Russell Thornton reflects on icons, art and imagination

Russell Thornton’s new collection, The Hundred Lives (Quattro Books), was a Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted book. With these poems, Thornton crosses oceans and millennia to explore archetypal themes of ritual, love and loss. His five previous books of poetry are The Fifth Window; A Tunisian Notebook; House Built of Rain (finalist for both the B.C. Book Prize and the ReLit Poetry Award); The Human Shore; and Birds, Metals, Stones & Rain (finalist for the Governor General’s Award, the B.C. Book Prize and the Raymond Souster Award). He lives in North Vancouver. Kelly Shepherd interviewed Russell Thornton for The Coastal Spectator.

There are references to icons and oracles throughout this collection. Could these poems be compared to icons? You’ve written stylized saints and Madonna figures, using vibrant colours. But beyond their surface appearances, icons are also windows between worlds, or conduits. Do you think poetry serves this kind of purpose? Or, would you equate the poet’s work with that of the oracle?

I suppose all poems are icons of a kind. If poems succeed, they’re at least partial images of sacred personages or things — and are sacred themselves. Do you know that statement by W.H. Auden? He said that the concern of the imagination was sacred beings and sacred events. If I’m not mistaken, he was commenting on Coleridge’s ideas about Primary and Secondary imagination. In any case, the statement seems right to me. Poems (great poems anyway!) depict sacred beings and ongoing sacred events. They’re icons. You might say that reality itself is a vast conglomeration of icons. Out of an unfathomable welter of energy comes the array of likenesses that we call the world — the iconos. Yes, I agree, icons are windows between worlds; they take us through the eye to where energy is entering into form and the world is being made — and where we’re helping in the making of the world. Yes, poems have similar qualities and operations: they’re verbal window-ways. It’s interesting to me that icon-makers were rigorously trained crafts-persons. They learned how to make good windows. In poetry, I’d use the word craft in its widest possible sense and include in it ideas of oracular facility. But I don’t know that I’d equate many poets with outright oracles. It’s a poet’s purpose to investigate the depths of his or her experience and at the same time explore (or be explored by!) language, and at its most powerful and significant the result, as I say, may allow glimpses of the sacred — as through a window. Still, actual oracular utterance and vision, prophetic truth telling — that’s reserved for the great oracles and very great poets, I’d say, and for Earth itself, as the oracles most often drew energy from specific locales. For me, poetry that simply works finds the extraordinary mostly in the ordinary; if the crafts-person labour that this entails is very roughly equivalent to what oracular activity involves or amounts to, then okay, on a rudimentary level the writing of a decent poem is related to an oracular performance.

I’m interested in the architectural themes in The Hundred Lives. Numerous poems deal specifically with interiors, or enclosed spaces: from domed churches to phone booths, and human mouths, and wounds, to the insides of apples and pomegranates. Can you talk about architecture in these poems, and perhaps about the architecture (the structure, or the construction) of the poems themselves?

I’ve always responded to spatial relationships and form — and to sacred spaces. Such spaces can occur anywhere. As you say, within domed religious structures, within phone booths, within apples. Or on other, invisible levels, within relationships between people. I think one of the primary purposes of poetry is to create verbal spaces, to limit or contract space in this way — in order to set up intimations of infinite expansion. This calls up William Blake, Rumi, et al, of course; it appears to be a fundamental, a creative principle. Maybe all art imitates or re-enacts in miniature some original activity that brought and continues to bring the material universe into being. In any case, I’d say that architecture, if it exists in my poems, follows from this sense of a contraction or withdrawal in order to make a special space. The circumscription, the geometry, would be the words of a poem; the space would contain experience, nameable as my own as well as otherwise.

And yes, the poems in this book have an organization that might be called architectural. I wanted the reader to be able to enter an imaginative structure and see a set of experiences from different perspectives — as if within related spaces in a building. In the first general enclosure (the section of the book titled “With a Greek Pen”) I brought together poems I wrote while living in Greece; the section ends with an elegy for someone I was close to in Greece who suffered a very early death from cancer. Then in “Lazarus’ Songs to Mary Magdalene,” I looked at love, loss and longing using the characters and plot of the Lazarus story as an imaginative base; Lazarus, Mary, and Jesus are all meant as aspects of the same psyche — the same single interior, you could say. Then in “from Book of the Dark Dove,” I compiled elaborations I wrote on lines from the Song of Songs; this section is the result of my efforts at translation and interpretation, and places the imaginative viewing room in the mythical realm. And then in “Double-Flute”, the final section of the book, I included poems I wrote about someone I was close to in my early twenties, became estranged from, and then learned had died; the poems are personal and represent a final “walking naked” perspective, to use Yeats’s phrase. The collection is meant to be of an architectural piece in this way and is an attempt to say something about romantic love and death.

You may not be recognized primarily as a “nature poet,” per se, yet much of your poetry is about dwelling in and connecting with the natural world. And of course you have been anthologized in the wonderful Open Wide a Wilderness: Canadian Nature Poems (2009). Would you describe your work as nature poetry or ecopoetry?

I wouldn’t be taken aback if my poetry was called nature poetry or ecopoetry; in a fair bit of my writing, I’m occupied with the natural world. The details I take with me into a poem as I try to write are often those of the natural world as I’ve experienced it. When I face the blank page, more often than not I’ll blacken it with images of the natural world as opposed to, say, popular culture. I’ll follow those images as I am able on the imaginative level. But I write about a number of things; also, I don’t know that I have a clearly formulated message about nature that would fit with the outright eco-poets. I take “nature” to mean not only the earth and its forms of life, powers and processes, but also the male and female in all their manifestations, and the “natural person” within the individual psyche. I can say this (well, quote this): “God save me from thoughts men think in the mind alone,” (W.B. Yeats) and “God save us from single vision and Newton’s sleep,” (William Blake). These statements are touchstones for me. I like the classic Where the Wasteland Ends, in which the author Theodore Roszac asks, “What, after all, is the ecological crisis that now captures so much belated attention but the inevitable extroversion of a blighted psyche?” And I agree with other authors I’ve read who say, essentially, that the recovery of an earlier, deeper human vision that we now know can be attempted in two ways, through deep ecology and through imaginative art. The two may be the same thing. I’d say that the imagination’s function is to correct imbalances that have come about in the psyche, to reconcile artificially imposed polarized elements; it connects the severed halves — inner and outer, self and other, male and female, life and death, human beings and the natural world. The prime elements of imaginative speech, metaphor and symbol, for me are the link, the bridge, the meeting, the marriage, the atonement — reconstructing the world as a unity beyond dualism, and enabling a flow of consciousness in which we experience and know things in full, mentally and physically at once, in a greater, enkindled awareness. Poetry can re-spiritualize nature.

Some of these poems seem to belong in collections of their own. In the future, will we see a book-length publication of Lazarus’ Songs to Mary Magdalene? Or a Book of the Dark Dove?

It’s possible, I guess. Both these sections of The Hundred Lives are excerpts from much longer unpublished manuscripts. I might get my nerve up and try to get them between covers. One day anyway.