Review by Maryann Corbett
THIS TIME TOMORROW
by Matthew Thorburn
The Waywiser Press
Bench House, 82 London Road
Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire OX7 5FN
2013, 96 pages, $18.00
First, the confession: I’m a timid traveler, the most stubbornly stuck of sticks-in-the-mud. That timidity might underlie my distrust of grant-funded travel for the purpose of writing poems. It’s a prickly resistance I feel even while I admit that gorgeous poems can result. All this should be laid out honestly.
I didn’t know, though, when I undertook to review Matthew Thorburn’s This Time Tomorrow, that I would be fighting past those prejudices—that I’d be reviewing a book of travel poems conceived during grant-funded travels to three countries. The knowledge I did have was the sort one gains gradually by noticing where, and how often, a poet’s name keeps showing up. I first became aware of it when Thorburn’s second book, Every Possible Blue, and my first were both brought out under the auspices of WordTech in 2012. And I remembered where I had already seen both the poet’s name and the book’s. In 2010, not one but two Thorburn manuscripts had been included in the longlist for the Anthony Hecht Prize awarded by The Waywiser Press. Every Possible Blue was one; This Time Tomorrow, now brought out by Waywiser, was the other. After a wait of eight years since the publication of his first full-length book Subject to Change, Thorburn now has two new books published within a year of each other, which is, as problems go, a pleasant one to have. There were some other tidbits I gathered: for example, that Thorburn is published widely and with distinction, and that he sometimes uses form and even rhyme, my great loves, as in this sonnet at the Poetry Foundation website. Oh, and that his day-job writing is related to the law, like mine.
But I’ll be looking in Thorburn’s earlier books for those matches to my personal taste in style and subject. This Time Tomorrow is all about the journey, in both the physical and the spiritual senses. Its summary notion is right there in the book’s epigraph, from Bashō: “Even in Kyoto—/ hearing the cuckoo’s cry—/ I long for Kyoto.” And it’s in a phrase embedded in one of the book’s long poems and attributed to the late poet Liam Rector: “… every poem says the same thing:/ My heart aches.”
The book is structured in three sections: the first focuses on Iceland, the second on Japan, and the third on a kind of head trip traversing China, Japan, the poet’s native New York, and the country of memory and history. The travelers are the book’s narrator (who seems to be the poet) and Lily, who is—we assume and deduce—the narrator’s wife, and whose background is Chinese.
These are details readers have to work out gradually, plunked down as we are at first, in “The Falcon House,” in mid-trip in Iceland—yet also somehow in the aftermath of the trip:
… This was before talk
of joining the euro. Before
Icelanders started blowing up
Land Rovers—don’t worry, I mean
their own Land Rovers—
for the insurance payday. One afternoon
in The Three Overcoats, we sat under
Gogol’s boyish portrait. Of course
everything’s different now. Years
gone by. That painting’s probably
been sold. No, that’s not right either—
The temporal backing-and-forthing are typical of conversational storytelling, but they also set us firmly in the book’s mood of uncertainty. The plain-spoken diction is characteristic of the Iceland section, as if the traveler were trying to keep a low profile. An inventive verb, as when seagulls “hitchcock/ around Lake Tjörnin,” stands out from the usual level. Characteristic, too, is the use of couplets and tercets not based on rhyme pattern or syntax, placed simply to slow and aerate the telling. Idea rather than sound is foremost here: one demonstration of how page-based the poems are is “The Trick with the Stick,” which uses almost concrete-poetic features of page and print to illustrate the motion and confusion of an arctic tern assault—features that would be challenging if not impossible to get across with just the spoken word.
Throughout the book, place names, geographical features, human foibles, and local food are the exotica that grab us and keep us reading, rather than striking uses of sonics or prosody:
Hard to imagine Bashō
died here in a rented room above a flower shop
in 1694, as I pause today
on Dotonbori Street, shoppers brushing past
on either side, to gaze
at the giant red mechanical crab
stretching its legs over the door
of the Kani Doraku seafood
restaurant, its eye stalks rotating in a breeze
too high for me to feel.
—“A Field of Dry Grass”
It’s a poetry of narration, sudden incongruities, and games of association, rather than of music or technical flash. An occasional internal rhyme appears; the roughly similar line lengths and numbers of stresses in poems like “Little Thieves” and “A Year in Kyoto” are as close as we get to meter. More often, there are interesting games played with line breaks and interstanzaic enjambments, and with repetitions in which meaning is made to shift, as it does here in “A Year in Kyoto”:
Gloria again, back at
the bar, somewhere
between past and present.
Or here in “The Falcon House”:
… So it’s the cold tap you turn
and wait on to get cold
not the hot to get hot. Got it? He had it
Or here in “Something to Declare”:
… But the young monk can’t let go.
He follows her into the world, gives up everything
he has to have her. He has to have her.
The jump-cut is the book’s most dependable device. The habit of moving in and out of the present narrative, to some associated thought or some earlier event, is a good tool for insinuating the traveler’s permanent sense of unease. The long poem “Something to Declare” is especially virtuosic in its jumps from an actual Chinese tourist destination, to an imagined tale of an old and a young monk, to conversations with poets and restaurants in Matanwan, to Count Basie playing in a bar, to the poet finally crossing Hudson Street in New York “to get on with the rest of my life.” Particularly in the book’s first and third sections, this is a poetry that does much of its work by ambush, the point of which is to keep a reader feeling like an outsider, a foreigner, a nonnative even of his own thoughts. No first impression is really to be trusted here:
Ash fell all night on the houses like snow,
I wrote, but with too fine a brush, like a cook
who turns away from the stove to wipe
his hands and catches some stray thought
(Mmm, paprika?) drifting across his clear mind.
Not ash, but tephra—soot, cinders, and grit …
—“Facts About Islands”
Thorburn especially likes to bring the reader up short with a shift of view from the exotic to the mundane, as in the ending of “How We Found Our Way,” or as he does here:
my last chance to see it
I see it—
Mount Fuji in the rain
no, that’s a billboard of Fuji
it disappears in the rain
That unaccomplished vision of Fuji, and the melancholy of knowing that nothing turns out quite as expected, are at the book’s emotional core, the spot where “my heart aches.”
The excerpt just above also demonstrates the one deep, decorous bow that the book makes in the direction of form: its middle section, “Disappears in the Rain” is constructed of short-lined couplets and tercets that suggest Japanese haiku and renga. They focus on single, tight images and are minimalist about such Western concerns as caps and punctuation. Their concentration and concision make this section the strongest one, for my money, and produce delightful metaphors like “the shikansen’s silver streak/ zips the sky to the ground.”
It’s an approach that feels very true to the pointillist nature of memory, to the way it records—unpredictably, unreliably—the merest crumbs of experience.
And the crumbs of beauty simply float past, never dwelt upon. “This is,” says Thorburn, “the built-in sadness of travel: you can’t stay here” no matter how you love it, and no matter how clearly you realize that your first understanding was flawed. From the book’s beginning, in the knowledge that the travelers’ ideas of Iceland were “all wrong,” to its end atop Mount Misen, where the promised view is “lost to us” and the travelers ask “Are we even here?” Thorburn’s poems ask basic questions about the encounter with the world and what it means. For me, the stick-in-the-mud distruster of travel, these travel poems have the right idea.
Maryann Corbett’s first full-length collection of poems, Breath Control, was published in 2012 by David Robert Books and was featured on the First Books Panel that year at the West Chester Poetry Conference. Her second book, Credo for the Checkout Line in Winter, was a finalist for the Able Muse Book Prize and was released in 2013. Her poetry has received the Lyric Memorial Award and the Willis Barnstone Translation Prize. Recent work appears in 32 Poems, PN Review (UK), and Modern Poetry in Translation (UK) and is forthcoming in Barrow Street and Southwest Review, among others. Maryann lives in Saint Paul and works for the Minnesota Legislature.