This article originally appeared in issue 36 of American Poet, the biannual journal of the Academy of American Poets. To subscribe to American Poet, become a member online.
|Photo by Brian Palmer|
In the center of a pale room in London's Tate Modern, Constantin Brancusi's sculpture glows, a polished bronze oval set atop a polished metal tray. "What?" we wonder and, drawing closer, find our answer in the placard: "Fish." The word supplies the context and, delighted now, we supply the rest, the absent head and absent flashing tail, as the fish leaps from the tray's reflecting pond. "If I made fins and eyes and scales," Brancusi wrote, "I would arrest its movement and hold you by a pattern, or a shape of reality. I want just the flash of its spirit."
Brancusi's fish enters that pale space the way poetry's most honed lyrics enter thought: distilled and seamless, their immediacy achieved through suggestion, through the weight of what's withheld.
Walking through the Tate that afternoon, I had Jonathan Thirkield's The Waker's Corridor much on my mind, its mysteries and complexities, its multiple time frames, voices and psychic states. I had just selected the book for the Walt Whitman Award and I found myself defining it in terms of Brancusi's fish. Thirkield's poems, stemming from an impulse for essence similar to that of Brancusi, nevertheless texture and pattern that essence. The texturings, however—the details—are not those that support narrative, as the details of myth-driven sculpture, the marble arrows and folded wings, support narrative. Thirkield's myriad, haunting images result in layered lyrics, and the gathering of those lyrics results in a book shaped and enriched by the layered flashes of a singular mind.
We begin with "A perfect scene: a voice unwarrantedly / sweet exiting the shade: a man's red mouth / rough cheeks white skin:…Robert is my father he sings opera." In time, theatrical stages—and city streets—will fill the book, their characters, their dark comedies and frippery, but this opening, multi-part poem is an elegy, and its path into grief is the first of many corridors we'll encounter.
…he never was himself: we crowd in him:
icebulbs gathering on bluebells: woods
falling in a cicatrix of water: sugar to cake
this petal: this April snow: this winter
reclaims his sweetened life: the buds
recoiling in the shock of its art
show us that pain is candy on the harp.
—from "Under the Proscenium"
The lines excerpted above are followed soon by the book's title poem, which in part traces a young child's awakening consciousness, the data of the senses arriving in stark images: a lightening bolt, the aural rasp of seagulls, the tactile rasp of sand, a woman breaking an egg against a bowl rim ("a crescent crack smiles out / with yolk and silk"). And then we are off, reawakened to our own senses, as the book's poems offer their characters and journeys, their domestic scenes and proscenium-shadowed illusions. Vividly aware of the losses ensured by passing time—"I had a clock it woke all day"—Thirkield is no less aware of the imagination's powers of restoration, whether that restoration is achieved through dreamlike images:
There sat a little man like a silver birth tree.
A crowd in my ear where a woman with love would
Her voice sliding rum from a songbeaker
rang the rimed, gray, wanted glass
and sent me into a drying river.
—or through those of reality:
It is a slow spring. The sashes open.
He ties them down with linen, then takes
A few moments to engage his mistress.
Should she be drinking from a pickle jar?
Or piercing olives with his daughters' earrings?
No matter. It's Sunday. The martinis are dry.
—from "White Coves"
Restoration relies, of course, on memory—and frequent doses of imagination—and memory is always incomplete, fractured as jack hammered city streets ("Cutting through/the old cement took time. But quickly they/discarded every vestige, shard by shard.") And what of the newly constructed, so unblemished and, hence, unfamiliar?
…The spreader boxes kept each square
Minutely even, white, in perfect mean.
For many nights the lights would move from street
To street. And morning, in its uniform
Brightness, unveiled the clean geometry.
And as this order crept along the ground
Restlessly, we waited far away.
—from "White Coves"
Knowing that acts of restoration completed only through the imagination are "unset", unsettled, Thirkield stabilizes his poems through the use of formal constraints. The spreader boxes of meter, rhyme, and syllabics hold some poems; others are shaped by something I hadn't encountered before, numerical coding: "Your Journey (4:111)"; "Upstate (7:127)"; "Commedia dell'arte (15:52)." The code quantifies the number of lines or stanzas in a poem, followed by the number of characters—white space not included—per line.
If you could run nimbly across the bridge, through
At Coney street, cutting past the Wyman's garden for
Hall, up Stonegate, circling the city to its center,
Unseen as a rabbit or mouse; if you knew the town
And if you were low enough and young—if you came
this way, you
May see, in passing images, the whole story told
—from "The Skinners' Play (19:50)"
At times, as in the lines above, the numerical constraint seems to disappear, absorbed by the poem's linear progression. At other times, its application results in a crackle of high enjambments and a jittery mystery:
Again, again the tree it bends, it
Shudders. Shut up already. Still
It. Four wedges will do. It's like
A table then? You're like a magpie
A jay. Babble babble. The mortise
Doesn't receive it like a tenon in
A dovetail. In, in, in, over, over
All this fitting for the pinners.
—from "The Pinners' Play (14:28)"
Perhaps because of his interest in consciousness and the fractured status of memory, perhaps as a means to control movement and tension across a line, or to enhance a line's musicality—perhaps for all of these reasons—Thirkield frequently uses the period to divide his sentences into islands. As with his use of numerical codes, the technique in places is absorbed by the natural pauses in a sentence's progression. Elsewhere, the unexpected punctuation, in quick succession, shatters then restores progress, as individual words or phrases bridge the broken:
It sweetens the ground. Outside. Among the low attendance of cars. When at dusk insects break from the tight wrappings. It trills.
—from "The Lilac (9:111)"
This technique underscores the book's primary endeavor: to recall and, through the act of recollection, reconstruct that which is lost. The Waker's Corridor begins and ends with elegies. Held by their parenthetical borders, the reader travels from places within the awakening mind, to actual, physical places of the world, and finally to the theater, that place both intensely physical and of the mind. As I have mentioned, the poems are rich with characters, voices, tonal shifts, and illusions, but as I finished the final elegy I felt that Thirkield had created, in spite of that flux—because of that flux—the complex workings of a single sensibility, as layered as the lyrics I'd read.
When I left the Tate that afternoon, London's infrequent sunlight was bright on the river. We could not enjoy Brancusi's fish there, I thought. It's brilliance would burn the retina. And I remembered the great Greek horses in the Basilica di San Marco in Venice. Their gilded bronze bodies were scored, especially on the muscular chests, which would have flashed down so seeringly into the eyes of uplooking viewers. Scratch line after scratch line. A texturing, to allow the eye to linger. And yes, as Brancusi feared, looking up at those horses we are "held by a pattern, a shape of reality." But the reality, of course, is a gilded illusion. Illusion scored--to allow us to linger on the textured shape of what isn't there. This, too, is Jonathan Thirkield's achievement.