Friday, August 31, 2007

I've been reading Natasha Trethewey's Native Guard, winner of this year's Pulitzer Prize, and and Troy Jollimore's Tom Thomson in Purgatory, winner of this years National Book Critics Circle Award. They are both good books, a delight to read. But what is fascinating to me is that they both contain sonnet sequences at their core.

Trethewey's sonnets are a narrative about a regiment of black soldiers fighting in the American the civil war. They are linked by the last line of one sonnet being echoed closely in the first line of the next (not an exact repeat, but a variation). Jollimore's sonnets are all spoken in the voice of a character named Tom Thomson (with a syntax like that of Obi Wan Kinobi: really, try to say them in that voice, and you will not be able to stop!), about his various adventures (mostly all described in internal monologue). Both of their sonnets have standard meter/syllable count, and length of 14 lines, but are unrhymed.

However, to be honest with you, my favorite parts of both of these books were *not* the sonnets. The first section of Tom Thomson in Purgatory is titled "From the Boy Scout Manual" and it is stunning, a wonderful lyric investigation of the nature of nature and our place in it, that would do Thoreau proud. Here is the opening poem:

Mockingbird and Whippoorwill

In July it occurs to the mockingbird
that many a human would love to lay
a rough, unfeathered hand upon
its faculty of flight;
and so it takes to the ground, grows round
and mothlike, and becomes,
so far as any human eye can tell,
a whippoorwill.

In August it befalls the whippoorwill
to wonder whether, given its love
for the tip-topped tree, its peculiar penchant
for singsong, those disturbing dreams
in which it swoops and careens as if
aflame, its actual name
might not be of an altogether different feather:
in a word, mockingbird.


And Trethewey's poems about the life of her parents, the death of her mother, are very moving and well-wrought. I much preferred these poems to the historical sonnets (even though they are so thematically linked). And she has a palindrome poem! (ah, my heart goes pitter-pat) that I think I first saw in New England Review a while back:


I was asleep while you were dying.
It’s as if you slipped through some rift, a hollow
I make between my slumber and my waking,

the Erebus I keep you in, still trying
not to let go. You’ll be dead again tomorrow,
but in dreams you live. So I try taking

you back into morning. Sleep-heavy, turning,
my eyes open, I find you do not follow.
Again and again, this constant forsaking.


Again and again, this constant forsaking:
my eyes open, I find you do not follow.
You back into morning, sleep-heavy, turning.

But in dreams you live. So I try taking,
not to let go. You’ll be dead again tomorrow.
The Erebus I keep you in--still, trying--

I make between my slumber and my waking.
It’s as if you slipped through some rift, a hollow.
I was asleep while you were dying


Happy reading!


The Sublibrarian said...

"Mockingbird and Whippoorwill" is interesting.

It's a kind of inverse Romanticism where the thought of the speaker (think Shelley and "Hail to thee blithe spirit") gazing on nature is instead given over to nature to give back to the speaker. Maybe an attempt at Romanticism at a time when the veracity of speakers in general is called into question.

I'm not sure that kind of anthropomorphizing is a sustainable strategy, but it's pleasant while it lasts.

jeannine said...

I liked Tretheway's first book Soooooo much better than the second one that won all the awards...

Brian Campbell said...

Funny, Tom Thomson was a great Canadian wildlife painter, forerunner of the Group of Seven. I wonder if she had him in mind? Yet the cover painting is definitely not his. You can read more about him (and see some famous paintings of his) at

Peter said...

BC: so *that* is who Tom Thompson is. Thx for the link.