In the presence of something awe-inspiring, whether it’s music, painting, theatre, dance or writing, one part of me looks for design while another just surrenders. I experienced both impulses reading Russell Thornton’s The Broken Face: it was so beautiful I had to surrender, but I also had to seek a design so I could comprehend its beauty.
The cover of Thornton’s book is a detail from a painting by Umberto Boccione called “Dynamism Of A Man’s Head” (1913), and like the design in this painting, Thornton’s four suites of poems present the fractured panels and exploding fragments of male consciousness and unifies them in a suspended coalescence, a breathtaking portrait of male longing, fear and love. The Broken Face is alternately disturbing, moving, edgy and uncomfortable and, in the end, entirely human. As the Cubists themselves attested, art should be about volume, and The Broken Face has a density that Albert Gleizes and Jean Metzinger imagined in their essay “Cubism,” published a year before Boccione painted this image. They were writing about a breakthrough in Cezanne’s work, “which departing from Courbet’s superficial realism, plunges… into profound reality, growing luminous as it forces the unknowable to retreat.” Similarly, Thornton’s poems force the unknowable to retreat.
The four sections open with a sequence of eleven poems that focus on anger, confusion, sorrow and an omnipresent violence. In “Open,” the “oncoming wild eyes / of the fish staring straight into the first rays of the late summer sun…” are the same wild eyes of the young men who fish them and who swim in a legacy of alcohol abuse and risk that is just this side of the law. In “Driving,” another anxious young man confesses: “I am imitating a life, I am trying to do things right. Today and every day.” The unknowable, in both instances, is the paradoxical lure and repulsion of the violence just beneath the surface of everything that threatens these men.
In the second section, some of the roots of this anger, violence and confusion are situated in family dynamics passed on from father to son to grandson. “Soccer Ball” is one of the most astonishing portraits I have ever read of what some fathers accidentally pass on to their sons: “I have not yet observed my father in his fury / circling around and around the morning lawn, / or the policemen arriving in flashing cars to take him away.” But these inheritances and legacies are both loving and terrifying. In “Teeth,” Thornton admits: “What we cannot know is what we most are.” And in “Question” a young father is so afraid that he stares at his six-year-old daughter and admits his attempts to safeguard her are qualified:
that when she dies I will not be there to grieve―
and my daughter is a song and I am a leaf
that falls and watches itself fall.
Such is the abundance of Thornton’s vision that he unifies this awareness of violence and fear with the love that is also a vast and natural part of these legacies. In “Cart Riders,” someone watching a group of cart riders bolting down the risky streets of North Vancouver contemplates his own perception: “Who will drive his cart straight to paradise? / Who will know God in the air rushing against him?” and in “At Safeway,” another observer, held spellbound by a group of customers looking out for a befuddled elderly woman seeking an elusive grail of laundry soap, wonders how they, too, have all been altered by this mythical exchange: “we leave and go out into the broken / aisles of the large parking lot, the streets, / the sidewalks, each of us mortal again.” Forcing the unknowable to retreat, these are stunning poems.
John Lent has published ten books of poetry and fiction and non-fiction. A new book of poems, A Matins Flywheel, will be released by Thistledown Press in 2019. He is also a singer-songwriter whose latest CD is Strange Ground. Lent lives in Vernon, BC and is part of a lively writing community there.
ARC HITS THE HEART HARD.