Russell Thorburn

By Susan Kelly-DeWitt

I can’t remember how many years ago I first “met” Russ Thorburn (ten maybe?) but it was after I saw his ad for manuscript editing in Poets & Writers.

At that time I had a collection I had loosely titled “Eden Street” and, after some emails back and forth, I decided to send him a stack of poems, which he sifted and sorted into the draft of an early full-length collection. (I’ve written here before about how many of those aborted attempts I made over the years…) Anyway, Russ and I have stayed in contact (though erratically) ever since, and it turned out that my book, The Fortunate Islands, was published by Marick Press, which had also published his Father, Tell Me I Have Not Aged, a year or so before—it was in fact Russ who first suggested I try Marick Press; that suggestion resulted in a string of coincidences and in Ilya Kaminsky’s decision months later to go to bat for my book with Marick’s publisher.

But: back to Russ. I have kept track of his publications over the years since we first corresponded, beginning with Approximate Desire, published by New Issues in 1999. Since the book with Marick, he has published two others (both in 2009), which I want to write briefly about here. (Russ has also written and produced several plays, which you can read about on his website:

http://russthorburn.com/russell.htm

The Whole Tree as Told to the Backyard is an eccentric and ingenious little collection of poems—a big gift in a small package—a 5 x 6 paperback (reminiscent of the City Lights’ Pocket Poets Series) with a charming cover drawing by Bernie Park, who also appears in two poems between its covers. The blurb on the back, by Peter Markus, mentions the poems’ “wild sense of invention”; Marcus also notes that “it’s difficult to say if Thorburn is inventing a personal past or drawing from it.” That mystery is part of what makes reading these poems so engaging and surprising. Think of a Georges Braque painting in poetry—at least that’s my take—Braque bordering on surrealism. (From Wikipedia: “Braque described ‘objects shattered into fragments… [as] a way of getting closest to the object…’” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Georges_Braque)

To illustrate how Thorburn shatters his images into wholeness, here is a snippet from “The Snow Was Articulate” on page 46:

A snow with a nervous condition

reaching for upper registers or talking

about Varykino. Six o’clock

the moon said in its ghostly timepiece.

The snow implored you to use science

to explore why you hit the guardrail

to the abyss. You recalled the vertigo

and were overcome by the Russian poet

whose voice turned your head.

You have to love “snow with a nervous condition”!

The allusion in this excerpt is to Pasternak and his 1957 novel Dr. Zhivago, and to the subsequent 1965 film by David Lean—references that also reflect Thorburn’s lifelong interest in cinema. That said, I’ll let this be the segue to The Drunken Piano, his other 2009 collection, published by March Street Press.

Here from that book is the last poem in the first section, which takes its title from Bergman’s 1968 Swedish film:

Hour of the Wolf

The late hour of a man looking at himself

in the reflection of a bus window at three A.M.,

as he travels through the heart back

to her in spite of returning terror. Snow pounds

the bus as he recalls the mouth of Liv Ullman

watching her husband, Max von Sydow,

drive crazily around a canvas with a knife.

Snow scrapes the windshield faster

than the wipers can clear madness away,

and Lake Michigan lies frozen and smiling

between trees at the travelers, as the bus driver

sings a blues song. The young traveler

pictures a pregnant Liv Ullman with her

dramatic cheekbones. He sees his own wife

alone with their child, the man but twenty-five

feeling tightened by his wire-rims and anxious,

hoping he won’t lose everything.

A middle-aged woman asks for his destination.

He closes his eyes afraid to sleep because

of the weathered barns and veins, motels

peeled down to vacancy signs, all the yellow

lines we cross over in our sleep.


Drunken Piano, like so much of Thorburn’s work, is a crazy and invigorating drive through language and story (through history). It’s improvisational in the best way—it’s jazzy, and it also sings the blues.

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