Russell Thorburn

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Father, Tell Me I Have Not Aged

Misfit Hearts

The Whole Tree As
Told to the Backyard

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Her Voice in the Shape of a House

The yellow piano
naked without anyone’s hands,

a light bleeding through the window
gleaming unmercifully,

and the son watching for his mother
to swoop down onto the bench,

her Japanese robe opened
at the waist, but he never looks.

The lampshade glows with amethysts,
and there is a bomb ticking

upstairs in his room, the noise
so loud he can hear it downstairs

in the parlor, where he imagines
his mother swinging her hands

out in Beethoven, shaking
the walls with her bony-fingered

beat—an armchair for him,
with a light blue satin—upholstered

and facing the way she leaned
forward. The son could never

get enough, and now she’s gone,
the piano with dust on the keys,

sunlit and dangerous, her memory
refusing to settle,

her voice in the shape of a house
as he enters her rooms,

the yellow piano dreaming
of her fingers, wanting that pressure

upon the keys to fit this silence
ticking away, any unexpected

sound about to blow up
everything that was never said.


Playing Piano with John Woods

We played piano together, huddled
near that river of notes splashed out

by his horn of fingers, brothers
finally shoulder to shoulder

at his house during a party.
After all those pianos made us love

women, we listened to the B flat
notes become dark tusks of sound,

too hard ever to dream of that
wilderness again. But they encouraged

the next drink after the poetry reading,
and for us to remain at that piano

with its magnificent torso
like a woman, whose melodies

we coaxed out of its body like some
great Tahitian spirit of Gauguin.

Sexy notes, heavenly ones
of a nervous storm over the keys,

as if this night would be washed
away by too many drinks and fatigue.

Where is John Woods now,
Julie Moulds, small temptress

who read poetry that wintry night?
I want them to come back

and hear us play—Dave Marlatt
reciting Dylan Thomas, Jonathan Johnson

combing his loss with laughter,
John Rybicki with his hammer heart;

all faces of friends watching me open E flat
into this black flower, John Woods

stumbling sometimes with his horn,
the notes hard to play if you are wearing

antlers on your wrists and disease
hardening everything in you but song.

I first fell in love with Russell Thorburn’s poems because of their wild sense of invention, poems that liked to play with history and time, that liked to take such public figures as Ty Cobb and Apollinaire and place them into strangely contemporary situations.  There was something of the ‘never before’ in these earlier poems that Thorburn seemed to be pulling out from thin air, a sleight of hand poetics that seemed to be hiding up his magician’s sleeve.  Of late, in his last two books, Father, Tell Me I Have Not Aged and here in his latest, The Whole Tree as Told to the Backyard, Thorburn has turned away from persona and invention in favor of the deeply personal, the skinlessly domestic—the tensions of the marital bedroom, the desires that still burn for other lovers, other lives—and although it’s difficult to say if Thorburn is inventing a personal past or drawing from it, the end result is that the feelings behind these new poems are authentically and emotionally true and that the hard truths that the poet is making point to a life that is turbulent and trembling with familial unrest.  To read these poems is to encounter the heart of a man that is shaped by the ache of longing and driven by the insistence to go on living and loving even though it might be easier to surrender to the silence and indifference of inarticulation.  These are poems of the first order, made out of the Beckettian mustness—I can’t go on, I must go on—that resides on the flipside of can’t.  And I’m happy that he has, that Russell Thorburn did.

--Peter Markus
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