Sunday, September 3, 2023

Jessica Lee McMillan : The White Light of Tomorrow, by Russell Thornton

The White Light of Tomorrow, Russell Thornton
Harbour Publishing, 2023




Russell Thornton's timeless, lyric poetry is even more emotionally resonant and visually intense in his latest collection, The White Light of Tomorrow. Seeking beginnings in endings on a cyclical journey like Roethke’s "The Far Field," from where this collection draws its title, Thornton continues his poetics of transmuting matter and spirit where: "Light and rock meet, and rock flows like water/ through designs it finds and loses again.(13) Part memoir and part metaphysics, Thornton gives us his characteristically burning, haunted signatures of myth and archetype through the elements, but also through unexpected sources such as a metal sink, an answering machine and a corpse. The collection's long poem, “The Sea Wolf in the Stone" moves from the image of a "ragged man" urinating by a forest highway to scattered needles in a cave in the hills, then takes Blakean leaps from a petroglyph. The lines of the carving expand to "pictures forming in the air" and direct him through water and light back again to the trees and stone. In "The Draftsman's Wound" his father's compass set is likened to a coffin of bones and draws "circle upon circle within itself". These poems teach us lines and circles are not Plutonic forms, nor intellectual exercises, but "a diagram of trance swirls"desire lines of a passionate, poetic voice.

The most emotionally impactful poems focus on Thornton's troubled relationship with his father who he calls "my absent king". "A Coat" is a particularly devastating narrative where the coat is an "unintentional gift" imbued with his father's DNA, as well as a costume where he "learned earliest how inheritance meant prison stripes". In "My Fathers Beard" the beard doubles as ironwork, as a biblical analog of father and son, as well as "ore transformed...yet leading back again to every beginning in the dark earth."

Thornton grounds us throughout the collection via historical Vancouver sites, including the Balmoral Hotel, The Fraser Arms, and Woolco. As with Thornton's childhood poems in this collection, the Vancouver poems are often more unsettling than nostalgic. They serve as a counterpoint to the sublime digressions responding to Song of Songs, such as Shulamite’s aura in "Description" or the white light of the garment in "Shawl". Like Thornton's previous work, vitality endlessly shifts through matter and through us. But in this collection, there is an even keener sense of how imperfect our lives are; how we are fallible vessels, limited by addiction, class and inescapable mortality.

The White Light of Tomorrow also hones in on temporal themes of aging, the anthropocene and facing death. "Blackouts" is a like a brush with death but with the paradoxical revelation that light has to move through darkness. Similarly striking is the observation that “light is beauty and why we live our life in arrears". Meditations on death feel more contemporary and relevant to our epoch in this collection. "Peter's Ice Cream" and "Summer Morning" take us to the immediacy of climate crisis and "Power" admits in Thornton's alternate, matter-of-fact voice: "I can't help it; I think this is it."

Thornton's world, however, does not mire in endings because of its cyclical motion. His poetic receptiveness to moments of consummation along the circle is present in this collection's refrain of "gathering distances". The white light closes distances. It is the beginning in the end. In poems like "Voice", the world collapses into a superposition where Thornton observes "rain whispering in my wrist". Then the circle widens in poems like "Shoes" observing "a conflagration widened from its point of origin".

Thornton's singular villanelle in the collection, "A Dance", is particularly suited to his syntax, which is like an alchemic equation of energies reassigned to different variables: A is B is C is.... The domestic scene of a lover in a doorway is a burning apparition. In "Play Structure", the playground exists on multiple planesit "is a molecule of children" where light itself "assigns roles in a numberless cast". Humanity has little autonomy in this metaphysics, which does not succumb to apocalyptic helplessness but rather awe. In The White Light of Tomorrow, autonomy itself is the inferior myth because a thing is more than itself and not itself forever. But despite the "trance swirls", we never get lost because Thornton never abandons the tangible image. And his images relate to each other more like syllogism than complicated metaphor.

In "The Prophecy" Thornton concludes "I see my task must be to wait and fall away/ in the honey of the moment...", suggesting the same poetic attention of the windswept reader. For us, "Story" imparts why we must surrender to the shimmering moments in the counterpoise of light and dark, desire and loss because:

Whatever heaven we dreamt
spends its energy

along with whatever life we ruined,

as high as any riverside

and as low as any riverbed.






Jessica Lee McMillan is poet, essayist and civil servant with an English MA and Certificate in Creative Writing from The Writer’s Studio (SFU). Her writing has appeared in over 30 publications across Canada and the US, including The Humber Literary Review, Train Poetry Journal, Pinhole Poetry, GAP RIOT Press, Blank Spaces, Rogue Agent Journal and Rose Garden Press (forthcoming). Jessica is completing her first poetry collection. She lives on the unceded traditional territories of Halkomelem-speaking Peoples (New Westminster, BC) with her little family and large dog. More at:

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