Russell Thorburn paints with his poems. Based on both personal and imagined experiences, his numerous collections of poetry are full of intimate portraits that are brought to life by his deliberately unadorned and carefully crafted lines. He not only writes actively, but has taught poetry in schools throughout Michigan’s Upper Peninsula since 2000, and is currently teaching English at Northern Michigan University in Marquette, where he lives with his wife and three sons. He has also worked in the past teaching poetry to prison inmates, and currently provides his own editing service for aspiring poets. While Thorburn often brings his personal life experiences into his poetry, he also employs characters ranging from the French poet Guillaume Apollinaire to Albert Einstein to Henry Zender, his own great-grandfather, as well as men and women of ambiguous identity who are rooted in the every-day experience of the world.
This focus on the experience of the individual is an essential part of Thorburn’s style. His poems are contemplative in nature, taking the individual subject and delving into their thoughts while using subtle, yet very real landscapes as a backdrop. In “After the Game,” a baseball player stands alone at home plate in an empty ballpark, disgraced and ashamed after losing a game for his team. He first dreads the trip back to his home town and the home fans, envisioning “the grave already dug for his mitt,” then recalls the moment in which he failed, “his body exploding against the billboard, / the ball dropping before him on the grass.” The poem ends with the player raising his arm up with a forlorn sense of hope, “as if at the last minute he could catch something / other than a janitor mocking him with his broom.” Another poem, “Apollinaire in the Midst of Bombardment” depicts the French poet in the trenches of World War I surrounded by the violent reality of battle. But while the explosions rock the earth around him and “the mud flowers at the bottom of the trench” Apollinaire muses upon scenes of serenity, things of beauty like “a garden in Montmarte,” “black stockings / brushing against roses,” and poetry, “how you start with a blank page.” These pleasant thoughts, however, can do nothing to stop the shells from falling, so he is left to “stare into a muddy mirror / and wonder why each glint of fire / erases my face.”
Both of these poems are exemplary of this aspect of Thorburn’s style in that they are contemplations born out of individual experience. Both the unnamed baseball player and Apollinaire are forced by circumstance to dwell on their respective pasts and come to terms with the situation at hand. The ball player knows that he has made a grave mistake and that his career may be in jeopardy, and Apollinaire knows that the war-zone he finds himself in is a long way from the pleasant recollections of his pre-war life. However, the characters do not resign themselves to a defeatist attitude, but instead embrace in honest acceptance the hand life has dealt them.
Such frank honesty is another remarkable quality of Thorburn’s poetry. His poems are highly accessible primarily because they do not need to rely on lofty allusions or complicated metaphors to convey feeling or meaning. When Thorburn does utilize comparison as a tool, he does so with language that makes up in grace and power what it lacks in complexity. For instance, in “When Mother Was My Age,” a silent, emotionally closed-off father is said to resemble “a house unpainted, its windows / unable to be opened.” In another poem, “Leaving the House,” a woman who is watching her possessions being carried out of her home by movers stands in the rain and “twists an umbrella like an instrument / she can poke God awake with and quiet / his laughter in the thunder.” The characters in Thorburn’s poems also possess a frank conveyance of honest feeling that the reader cannot help but be moved by their reflections. In “Henry Zender Sees His Wife in a Coffin,” a husband stands by his dead wife’s coffin and is wracked by a sense of guilt at having not been as good of a spouse to her as he should have. He sees in her face and upon her mouth a silent accusation: “I would say it for her: ‘You were never / good enough for me.’” In another poem, “Moonlight Spills Crazy Upon You, Teacher of These Inmates,” the speaker does not attempt to hide his fear at being inside of a prison and facing a crowd of inmates, but rather admits it plainly, acknowledging that “Nothing in here is not real.”
The frankness of Thorburn’s poetry is also evident in the way in which each individual poem seems to progress in the manner of a film, as though the scene within unfolds right before the eyes of the reader. A good example of this is the poem, “Ambassador Bridge,” in which the speaker describes a journey across the Ambassador Bridge from Canada to the United States. The way the lines move the action gives the poem a visual, story-like quality:
We were stopped
coming back to Detroit from Windsor,
our trunk searched, revealing dirty
laundry, a bag of detergent the officer
thought was drugs. We laughed
until he wanted to know her age.
Of all the components of Thorburn’s style, the use of memory as a reoccurring device and theme is perhaps the most apparent and pervasive. Often, the subjects of poems are depicted in contemplation of the past while in participation with the present, and the evocation of memory is shown to have the capacity to draw forth from the individual a wealth of different emotions. “The Widow’s Secrets” tells of a woman who sits alone in her house, made restless by the memory of her dead husband and
his t-shirt dirtied, a tattoo
swirling out of a carnival night,
his sweet words smelling
too much beer.
She tries to forget him and “stares into the blank TV / for wisdom, but finds / her own image drowning in black”. In another poem, “Eviction,” the speaker creates powerful images concerning the memory of place, recalling a house where he and his family once lived:
We sneak back at night sometimes
to stare at the windows
like bare backs, no curtains anywhere,
and I remember scrubbing floors inside,
the bed stretched like a page
where we wrote with our bodies.
Here I was author to my children,
their faces beginning to form
when my wife’s tongue met mine,
the dark even dimmer
when we stalk our yellow house.
Both of these poems evoke the image of darkness, the woman staring at her blank TV screen and the husband and wife staring at their old house in the dark of night. In each case, memory is powerful enough to remind, but not to resurrect, and it is in this way that Thorburn portrays the concept of memory. In dealing with it in his poetry, he is human enough to acknowledge that memories can both enamor us and haunt us, and wise enough to admit that though the past cannot be erased, it is in the present where we must live.
A final characteristic of Thorburn’s style is his simply crafted lines in which absolutely no words are wasted. Reading through his work, it is easy to see a careful dedication to revision and word choice in order to make each line as powerful and effective as possible. Nowhere in Thorburn’s poetry is this more readily visible than in a poem entitled “Lesznianska Street Piano Lessons,” which is a mere four lines and sixteen words long:
My piano teacher
holds his hands
so still, it is the rest
of the world trembling.
The poem at first appears ridiculously simple, but a patient reading shows the strength of each of the sixteen words, and how they all work together to create such a beautiful and lasting image.
Russell Thorburn’s dedication to poetry reveals itself in the striking honesty and well-crafted simplicity of his work. His love for writing and teaching poetry has manifested itself in a variety of environments, but he is steadfast in his mindset that “I have certain standards that I uphold in any class I teach. I just use different methods. It doesn't matter if it's the prison or NMU, or anywhere else.” Surely these are standards to which Thorburn also holds himself, as his body of work is most certainly representative of the beauty, grace, and truth which all poetry seeks to attain.