‘Dear Almost’ by Matthew Thorburn


Dear Almost
by Matthew Thorburn
LSU Press, $17.95 paperback, 88 pp.

Matthew Thorburn’s sixth collection encompasses one year and one very personal, quiet loss in a book-length poem that is clear, yet nuanced and subtle in its use of imagery and implied metaphor, compassionate and graceful in its grief, and marvelous in its myriad of arrangements and structures. Across this one year, we find a couple nervously anticipating a first daughter before a miscarriage commutes that preparatory love to mourning. Rather than a reeling despair, the husband (our speaker) guides us through a grieving process which seeks meaning more than solace, and even where meaning fails to fully emerge—Could we honestly expect concise answers or a quick parable in such an event?— truths about the nature and expression of grief come to light and validate the family’s broken world. When the value and usefulness of both language and imagination are tested, where both hope and the words to define it are bound with sadness, frustration, and confusion, imagination and the language to share it illuminate the reader in a manner that is remarkable, resilient. Thorburn’s collection doesn’t erase grief—this is not a poem of forgetfulness—but it finds ways to gently extricate some of the emptiness and loneliness that could grind time and a life to a seeming stand-still. The quiet fortitude throughout Dear Almost is more miraculous than mundane, a vulnerable strength which steadies and satisfies, even if it refuses to simplify or take shortcuts toward a false catharsis.

The imagination of Thorburn’s speaker provides us with the most freedom and some of the most piercing instances within the work. Often, it transports the speaker into east Asia where we find him headed ‘into the forest / to Chuang Yen Monastery, / its orange roofs lost // in the leaves’ or listening to ‘the birds compete / with our neighbor /Wenjing (her window / must be open too) / and her pipa, Chinese / great-grandfather to the guitar.’ It makes our speaker consider a group of workers in Shanxi Province who ‘were trapped / in a mile-deep mineshaft / deemed too dangerous now / for a rescue, though / apparently it was safe / enough to work in.’ It takes us to Fukushima, Japan in the wake of the nuclear plant’s meltdown where ‘Emperor // Akihito entered the television /studio to speak to his people. Keep / going, he said. You must see tomorrow.’ This multicultural inclusion adds variety to the landscapes and allows our speaker to commiserate with some of the influences (such as Issa, a Japanese poet who also lost a daughter). It allows him to explore the eastern heritage his daughter would have inherited from her mother, his wife Lily. Most of these images appear and then come back with even more metaphorical weight, as when the speaker reincorporates the lost miners some fifty pages after their first appearance to serve as an image to pair with his own grief:

Where did they all go? Do you decide, when all hope’s flickered out, to turn around and walk back deeper into the mine?

And head deeper into the mine he does, and somewhere in the darkness he finds light. Some of the most heart-rending experiences of the book come when imagination conjures a projection of his unborn daughter’s life some years in the future. It is as if the daughter has been conjured from the air, but can only return as an idea of a girl, unable to be corporeal.

Despite the stinging reality that insists ‘‘Life is fucked / up and complicated / and ugly’’ as told to the speaker by an old movie director, the imagination is where we find some of the most important epistolary moments. Since the book is titled Dear Almost, it is natural to expect these moments of direct address, but they do not lose power for their expectedness, since the invocation of a living daughter allows for the most important exposures and confessions in the collection. The first time this daughter is given character, the speaker has learned that ‘The smallest heart / we’d ever dreamed of / wasn’t moving’ before hearing crickets in the New York evening takes him to Shanghai, where he tells his daughter ‘You would // have loved the insect market […] You would have been / an only child like me, alone / but not lonely / most of the time, lost / a little, but mostly / okay with it all—’. The voice of Thorburn’s speaker has a reassuring, parental tone undercut by the subjective tense of what could have, should have been. There is a seeming celebration of the potential, even despite it having been taken away cruelly; we see the ways in which one generation gives itself to the next. Near the end of the book, when he admits: ‘I think of you a little / less each day’ there’s both a solace and a newfound loss and sadness from the act of moving on.

In alternate moments, specificity of detail create an immediate figure as when the speaker describes his daughter’s imagined appearance down the ‘cloud / of freckles across each / cheek’ or her quirks: you keep / losing one red mitten / and finding it again, you say / snowflakes taste / like little rivers when / they fall on your tongue’; he imagines that she would ‘laugh at this / old man from an older world /already mostly gone, already over with, the way / the music I love was played by people dead now for decades.’ I admire the ability to recreate the wild freshness of a childlike mind; it’s startling. In these sections, years, sometimes decades have passed as his daughter is built a future before being taken back to the reality of no birth. His imagination may be keeping our speaker orbiting the loss, perhaps even exacerbating it, but it shows a desire to continue forth, to not succumb to the kind of sadness that silenced Thelonious Monk later in life, ‘his mind and his piano / slowly filling up // with dust.’ Just as great men artists and innovators have felt it, our speaker feels futility’s allure. He confronts this lament, defines the loss in its relationship to the hope, pride, and joy that were kindled by even the prospect of parenthood:

I think what we’ve lost is imagination—the soft glimmer of possibility, that hum in the belly (this part I don’t say out loud), the lightness I remember feeling each day during that little while when sarcasm and irony and even the last bit of bitterness had all fallen away so that it felt like gravity had been dialed down just for us.

No matter how compelling this argument, clearly there’s evidence elsewhere that the imagination continues to fight for its host.

Another place that the creativity and inventiveness of this collection are noteworthy are within the arrangement of the individual sections. On a surface glance, it is fairly simple: a single poem in four fairly equal sections, with each section following a season of the year. The seasons even occur in logical life-cycle order: Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter. These are nice guidelines to help place a narrative onto the meditations, and we do get occasional references to months and dates to sometimes put us back on that linear path, but in the more minute details, there’s actually quite a range of structures and while some of the imagistic and linguistic repetitions help bind the poem together, the shifts and variations allow for dynamic transitions and stand-out moments. With the exception of ‘The Light that Lasts All Summer,’ each section is actually broken into smaller units, just lacking titles, and perhaps the second section only avoids this in being the first section to have to encounter the loss in a summer that is ‘no season // for grieving, it doesn’t / satisfy, it’s too sunny / and warm and everything / keeps pushing / into stalky shoots of green…it just goes on / and on and on.’ It’s a summer seemingly interminable and incompatible with a life that feels fractured. That discord is very tangible, even in the air.

Within both titled sections and the subsections without titles, there are also a notable assortment of repetitions and callbacks which keep the piece moving forward. Once it’s as simple as ending the summer with an image of the moon before entering ‘Three Deer Beneath the Autumn Moon.’ Elsewhere one subsection ends with the image of ‘The mourners on a misty / morning, their faces wet— / with rain or tears I couldn’t say. // Rain or tears— / that’s the grace I want / on this sun-shot day.’ After the break, it’s ‘Morning once more,’ playing off the homophones. The avian image of a cardinal building a nest from human detritus in the opening pages comes back as a blue jay when winter is ending near the collection’s end. These repetitions make for a more accessible movement throughout the collection and reinforce each other. They also have enough strength to off-set the lack of titles on many of the sub-sections which were initially published independently. Though I won’t deny the power of a good title as a framing device, the omission of titles allows the reader to continue forward without having reset the perspective or reframe the subject. This is just one of the ways in which the longer-poem presentation serves the content remarkably well and come across as essential to the book. Where there are changes in the stanzaic presentation, they also mark departures and points of emphasis with a visual immediacy. The long, slender stanza shifts to chunky couples when we’re first seeing a lengthy description of the daughter. Sometimes the stanzas take on a haiku-like appearance when riffing off the experiences and lack of ‘I’ (though not lack of speaker or personal reflection) in many Asian traditions. In both its language and structure, Dear Almost may not be a flashy, explosive book of poetry, but it’s a compelling, accessible, and meaningful read.

On a final note, though I have said some of the language may lack the flair or intentional, overt cleverness displayed by other poets, I would like to speak to the success this collection has when describing language or even turning a season into a metaphor. I hope and expect mature poetry to carefully consider our relationships to language, incorporating the act of communication into the larger discourse about human experience. When we learn the speaker’s wife is a speech pathologist, it’s not shocking to encounter a metaphor for grief emerge out of an inability to articulate one’s thoughts, but the specific metaphor is unexpectedly moving and puts tangible qualities on an experience that could be remote, personal, or just difficult for a reader to recreate alone:

[...] Though grief’s not a physical affliction like aphasia, that sudden numbing loss caused by a stroke or blow to the head, crash down the stairs [...] what else can I do?

Here we have the lack of physical damage that causes language loss, but all the reasons for the loss still feel apparent. Our speaker sees his wife rehabilitating or teaching those in who cannot fully communicate, and he sees the necessity of expression. He gets to the brink, but has to return. It is only natural, and the answer to that rhetorical question only presents inferior choices. We lose the hopefulness of spring, but just as the book begins, it also ends by taking us back to ‘once in early spring.’ The fairy tale may have a second chance. Death does not end all birth. These may be things easier said than experienced, but as I finish this collection once again, I think that the language has done ample justice to a rather common, but rarely articulated tragedy. Whether or not one has seen similar circumstances, Dear Almost displays disarming courage that I hope can be contagious.