Okay, I'll admit it right up front. A decade or more ago, Matthew Thorburn was a student in a U-M poetry workshop I was teaching. I'd like to say he was "my student," but that wouldn't be quite right. Matt Thorburn was one of those students who needed only one thing from his teachers: just let him go and don't get in his way! I've seen some of his poems in journals over the years and have followed him as he moved to New York, got degrees, started a literary journal (Good Foot, one of the interesting places for young writers to publish these days), and started winning prizes. And now comes Subject to Change, his first collection of poems. It is a lush, extravagant book, one that resists any easy categories. It is filled with the energy of urgent composition (this poet really believes he should engage the themes of the ages), with genuine humor, and with formal confidence. Thorburn nods to Marcel Duchamp and Gertrude Stein (he walks through Chinatown with Stein, "camouflaged / in silver wig and blue sunglasses"), but he is just as likely to write sestinas or sonnets that play around with rhymes in ways that are both a bit silly and very smart at the same time. Just listen to the beginning of "At the Angle Tree with Katrina," a poem about a night out in London that mixes the absolutely contemporary in an old rhythmic stew:
| An Anglo bistro. Sweat-soaked. Six-ish.
"Absolut?" Amstel Light. Midtown and then some,
and me just back from Michigan's sore thumb.
One of the city-slick? I wish. No, nix wish —
It comes almost as a shock, albeit a pleasant one, to realize somewhere near the end of the poem that this is a sonnet and that the rhymes are almost completely regular.
But the architecture of the poems in Subject to Change is simply the space that encloses a writer completely engaged with some old romantic notions. Even though he knows a lot and can fill his poems with witty allusions to art and music and literature, what motivates this enormously talented young poet is a sense of the beautiful and a belief in its efficacy. It is fascinating to see someone who has obviously moved through many of the intellectual and creative trends of the new millennium arrive back at a place that seems almost nineteenth century.
In "Coda: Where the River Runs," the poem that ends this collection, Thorburn lists things that seize and grip his heart — "the light in light-brown eyes," "the cello's wavery rubato," "the lovers falling / into one another." And he keeps his list running almost to the end:
| Where the river
runs, over the rocks. Where the black tern
hovers over the inland marshes
the light grinds down
to a dusky glow — quiet, quiet,
It is to relearn the importance of those moments that a teacher comes back to sit at the student's feet.
Matthew Thorburn reads from Subject to Change at Shaman Drum Bookshop on Tuesday, December 7.