Working in the Dark: Homage to John Thompson
February 12, 2015 § 1 Comment
If I’d come here in early spring I might
have divided Thompson’s plant, and dug it in
in the midst of this poem, that years from now it might remain, out-competing
my rhubarb words, holding its green salvers to the sun
–from “Barbarians,” Amanda Jernigan
“Spring rain, releasing the mist of dung from the opening soil to hang thick in the still air, to cling to the furry hooks of cloth and skin; the sweet smell of rot; and that other smell, the smell of green, the taste of pure white working into the tongue, young onions, roots growing from his wife’s hands, mingling oils, hands and roots bearing the same beads of black dirt, the same beads of rainwater; human, womanly roots tangling in his body, her shape looming, enlarging over him, a greenness, a whiteness, bearing the must of soil, drawing him up into energy.”
–from “Chapter One,” John Thompson
Last month I managed at last to find a copy of John Thompson’s Stilt Jack that I could afford — a library discard from the University of California at Riverside (why would they ever want to discard this book??). It’s still fairly well preserved, possibly never read in fact, stapled within stiff cardboard sleeves. I have to decide whether to extract it (I think I can do it and leave the original quite intact) or leave it be — it’s the kind of talismanic book I’ll end up carrying around everywhere, and the cardboard might offer some protection.
Around the same time, Peter Sanger was kind enough to send me a copy of Working in the Dark: Homage to John Thompson, recently published by Anchorage Press: a portfolio of photographs of Jolicure (where Thompson lived for a time) by Thaddeus Holownia, who owns the press, along with accompanying archival materials and elegies for Thompson, written by contemporary poets. Peter’s introduction to it also offers some new details about Thompson’s connections to his property in Jolicure, and describes some of the new Thompson materials that were left in his English Department office after his death, recently archived at Mount Allison University.
This is a beautiful book, that takes as its focus the land and house that Thompson owned in Jolicure. He lived there for only a short time — as Peter describes it, for only one season of the rhubarb patch, all that survives of Thompson’s original garden. The seven elegies in this book (I’ve included an excerpt of Amanda Jernigan’s, above), take this rhubarb patch as meditative focus, and it’s interesting to see how each poet makes the subject his or her own, from echo of 16th century lyric to 19th century seed catalogue (Rob Winger’s contribution). Amanda Jernigan’s elegy, for example, hinges on Philip Sidney’s lines, “Alas, I have not pain enough, my friend…But with your rhubarb words you must contend/To grieve me worse, in saying….” Yet, similarities also run through the elegies, like a mineral vein.
In his introduction to the photographs and poems, Peter notes, with regards to the rhubarb patch:
A few minutes walk up the road from the cemetery was the fire-blackened, rock-walled cellar hole of Thompson’s house, with the surviving metal wreckage. The two surviving barns became increasingly skewed by wind, frost and rot until they finally fell. The site became feral land, covered in weeds, wild rose bushes, sheep laurel and rhubarb — the rhubarb plot persisted, a contradictory, resilient mix of the wild and domestic. A Thompson poem of sorts.
Working in the Dark also includes a previously unpublished typescript of a prose poem by Thompson, called “Chapter One,” from which I’ve included an excerpt above, and beautiful, stark black and white photographs of the woods in Jolicure, taken by Holownia, who now owns the property: branches with a skin of snow, a stand of luminescent birch trees.
The title comes from an abandoned version of the preface to Stilt Jack: “I’ve been working in the dark with the poems — but why not?”
I first read Stilt Jack in the 1970s, bought a rough copy which I keep on my desk still. I often open it at random:
Big stones, men’s hands, the shovel
pitched properly. The wall of walls rises.
If I weren’t gone already, I’d lie down right now:
have you ever heard children’s voices?