Iris Murdoch wrote that good art transforms the quality of our attention, comparing the difference of our attention in an art gallery to that of a showroom. Murdoch’s point is that we do not come to art to buy, but to behold, to experience something outside our own ego or lens of self—a thought that finds resonance in Matthew Thorburn’s seventh book of poetry, The Grace of Distance (LSU Press). Distance is an immediate force in the book, beginning with the first poem “The Call,”
Once a boy slipped
down a well in far
Anhui. He surfaced deep
in Mongolia, whispering
through his fever
of the vast, star-clotted sky
he swam beneath.
With this dreamlike, folkloric tale as introduction, the poem shifts from narrative distance to proximity:
Once I called down
into that dark glitter—
then cursed, then
bargained, then begged—
until someone called back.
When the narrating “I” joins in at line eight, the story of the boy falling into the well seems like not such a faraway tale after all, seems as though what happened to the speaker could happen also to the reader.
These lines invite their reader to pause and wonder at the wells (existential, narrative, historical) it is possible for any person to slip into, can we resurface from such slippage, will our calls be returned?
“The Call” is a relatively small poem at twelve lines and two stanzas, but it sets forward a rich concentration of image and a quiet tautness of line. The first line of the poem’s second stanza contains the conclusion of the poem’s second sentence, “he swam beneath.” The grammatical link between the two stanzas encourages a formal reading of call and response at the level of line and sentence: the poem’s narrator-speaker voices their own engagement with “that dark glitter” only after (and through) the relation of the boy falling from Anhui to Mongolia. The actions of call and response, and the related distance, are at the conceptual core of the collection—much like the bell at the close of the poem “Gray Light on an Unmade Bed,” hidden by the speaker in the tree’s hollow “just so someone could find it.”
Distance (and intimacy) is cultural, historical, and relational in Thorburn’s poetry, occurring between New York, New Jersey, and Shanghai; Vermeer and the shepherds in the Gospel of Luke, The Frick Collection, and Chuang Yen Monastery. Through this variety of encounters—geographic, artistic, culinary—Frank O’Hara emerges as a background ghost in Thorburn’s poems (alongside, one must add, the wintry perception of Wallace Stevens). One feels the ghost of O’Hara in Thorburn’s long, meditational poem, “Forgotten Until You Find It,” which takes place in the Frick during the speaker’s lunch hour. Thorburn’s poem begins,
How decadent to pay twenty bucks
and not even take off my coat
and stride past everything
else to look only at her.
But because she was there I was too
for one long moment
at the Frick as my lunch hour ticked away.
Because her eyes, where the dark
paint still looks wet, where still water
gleams in the deep
bottom of a well. Because the deep
shadow of her ear disappears in
except for the light
catching on that one bob of jewelry,
because the light catching her
lower lip, her open mouth—she’s about
to say or just said
what? Is she hopeful? Wistful?
Johannes Vermeer’s Girl With a Pearl Earring shines out from the poem, her one earring gleaming, the light so clearly that of the Dutch painter. The narrative gaze and musical tension in the above lines (served well by the couplet’s tight, unfurling form) falls somewhere between Elizabeth Bishop’s plunging attention and Frank O’Hara’s conversational tone. In an interview with poet Leslie Harrison in Memorious Mag, Thorburn notes his love for Bishop and observes, “I think Bishop sometimes conveys a feeling of intense, deeply felt emotion by seeming to hold most of it back, so that that restraint suggests the overwhelming emotion welling up behind her carefully chosen words.” Thorburn’s remark regarding Bishop finds an echo in his own work, and yet a strong thread in this collection—and this is related to the themes of distance/presence/proximity—are those moments when, as above, Thorburn’s speaker casts restraint aside and embraces the vulnerable “I,” as Bishop does, too, in her poems (for example, the speaker’s self-epiphany in “In the Waiting Room,” where she realizes: “I felt: you are an I, / you are an Elizabeth, / you are one of them”). In his poem “Birds before Winter,” a Stevensonian love poem, the speaker, “Dabbing lather across [his] chin,” pictures someone “bent low / over the tap, drinking from [their] cupped hands.” The address of the poem is intimate I/you, the scenes domestic, ordinary, filled with knowing details: “You probably aren’t even up yet. Hair a tangle / on the covers, eyelids made pale by the sun” and, several lines later, “You must be filling the red teapot / with water now, measuring green tea.” The poem presents, through a relationship, a navigational distance, even in its negations, “I look for you in all things that are not you. / The plate of milk, left by the cat, sours.”
“Birds before Winter,” gives its reader a conceptual and narrative anchor in intimacy, as opposed to the poem “‘Two Chinese Men Arrested for Stealing a Bridge,’” (another) faraway tale, which takes a newspaper headline as title. The speaker hypothesizes, “You’d like to imagine they did it brick by brick / over days and weeks, bolt by bolt // so no one would notice until it was too late.” Instead, the speaker imagines how the bridge theft took place in a terrain of “Shanghai sprawl” and construction scenes “roaring along,” wondering: “Who would stop to look back and remember / a narrow, hundred-year-old foot bridge?” The poem then shifts to,
stories of sheep herders who live
out by the farthest stretches of the Great Wall—
the parts no one visits, that protect
nothing from no one now—carting off
to build their own small walls, houses
or outhouses, a brick bed to keep their
sons warm through the dim winter.
History’s artifices are (understandably, the poem seems to suggest) deconstructed for more homely purposes, for the sake of human need. The poem’s speaker speculates that Wang and Hong, the bridge thieves, “who came east from Anhui, looking first / for steady work, you can imagine, // then any work, then any way to make money.” Time and industry compete with history’s monuments, and the speaker tells how the thieves, “now…known only / by last name, only in the newspaper,” disappear with the bridge. Yet the two men indelibly changed the landscape when they,
broke it apart, loaded up
the sixteen heavy stones and rumbled away,
a Qing Dynasty bridge dwindling to a few inches
of newsprint, an elbow of slow brown river
free now to reflect the stars you can no longer see.
“‘Two Chinese Men Arrested for Stealing a Bridge,’” even as it imagines (a verb used twice in the poem) several rationales for human taking, raises questions about who can take, or who should take, from a culture—the Qing Dynasty bridge, both image and reality of cultural theft. These are good questions for readers—especially white readers—to ask themselves when encountering work that prominently features other cultures, as Thorburn’s does. There is a great distance between the speaker’s world and the world of Wang and Hong; how successfully that distance is collapsed by the speaker’s comparison of the bridge’s removal with “the way a lifer might walk the yard / each day, whistling ‘Relaxin’ at Camarillo,’” or in the slippage to first-person plural at the narrative moment of industrial critique, “get rid of what’s old, tear it down, haul it / so we can raise another shiny glass tower—,” is a question of who the speaker is, and their individual relationship to China (and, more broadly, Asian culture). A parallel example might be that of Elizabeth Bishop, a poet who both carefully positions herself as a visitor and outsider in many of her travelling poems, and also translated many of the poets in whose country she spent time. The acknowledgement of having an outside perspective, and how that perspective is mediated, is something one wants to see even more clearly in The Grace of Distance (there are glimmers of it in the poems related to China and Asia, though the speaker emerges most clearly in relation to New York and New Jersey). The poem “At Chuang Yen Monastery,” a Buddhist temple located in Putnam County, New York, offers one geographical bridge between cultures and worlds, although its location is not mentioned in the book or footnotes. The poem’s haiku-like lines, “Not the moonlit gravel path / but the cool air caught / inside a stone for a thousand years,” have different readings depending on the geographic location of the monastery, as well as the speaker’s relationship to that location. What cultural meeting place are we, the readers, located in, reading the poem? Those in the cultural West, having historically taken so much from those in the cultural East, must ask ourselves these questions.
Some of the most poignant moments of the collection occur when the distance feels most authentically collapsed, when the speaker approaches the impossibility of the question that they term “the grace of
distance,” that is: “Who wouldn’t / sometimes wish to set your heart / aside and close that lid?” (from “Like Hours of Rain on Piles of Brown Leaves”). In such moments and poems, presence emerges as its own grace, as in “There and Not There,” where the speaker is “thinking about / the spirit, my spirit, wondering if // it was anything like the Holy Spirit.” The speaker recollects various images of the holy spirit—“a gush of air,” “a white bird,” “a tongue of flame / above a saint’s head.” The wrestling with translation in “There and Not There” feels close to the bone both in terms of language and experience— “it’s hard to know / how much makes it through translation,” says the speaker. Presence arrives most fully at the poem’s close, when, contemplating the name of “Holy Ghost” (which they note, “always felt / closer to the thing, that weird / mysteriousness, there and not there”) the speaker wonders,
A little spooky. Something speaks
through you. Makes you
its mouth. Speaking in tongues, some
folks call it. And then I thought about
my five-month-old son
and how late at night, when I
hover over the crib to watch him
sleep, he will suddenly raise his
pale matchstick fingers—his eyes
still closed—and brush my cheek.
In this moment, the speaker figures as a flame above the body of the sleeping infant, and describes their posture with that verb of the holy spirit, “[to] hover.” Their presence felt, the sleeping child responds, raising his hands to the speaker’s face. This shared moment of presence captures the many nocturnal intimacies of caring for an infant (and the ghostliness of the labor), but it also holds up what Thorburn’s poetry does best—engage the world with a serious attention and imagination, call into “that dark glitter,” and listen for a response.