Russel Thornton’s The Hundred Lives was shortlisted for the Griffin Prize. His Birds, Metals, Stones & Rain was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award and Dorothy Livesay Prize. Other collections include The Broken Face andAnswer to Blue. His new book isThe White Light of Tomorrow (Harbour Publishing, 2023).
The White Light of Tomorrow showcases intense lyricism and a distinctive imagination. The pieces here enact a visionary movement between the element of water, where the poet wakes to “the aloneness of water,” and the phenomenon of light, where he comprehends “light” as “fate” and “love” as “memory of light.”
Interview by Robin Dyke
Robin Dyke (RD): The White Light of Tomorrow is your most recent book, the ninth of a masterful and acclaimed poetic output— how do you position it within the range of your previous collections?
Russell Thornton (RT): This book is the end for me of a long phase that began with my Birds, Metals, Stones & Rain and continued through The Broken Face and Answer to Blue. In these collections, I’ve been trying to engage as fully as I’ve been able with what I see as the elemental strata of a human being. This has meant writing poems about my childhood, my forbears, my adult relationships, and my own children, and exploring themes that I’d say have to do with familial and romantic love, death, memory, and beauty. I suppose in terms of style, I may have gotten a little more adventurous — freer, maybe — in The White Light of Tomorrow than in the previous books I mention. In any case, I view these four books as four parts of a whole and my current book as a final movement.
RD: To me your table of contents itself seems a poem of largely one-word stanzas— an autobiographical code, or am I reading too much into this?
RT: The table of contents of The White Light of Tomorrow isn’t any sort of code — but I did try to take care with the ordering and sectioning of the poems and it’s fascinating to me that you should make this comment! As intractable a substance as language can be, to my mind it’s also a liberating symbolic system, a magical code. Poetic language is a kind of ceremonial code for deep power, I feel; it allows access to levels of alertness that are at once visceral, animal — and spiritual. And I think an individual human life can be seen as a code — a code of consciousness, say — for experiencing creative vitality and its continuum with death.
RD: I was moved by the pairing throughout the book of the poems of your relationships with your mother and father, perhaps not a nestling yin and yang but a recircling one, a bringing together with yourself in the middle it seemed none-the-less— could you please comment on how you see what you have structured in this regard?
RT: One of the things I did in fact want to do in this book was circle and re-circle through images of my mother and father. I often see a poem as conducting a circumambulation — a circling through images and sounds around an unfathomable centre. In the context of the entire collection, in circling through poems and sets of poems, I wanted to enact a wider circular movement. I meant for a narrative to arise — an overall story with action and complications and conflict and hopefully a resolution containing implications of transcendence. In the poems about my parents, my mother is my mother, of course, but also a symbolic figure and a locus of imagery mostly of water and forms of water that begin each section in the book. My father is my father, of course, but also a symbolic figure and a locus of imagery of darkness and light that ends each section of the book. There are additional figures and associated imagery of water and darkness and light within each section of the book — having to do with my childhood or early adult life, for example — but yes, I do mean to investigate mother and father figures in a circumambulation of sorts. I’d like to think the book proceeds as a circling and re-circling through the same symbolic figures in each of the four sections of the book and that the energies of these figures are taken up in a larger story or drama.
RD: The ‘Song of Songs’ epigramed poems I take relates to love and loss outside of your relationships with your mother and father, a contrast and affirmation of the possibilities of following your yearnings?
RT: The poems with prefatory quotes from the ‘Song of Songs’ are excerpts from a manuscript about the “Song of Songs’ that I’ve been working on for a few years. I inserted them into The White Light of Tomorrow because I felt they fit in the book as intimations of a series of events running parallel to those in poems featuring mother and father and child figures. My idea was that they work as personal imaginative responses to the mythic-erotic drama of the ‘Song of Songs’ and, yes, evoke loss, union, and transcendence in the theatre, so to speak, of romantic love. I’ve been fascinated by the ‘Song of Songs’ for a long time. Almost every Hebrew word in the Song radiates multifaceted significance, it seems; the lines unfold their sounds and meanings in verbal beauty that I’d say is matchless. The Song really is a “code” that opens inner doors through the erotic into the metaphysical and the mystery of the divine. The only near-equals in literature that I’m aware of are Hafez’s Divan in classical Persian and Dante’s Paradiso.
RD: You’ve written this collection in a variety of poetic forms that work very naturally with your content and its flow, all of which for me was only noticeable when I stepped back— is this something that you have to think a lot about or…? Has form always been this way for you?
RT: I don’t think a lot about form, to be honest. I suppose that’s to say that I never start a poem with a form in mind. I try always to be faithful to what comes to me — whether it’s an image, metaphor, line, or sense of an overall sound — and go from there. If what comes to me seems to ask for some sort of form, then I follow on with that form. In this book, there’s one obvious instance of the use of form —the poem “A Dance.” It’s a villanelle. Well, it’s only a very rough villanelle, as it has no rhyme scheme and isn’t written in iambic pentameter! The poem seemed to me to call for that bit of attentiveness to a traditional form. Other than “A Dance,” the only use of form in this book is two-line stanzas in several poems and consistent numbers of lines in stanzas in some poems. I suppose it’s a pretty basic use of form, but it helps me — yes, with content and flow. I’d say also that it’s my way of keeping verbal (and emotional!) control in a poem and maintaining what I’d call dramatic organization.
RD: Could this collection relate as a progress report, one that suggests you’ve found your own level, Roethke’s “the white light of tomorrow” being the representation, not unlike Cavafy’s “Ithaka” (which I understand is a poem you relate to) of that hope that is searching us as much as we are searching it, and will not disappoint? As an aside, might there be a bit of ‘I saw the light’ (Hank Williams) within The White Light of Tomorrow?
RT: I like your idea of a book being a progress report! At the same time, I’d say the idea of “progress” begs a lot of questions. I suppose in the great poem “Ithaka,” though the framework is one of giving advice (I think the speaker is likely speaking to himself) about how to proceed along the road of life, one of the things Cavafy is doing underneath it all is responding to questions. For my money anyway! Speaking of Greek literature — I also like that you mention the word “hope.” Euripides” tragedy, Alcestis, one of my favourite plays, ends with this word. It seems to me to be the bedrock life-affirming end consequence of human suffering and questioning — that one word. I don’t know what there is beyond it. With Roethke, to tell you the truth, I’m not perfectly certain what he means by his phrase, “white light of tomorrow”! But it attracts me. In my own life, I might find my own “level”, so to speak, as water does and as the spirit of my mother does — or my sense of her anyway — in the poem you’re referring to (“Level”), but only fleetingly. It seems inevitable in my writing life or inner life for that matter that a goblin comes up before I get hold of a message per se. It scrambles up the air right in front of me — a riddle of light and darkness! So, as far Hank Williams songs go, I must admit, I like “I’m So Lonesome I Could Die” or “Your Cheatin’ Heart” more than “I Saw the Light”! I’m afraid I’ve never even glimpsed any light of religious conversion!
RD: You’ve mentioned you started writing poems when you were about nine, what was it that got you started and what has kept you at it? And how do you stay fresh?
RT: I fell in love with words at an early age. Poems gave me a strange hypnotic pleasure and I sensed they were, as I later read Robert Graves call them, “stored magic.” I was mesmerized when my maternal grandmother, who had a gift for metaphor and a wonderful lyrical ear, would visit my three brothers and me and recite her own poems and stories or recite famous poems she had memorized. I suppose hearing her was what got me started with writing poems down on paper when I was around nine. That and becoming an enthralled reader. I started saving poems I’d written and sending them out to literary journals after I met Irving Layton when I was 19. Layton’s personality and the power of his poetry held me and motivated me to try to produce poems in a committed way. I took a course with Layton in Montreal and in the years after that, we became friends. A single word of encouragement from him in a letter or a phone call would keep me going writing-wise for months. But what has most deeply kept me working at trying to write a decent poem is sheer desire. The heightened, incantatory language of the greatest poems in the language — those “miraculous interlacings of sound and sense” as Layton called them — never ceases to work its magic on me. A great poem literally leaves me speechless; it evokes a silence in me. It also produces a feeling in me that I’m changed — that I’m no longer who I was before I read the poem. I never tire of this experience. I’ve continued to have the feeling with great poems that I’m being permitted to listen in on an eternal moment, a verbal act that reverberates through time. In my own limited way, I’ve always wanted to enact the same sort of thing! I haven’t yet written a poem that speaks for me, to be honest. I’m still trying to log rhythms I hear in myself but haven’t succeeded in getting out on the page. As for what the words might “say” I can’t claim I’ve gotten anywhere near what I imagine on that front either. Though I can’t say I’m sure what it is I want to say! It’s a mystery to me. In any case, I keep my hand in. It’s a necessity for me. I don’t know whether I stay fresh. I hope so! But I know my love for reading and trying to write poetry stays fresh.
RD: What are you working on at the moment?
RT: These days I’m working on a manuscript I’m calling “The Nth Adam.” It feels different, a new operation, really. The poems seem to me to be more natural sounding, more unchecked than the poems in my previous books. The imagery is more instinctive and associative. Also, I seem to be writing a lot less about family members or other people and more often about a lone speaker in the natural world.
RD: Your imagery in “The Sea Wolf in the Stone” pictured an Emily Carr painting for me (as well as search and connection)— might this be one of the poems you have in mind to read during the Festival’s Forest to Poet/Tree Walk that features you as one of the Poets? Perhaps “The Name of the Creek” another?
RT: I hadn’t thought yet about what I’d read at the Forest to Poet /Tree Walk event, to tell you the truth. I think I’ve been putting it off because I didn’t know which of my poems might be appropriate! But what you say sounds good. Thanks for the suggestions!