct in word and image. Freud would have been thrilled by these poems for many reasons; central to Freud’s titillation would have been that  “Father” is the first word on the title page. It’s a key to unlocking these generational stories.


We read of broken lines between children and parents, yet while Thorburn repents of what wasn’t there with his own father, he doesn’t condemn his children to the same emotional distancing.


He writes of his sons trying to elude him. We ask why, but then it’s clear. He realizes that he has aged, and it’s a shock; therefore, while it’s possible physically to elude the father, and children work hard to do so, the impossibility of this idea becomes strikingly clear.


His boys climb high up a tree to escape him, yet like Icarus, their climb is doomed for they are rooted by that very same tree to the ground. It’s a description fit for generational tension which screams throughout this work.


It really doesn’t matter if the apple falls far from the tree or drops directly under the tree. None of us ever fully escape the father, even a no-damn-good father: perhaps especially a no-damn-good father.


In his first volume, we become comfortable with Thorburn’s piano, his sketches of Einstein, and his deft baseball insights. These seem to be his signature metaphors and they are here too, but they are not so much metaphors about music, physics, or games as they are about memories.


Ty Cobb and his racism are present, but in this volume it’s about the scars left behind by the non baseball playing Ty Cobb’s of the world.


Thorburn is excavating his story in a deeper and more personal way in this second work. The ragged cuts are not on the shortstops’ leg, as in Approximate Desire, but are paintings of his own psychic woundedness; a woundedness we all share.


This woundedness is personal, it’s real, and it’s more of us in the true human condition: ragged and confined to our slowly decaying bodies.


That’s why these poems are more risk and more triumph than solemn mass. They celebrate many deaths – mini deaths – highlighting themes of awe, terror, threat.


For the reader, there’s always the threat of the prisoner or the felon sitting in the writer’s classroom, the film noir of a sharpshooter who is willing and paid to mind meld some prisoner’s brain with his good aim and government issued bullet.


We read of the threat in a secret that Thorburn intuits his mother is holding, and we bow to a threat facing all of us: what you’ve loved will kill you.


This is most skillfully sketched out in “Listening to Jazz,” where Thorburn writes of jazz musicians Monk and Coltrane. He imagines them facing their threat in excruciating note, and not surprisingly, a ghost. This poem reminds me of a description I once heard of Flannery O’Connor’s writing: “It is not ghost haunted, but Christ haunted.”


          “…Monk plays in jumps

          on the piano, the world contained in fingertips

          full of tree root knuckles and lightning bolts.


          But reality isn’t always a rainstorm,

          or a man facing cool death in the key

          of B flat, after running home

          through the rain, his blue eyes peering

          deeper at himself, as he waves his tee shirt

          at the ghost who smiles sadly back.



The music illustrations here are more than metaphors. Thorburn himself is a musician, and an accomplished one, so they are equal to the task of carrying his story, or perhaps I should say, portaling his story.


Music is always in the background here, and while Debussy once said that what’s important in music is really the space between the notes, in this poet’s world, that space between is populated by Shiva. It’s a land and space of both destruction and creation, threat and renewal.


Consider the way these lines haunt us in their space between. The ghosts are present; these ghosts draw blood. “Because Company Kept the Beds Full We Slipped Into Another Room.”


       The floors damp, we stepped 

       into other rooms, one after another

       until a room of death revealed a piano,

       and I couldn’t resist the urge

       to sit down and play, my mother’s silence

       providing the notes. There I fashioned

       a melody, smooth and silvery,

       but jagged as broken glass.



Like the relationships revealed in this volume, their genesis is Thorburn’s museum within – it showcases a hurt excavated from the inside out. It feels much like a smoldering furnace, a beautiful journey, at once ragged and broken, visionary and true.


This journey’s Zeitgeist strikes me not as North American, but Eastern European, you come to suspect everyone is bound in sorrow with an occasional fleshy surprise.


Thorburn is, as they say in sports talk shows, “bringing it.”


Bringing what?


He’s bringing his guts and putting them out there. Nowhere is it more apparent and powerful than in these short lines from “For Those of us Who Have Lost our Jobs.” “On this day I have lost my job, / snow falls in judgment / of men who bow their heads / to the end, hurting from / the inside out.”


Poems don’t become real by dealing with anything other than reality. That’s what we have here, and we have them in accessible, formal language, thick in pathos. And while Thorburn is not dictating cures for himself or anyone else, he offers an unusual and striking reprieve for anyone needing it. “I want to heal myself with TV, / watch an actor’s cigarette gesturing / to a smoky trail of misery.”


Readers get their reality check in a poem about teaching in prison from “Moonlight Spills Crazy Upon you, Teacher of These Inmates,” “This is no allegorical place you walk, / no man reading by a fire / or musing upon suffering… “Nothing in here is not real.”


A poem about losing a job is not born from the storehouse of American optimism, it’s not part of Republican fluff or the middle class expectation for continual upward ascent; it is a Psalm of one who’s hurting from the inside out, been in poverty, taught in prison, and been in constant engagement with that which he loves: music, baseball, art, fatherhood.


In keeping with this analysis, it’s clear these are the things that will kill him and any of us who struggle with and love such tender, precise, and difficult living-arts.


There are many smoky trails in this text, both figurative and literal, so the overly optimistic types better know that if you go down them, you are really going down.


But this collection is not all gloom. Throughout we find the juxtaposition in faint rumors of love, as in “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.”


A woman poses a powerful two-word question to a spies’ self condemnation: “What the hell do you think spies are but seedy, / squalid bastards like me?” / And she asks, “And love?”…”


Organic to Thorburn’s story is his commitment to and firm grip on reality. These poems are steeped in his hard-earned guttural resistance, his fight against poverty, and his refusal to strike out at landlords, bill collectors, or seedy mechanics. Theological sophisticates will recognize this as the true poverty of spirit that the Gospels praise but at which the world scoffs.


Yet no matter how remote we may want to live, the stress units are always in the wings. Thorburn sets them up for us and we are invited to dialogue with his answers to them. It’s a rich dialogue after which you may find yourself waking in a sweat, dreaming of beautiful music and jagged edges.


Again from the teacher working in prison, he writes, “…the sharpshooter … who follows you in his sights …of the razor-wire fences / stuttering over unredeemable acts / with knives, handguns, even axes. / This is no allegorical place you walk.”


Do you now see what I mean? The theology is real, clear, and fiercely incarnational without having to encumber readers with the semantics of sin. The word is not mentioned, but sin and its correlate redemption abound.


These glimpses of life, especially when dealing with mother and forced haircuts, are not all pretty, but as in Approximate Desire, the grief ebbs and flows with the years. 


We see both distance and closeness: sons, father, mother, Albert and Milerva, you and me, we’re all sketched in these pages and the vision is not a simple Tragicomedy; it’s a sublime gut check for the courageous reader.


Most poems in this book are stunningly good, but a few I didn’t like. For example, “Fields of Erasure” is a very sane description of a man pumping gas and standing in the snow. I hate doing that myself, so I really don’t want to read about someone else’s misery when pumping gas.


You must remember though, that Thorburn lives in Upper Michigan, and while it’s the context of his art, don’t underestimate that it really is a land where brutal winter, like Blake’s Rintrah, roars.


On some poems, I wanted them to end a couple lines before they did. This happened with me on “Eviction,” “The Haircut,” and “Waiting for the Bus,” but I’m nitpicking.


For the purist looking to find formalist rhyme or structure, it is not overt in these poems with the exception of the perfect word at the precise moment; English formalism and authority in this volume lies not in measured structure but in the sustaining dignity of Thorburn’s story and lyric.


Former Major League Baseball Commissioner Bart Giamatti once said that people love baseball because it provides the “stable artifice” of clear rules in a changing world. Thorburn’s voice is that stable artifice here, and while he doesn’t want to keep aging he will and so will we.


Go ahead, peel the onion page by page in this book, but don’t be surprised if as you peel, you also weep.