House Built of Rain

by Russell Thornton
ISBN: 1550172816

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A Review of: House Built of Rain
by Tim Bowling

Here's how Russell Thornton prefaces House Built of Rain, his powerful new book of lyric and narrative poems:

Somehow I hear oarlocks and a rocking rowboat
striking the side of the house. Now it seems
the front door is being tried, the back door. Who is it
rowing around the house in this flood, wanting in?
And now I know it is rain - but it is too late;
a whole new rain has swept in through the rain,
and that rain is a solitary infant journeying
in its tiny vessel, its ark empty except for itself,
come here to nestle at the house. . .

All the impressive qualities of Thornton's work are evident here: the fluid rhythm, the skilled use of repetition, the charged atmosphere of mystery and awe, the intriguing use of metaphor, the transcendent vision, the unsettling yet somehow consoling tone of melancholy, and, most importantly, the salmon-sensitive knowledge of his place, the shimmering, mist-haunted, ravine-cut city of North Vancouver. No other contemporary Canadian poet so successfully combines a powerful sense of geographic and spiritual belonging with an equally convincing sense of alienation. In poems such as "Heron", "The Gesture in the Creek", "Solstice Mist", and the deeply affecting sequence of elegies to his maternal grandparents, Thornton lovingly captures that shifting, at-once-Eden-and-lost-Eden quality of North Vancouver, bringing its creeks, ravines, weather and creatures vividly alive. Here, for example, is the opening to "Heron":

In the deep-cut, swerving ravine the hour before dawn. Creek more spirit than water
pouring white down the bouldery creek path
at arm's length toward me and past.

But then, as if in the very act of isolating the ephemeral nature of his home, Thornton transfers that nature to his travels, creating poems in which displacement is the keynote. "In the Sonora Hills", "Magdalena Dawn", and, especially, "Nogales Prostitutes", strikingly reveal the poet in the guise of a lost traveller always in search of something impossible to name, let alone grasp. In the latter poem, the speaker contemplates a trio of teenaged prostitutes in a Mexican brothel. Then, choosing to buy a bottle of brandy, take one drink, and walk outside into "the afternoon/the light glassy-red like a candy heart," he concludes:

The rutted road now sifted me,
each particle of dirt a skull's eyehole,
the pure depth of a gaze
robbing me of any direction I knew.

These four lines are as perfectly crafted, intense, and metaphorically startling as any I've read in years. The whole poem, in fact, is a triumph of condensed storytelling and imagistic exactness (the "kittenish, cute" prostitutes mentioned early on combine wonderfully with the innocent, "candy heart" description of the light near the end, just as the girls' pupils turn into the skull's eyeholes of the dirt). "Nogales Prostitutes", like so many of the poems in House Built of Rain, trembles with essentialness-one reads it at once comfortable and uncomfortable in the knowledge that the writing of it was no trivial enterprise, no last-minute workshop assignment polished up to meet the requirements of a creative writing degree. In fact, Thornton stands as far outside the institutionalized world (with its anti-lyrical and anti-narrative theorizing) as it's possible to stand. His work is refreshingly old-fashioned in the most honourable sense of the term-that is, it's fashioned from the old, built on a bone-deep sense of poetic tradition, unapologetic about its metrical borrowings from the King James Bible and its vatic indebtedness to a wide range of writers captivated by poetry as a form of prayer/worship/incantation (Blake, Yeats, Amichai, Layton, Lawrence, to name a few). Intensity shimmers in line after line. Here are a few of his immediately engaging openers:

Dawn a nullity at my side

More night on this night, more hours of darkness
("Solstice Mist")

On my knees in the cold grass, among the leaves
("Circle of Leaves")

My eyes open on his effacing glare ("The Shop")

I was walking and hurling myself and shouting a taunt

These are perfectly weighted lines that get right down to the business of the poem's core attempt to sort something out. One feels their authority and is drawn in as if on one of the poet's cherished ocean tides.
But what exactly is Thornton trying to sort out? Quite simply, he's seeking to place himself in direct relation to the fundamental mysteries, trying to work his way back to some purer origin: "I must still go down the inside of my spine, following/the fire back beyond its origin to where I am altar and prayer" is how he describes the journey in "House in the Rain". The language is often religious because the search is-what other name do we give to our affinity for solitude, romantic love, nature, if we don't call it God? Thornton's not afraid of that loaded word. Rather, he embraces it, turns it outward. People and animals regularly appear in his poems as either fellow pilgrims or those who possess the mysterious, sacred wisdom he's pursuing: a handicapped busker singing karaoke in the Seabus terminal, a disfigured Dublin fruit-seller who had "opened her mouth/as a prophetess might/to reveal divine will," gulls who are "messages sent from spirit to matter and back to spirit again": all life is bound to us, Thornton is saying, through this rapt immersion in creation and re-creation.
But if all this seems overly mystical, don't be misled. Exactly what gives Thornton's search for spiritual affirmation its absolute integrity is his clear-eyed honesty about poverty, violence, loneliness, and other forms of the dark. Lesser poets equate tragedy easily with Truth, and exploit the dark for cheap effects, wearing misery like a badge of honour. Thornton is far beyond all that tawdry hipness of mainstream culture. When he writes out of remembered pain, he does so with the gratitude of having come through. As he writes in "The Day of My Beginning", a moving consideration of his parents' doomed marriage:

I'll have to use whatever amount of spirit I have
to get through the next eight and a half years -
while they take their punishment and watch
what couldn't have lasted between them die.
I'll have to use more spirit than I have
to get through two, three decades after that.
But already, I'm the praise I'll utter.

But Thornton harbours no illusions either. He well knows the insistence of the dark, how it rears up from the past or suddenly breaks in anew. House Built of Rain closes, for instance, with these unconsoling lines:
To remember is to see inside oneself for the length of a life
lanes that will have always become empty of anyone.
It is to be an empty lane seeing an empty lane,
an emptiness remembering an emptiness.
House Built of Rain is so compelling precisely because of how it uncannily balances despair and ecstasy. When Thornton writes, "We are broken from a no one/and remade over and over again/into a no one," we believe him, just as we believe him when, in a burst of love for his failing grandfather, he promises "As long as I can I will keep you warm."
But then, it is easy to believe a poet of such metaphorical power. People getting on and off a bus are "an in and out breathing," seals appear as "living mineral," a creek is alive with "sounds of birth-spanks and shrieking," a wave uproots itself "out of its own moonlit entrails." Every page of House Built of Rain turns up at least one such gem of insight, description, connection. Poems such as "The Day of My Beginning", "The St. Alice", "Night Bus", "Harbour Seals", "Nogales Prostitutes", "The Shop", "Solstice Mist", "Lanes" and a half-dozen others brilliantly confirm Thornton's growing reputation as our finest lyric poet.

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