Michael G. Smith Reviews This Time Tomorrow, Poems by Matthew Thorburn
First, the reviewer’s caveat: In addition to being a poet, I’m a scientist and a Zen Buddhist who wonders about the tricky medium called time in which we find ourselves. Scientist-me dwells in a reality where nature’s laws are impervious to time’s effects and are said to exist outside of it. Though feeling real, for most physicists time is an illusion akin to the Buddhist perspective that it’s a product of the mind, neither real nor not not real (yes, not not). You see the landscape I tread in.
With these views as a backdrop (or baggage?) poet-me ventured into the topography of Matthew Thorburn’s latest offering, This Time Tomorrow. Advance praise for the book, a finalist for the 2010 Anthony Hecht Prize in Poetry given by the Waywiser Press, says that it’s Thorburn’s search for his particular answers to age-old questions of why people travel. Furthermore, as Thorburn noted in the press release, This Time Tomorrow is about “finding your way in all the different senses of the phrase.” Thus, the book is also an exploration of the meanings of being in any one place at all, and of the traveler’s expectations and interpretation of the new based on the simultaneity of the past.
Ignoring the book’s poems for a moment, let’s consider its title. Does it mean, for example, 3 p.m. tomorrow or this moment in time I’m sipping tea in the tomorrow? Or in the past? Thorburn’s answer is yes. In a nod to Rilke (“The future stands still, but we move in an infinite space”) Thorburn clarifies near the book’s end in the poem “Something to Declare” as he describes the blind date with future wife Lilly:
my heart stuttered in my chest–hopeful,
hopeful. But it’s already 6:05. I’m late. The light
changes and I hurry across Hudson Street
to catch up with the rest of my life.
I move ahead of myself and this surprising, insightful book of poems; it’s time to back up. The book’s epigraph, Bashō’s haiku “Even in Kyoto– / hearing the cuckoo’s cry– / I long for Kyoto” informs us that the narrator will search and wander, his heart aching. Over three sections, Thorburn travels to Iceland, China, Japan, and elsewhere with Lilly. Beginning the journey in the volcanic and shifting Icelandic landscape, he weaves the present with past and future, wasting no time in telling the reader this is the unsettled way This Time Tomorrow will be. This from the first poem “The Falcon House”:
… Our last night there
we sipped our beers, split a plate
of plokkfiskur and a boy sat at the piano
and pounded out–“hey, isn’t it?”
–“Now’s the Time.” Once,
twice, once more. The only song
he knew? That bar was once
the king’s falcon house: I heard birds
still find their way there.
This pair of travelers do find their way from tiny towns: “There’s always a church” to Heimay and the lava flow that threatened its harbor in 1973, the telling told by a resident: “‘Twenty-five years later / and you know what? You can dig in that ash / and pull out hot stones. My wife bakes / steam bread in there.’” And into the growing chasm that will split Iceland:
The island’s coming apart at the seam.
We walked along
the bottom, deep in
the crumbly, scree-filled
rift. It grows
one centimeter wider each year.
The book’s pace is well-established in its first section: poems of unrhymed couplets and tercets intermixed with prose poems, all with attentive bits of history, food, culture, geography, and geology woven in and effectively jumbled about by jump-cuts of a mind wandering elsewhere, the reader convincingly placed in the narrator’s anxiety as he wanders into Japan and the book’s second section, “Disappears in the Rain”, a long discursive poem reminiscent of a scroll painting, the poet’s mind not so concerned with rhythm as it is with tone and ideas:
the commuter train pauses at Kishimizu
a white wooden platform tucked between trees
in our soup, mushrooms
like tiny white flowers
on long stems
we chopstick raw chicken
onto the stone barbeque
do I pay too much
to cook my own dinner–
but when will I be here again
as ever, the mind wanders
I wander after it
This tone poem, a search for the hidden, the obvious, and the spiritual to be found in Japan, continually echoes Bashō:
the trees take two steps back
what I’m doing here is honest
to God soul-searching
though who wants to call it that
in the public bath, I shower
on the afternoon train
can’t see Fuji
now hiking up Mount Misen
it’s too foggy to see the train
Knowing the train and Mount Fuji are somewhere in space and mind, we wander along with Thorburn confronting the simultaneity of all things happening at once and not happening at once, or perhaps not happening at all except in the narrator’s mind, the ebb and flow of “Disappears in the Rain” carrying us to the book’s third section and China and forays elsewhere, time-travelling from place to place:
… But the ceremony
took place in the dark
wooden shrine, where we weren’t allowed
to go–only family–so we
watched them walk in, then stood
on the gravel path: hands in pockets, ticking
watches, talking and sweating.
Someone fired up a smoke. A skinny boy
scampered past, late for the Yamakasa
Festival’s big race, and a bird
kept yakking about his idea
of happiness somewhere
high in the pines. High
in the pines, my mind wandered away
to that day we pulled off the Ring
Road, way north past Húsavik, to walk
the rocky ledge behind a waterfall.
How the water frothed and
groaned and dizzied us, gray turning
white turning green…
And how This Time Tomorrow dizzies and dazzles with twists and turns through the narrator’s now to his then to his might be. Thorburn’s book is a love affair with all three conceptions of time: real, not real, and imagined. For this I am glad, for that’s my experience, too.