Reviewed by Matthew W. Schmeer
The examination of personal nostalgia resonates throughout Matthew Thorburn's Subject to Change, and this underlying thread of sadness and remorse and hopeful expectation--a quest for what might have been and might yet be--makes the emotional edge of these poems burn with brilliant clarity.
This clarity can be attributed, in some respects, to the arrangement of the collection itself. Briefly thumbing through the pages, I was struck by the musicality of many of the titles: “The Oboe,” “Graciela and the Song of One Hundred Names,” “Plunky's Lament,” “Variations,” “Little Waltz, “ “Refrain,” etc. This symphony of words is also reflected in Thorburn's manuscript, as each of the four sections--or more properly, movements--build upon each other, reinforcing the theme of past remembrance, how memories are subject to the whims of the moment they're remembered and how they affect the course of future paths. Take, for example, “The River,” a multi-sectioned poem which closes section two. Here, we find the speaker having made the ultimate relationship faux pas, calling his wife by a former lover's name, and chastising himself for lingering over the memory of that relationship, how the wisp of a scent can bring a memory tumbling back without restraint:
Or, for there was always something else,
the vanilla scent she loved
to wear and he loved to smell, that he sniffs now
over his shoulder in the copy
room on the thin wrists and neck of the new
secretary. Olfactory aches as memory comes
wafting back. Nosing around
on the past, he thinks, like Proust
with a crush on what was. His back turned
to what he's headed for,
as with rowing a boat, turning over
the oars out of a love for that motion
which passes for a kind of progress.
Not only do we see the speaker tracing the thread of memory for us, but the physicality of this backward glancing draws us forward even as we go backward in time. This blind driving toward the future while facing the past is echoed again in “Refrain” and “Coda: Where the River Runs,” both of which close section four and the entire collection, the rising and falling and circling back to sound the final notes of memory.
The musicality of the poems doesn't stop with the titles, of course, as Thorburn has a penchant for traditional forms, most notably the sonnet. The mark of a good contemporary sonnet is that after you read it, you don't recognize it's a sonnet (think Ted Berrigan, Beth Houston, and Mark Jarman). Then, two or three days later you have the urge to read it again, but this time you linger longer over the page, scrutinizing the rhyme scheme and scanning meter, and then it hits you that it is, indeed, a sonnet. The eight sonnets included in this collection have this mastery, and Thorburn displays his craft to its fullest in “Triptych,” a three-sonnet sequence in remembrance of a deceased lover. In the first two sonnets, Thorburn interrupts the lines and utilizes white space to create the absence the poem remembers, as in the first sonnet section, “Scaring Up Crows.”
Thorburn also plays with form, as several of his pieces make clear. His sestina. “Just You, Just Me” is a rollicking good one, a delicious romp through young love and marriage, role-playing and lowered expectations. And then there are his prose poems, of which “Italian Coffee” and “Little Waltz” are perhaps two of the finest examples of the form I've seen in recent reading. But other experiments aren't as successful: “Jim & John,” a conversation with Siamese twins, falls a bit flat in its contrivance; “Three Part Constructed Form” a Dadaist/Surrealist arrangement, feels out of place in its sequence; and “White,” a single-stanza ballade, relies too much on the shock value of its final two lines.
Despite these few stumbles, Thorburn's freshman effort is both masterly and effortless; his poems have such ease of language that you almost don't believe they've been carefully crafted. Even the natural music of his free verse poems such as “What to Say, an Aria,” where we glimpse the internal struggle of the momentarily tongue-tied, or “In Lansing, ” where the holiday hangover and winter blues collide, exhibit the same attention to detail. My favorite of the free verse pieces is “For Friends Who Are Married and Expecting More Babies,” where the relationship between the speaker and the friends is blurred between discussion of the proper recipe for cucumber soup and the paradox of whiskey. Overall, Thorburn doesn't mince words, and he doesn't waste them, either. That's hard to do when writing about past loves and present lovers without falling into wrist-wringing sentimentality.