Avoiding the Self Destruct


the arboretum towards the beginning,
Nathan Thompson
(74pp, 8.95. Shearsman)


Like Edward Lear, Nathan Thompson is lyrical and comical, tender and silly all at the same time. Here is Thompson's two-line poem 'casting calls are almost complete':

     the black cat in the arboretum is to be played by a black cat

     because out of all the applicants she was by far the most beautiful

And as with Edward Lear, the reader is seduced line by line and sweetly unexpected turn of phrase. It is a little like being lost in a gallery full of beautiful pictures. You have no idea where you're going, yet you don't really want to ever find your way out again, even though (or perhaps precisely because
) you have a thousand things to do back at home or the office.  Take this from 'for rain in the arboretum':

     ghosts of children flitting between branches
     on the wings of birds      so tired and crazy
     for a night in     heaven seems to be
     getting narrower      what with half-kisses
     missed and guilty     feather litter      which isn't an insult

Fairytale images are mixed with other, more sinister details which have all the conviction of a dream when you are in the middle of one: 'you chased me down to the apple blossom / where the heart-shaped child offered consolation / in the form of money for cigarettes' (from 'the arboretum towards the beginning').

Throughout, there is a haunting sense of loss and abandonment. The poems can be read as a kind of continuous, yet fragmented narrative, not unlike a series of letters addressed to someone the writer has lost but still hopes to win back, or, at times, to a part of himself he is trying to reach in vain. Yet there is no self-pity here, thanks to a delicious sense of the absurd, as in this excerpt from 'tracker action':

     do you think you could find it in your anatomy
     to forgive this caprice [...]

                                  the stars are bursting
     like a joke out of a can without a deadline
     and you seem to be using my name for something
    should I sue you all the way down the street

The sense of a narrative between the poems derives also from the recurrence of certain motifs, especially that of 'the arboretum', which comes across as a place which is beautiful and yet suffocating, a place whose heat and protection is vital for the survival of delicate existences, yet may destroy other existences at the same time. This is 'the arboretum towards the beginning' where anything may happen.

Thompson projects sadness and humour together onto situations which are both everyday and surreal:

     listen    the conductor has a purple rose in his lapel
     as this is a special occasion
                                                  and he smiles as he checks my ticket
     without grudge    he must be missing somebody terribly
     to be so polite [...]
                                    it'll all be over by the time
     we reach the tunnel     I'm looking forward to that
            (from 'projection digressions')

Besides the poems with their disjunct music and patterns across the page, there are a number of prose poems. Here the narrative is more straightforwardly linear. Yet at the same time, Thompson's delight in Learesque nonsense is just as pronounced, as in 'Isobel: A Novel':

     I did not know that Isabel had ever thought about the theology
     of beer but she is very versatile [...]

    "Likewise," Isobel continues, "beer often involves animals,
     including bishops, and thrives on their eccentricity, teeming with
     interest like medieval spit to modern science. This makes beer
     preferable to water, which is all but silent. And explains why
     Marxists value water over bishops."

Thompson is a poet who allows words and the music of words to create their own meaning, yet the poems are always delicately-balanced and carefully-crafted.  I had read and enjoyed many of his poems before in magazines such as nth position
and Stride, yet hadn't realised just how powerful and evocative they can be until reading them together in this collection (his first, by the way). Each time I go back to the poems, I find something new.

There are, as with any poet, moments of weakness. Usually Thompson is able to pull off the trick of staying just this side of sentimentality, but occasionally he crosses the line, for example, when he writes 'goodnight my love / I meant it all', which I don't think
was meant ironically. His abrupt tone changes, while normally successful, can cause his poems to self-destruct, as when he breaks off to say 'and i'm wondering again / this time about the near miss of the me/tree rhyme in lines 5 and 6'. I don't know if this is meant to be funny or post-modern or what, but for me he blows it here. At the other times, continual mention of 'the arboretum' can seem a little artificial, as if he is trying to impose a kind of unity on a fragmented work, when in reality the music of the poems and their themes are enough on their own to create this unity. But enough carping. Taken overall, the arboretum towards the beginning is a remarkable first collection from an important new talent.

            Ian Seed 2008