Review – “A rose is a rose is a fist …” Tim Thorne: A prophet in his own land, Running out of entropy by Tim Thorne.

by

Running out of entropy

Tim Thorne

Walleah Press, Hobart, Australia, 2018

ISBN 9781877010804

94pp, $AU20.00

https://walleahpress.com.au/

 

Review by Anne Kellas

 

 

Walleah Press deserves high praise for its ongoing publishing record. The single-minded dedication of Ralph Wessman and his role as a publisher of poetry in Australia has been summed up by Christopher Ringrose in Australian Poetry Journal as “that of promoter, facilitator and connoisseur” of Australian poetry [see Endnote #1].

 

In that same (Tasmanian-focused) issue, Michael Sharkey spoke of a poetry that is capable of dealing with “some of the broader concerns with history and world events”, and Running out of entropy is fine example of how a poet can take such concerns and turn them into poetry. The word “concern” in its origins melds the idea of expressing intensive force (con) with the action of sifting, discerning (cernere), and this describes the alchemy Thorne’s poetry achieves in its marrying of powerful expression with a highly charged subject matter – a poetry concerned with the personal and the public, with politics and the environment – and with our very survival. This is a poetry that shows us something of the mettle, the genuine morality and humanity of Thorne himself. However he might play with language, irony, ideas, however cavalier his own special brand of biting wit and irony might be, always underneath his lines is an instinct for the heart, for the heart’s rhythm. The straight-shooting fist-shaking poems and the keen eyed laughing, compassionate man are one: at their base is an authenticity like few other poets I encounter. The Thorne I know in person [see endnote #2] and the Thorne I read on the page are one. This is a real poet.

 

Thorne signals his approach to the work of poetry as more than the mere writing of poems from the outset by dedicating Running out of entropy to a serious writer much neglected in Australian letters, Pete Hay, Tasmanian poet Australian environmentalist. Thorne is both Hay’s compatriot and to some extent his rival. Both poets are fearless in taking on large themes, world issues, environmental themes and the political class. Thorne pitches his battle at the heartland of Australia, at the morality of its very foundations, and does so while remaining accessible, and often very funny – and with a kick in the tail at times.

 

There is something taut, finely thought-through, intellectually rigorous in this poetry that makes Running out of entropy such a satisfying book of poetry. In ‘Home Invasion’, a long poem in seven sections, Thorne takes us through the occupation of Australia in taut, five-line stanzas:

 

All that can be known is the instant

of impact, the non-dimensional point,

and it is on this absence, out of it

the attempt was made to build a nation.

Jesus and the three little pigs knew better.

 

 

“Home Invasion” speaks of the silent maps that “teased my childhood”: “Instead of song / there was a flatness, a sheet of pastel shades. / I could find Peru, but not food.”

 

And these maps were my inheritance.

Maps can be owned. Land is something else.

Maps can be stolen. When the atlas claps shut

those who are trapped between its pages

have no coordinates of place.

 

When we have lost the maps, the maps “that are sung, that sing / in and through memory, that are not maps / but the land itself” – then “the world has disappeared / and all its denizens are hollowed out” [Home Invasion, p36].

 

We are all wounded in this hollowing out, and the metaphor of woundedness echoes throughout this collection.

 

The “Home Invasion” sequence of poems could be read as an example of the essential ideas underpinning Tim Thorne’s entire oeuvre, from his earliest books. Thorne writes the history of Australia in a way that sees “history as bruise”. The image of this bruising recurs, but subtly, he does not rub it in, he is too clever a poet for that. He knows “the problem is invisible and patient” [Don’t touch the air, p18].

 

Here are poems to convince anyone of the value of a “political poet” – a status already well established in earlier collections. In a review of Thorne’s 14th collection, The Unspeak Poems, Mark Roberts pays tribute to the layers of analysis in Thorne’s “refreshing and exciting” work and to its understanding of the complexities of Australia [see endnote 3]. Running out of entropy keeps faith with that praise, in poems that surprise with their energy and verve.

 

Albert Camus’ statement, “The moment when I am no longer more than a writer, I will cease to write” was the credo of Nobel prize-winning South African writer and anti-apartheid campaigner Nadine Gordimer, but it was a credo first explained to me slightly differently. In order to be a writer – in South Africa at that time – you had to be more than a writer. I see reverberations here for writers in contemporary Australia. It could be argued that, without the kind of understanding of contemporary Australia implicit in a poem like Thorne’s “Home Invasion”, no valid poetry can be written in Australia. Heidegger used the term “valid poetry” – or “Gültiges Gedicht”– to refer the late poetry of Rilke, where the poetry is an authentic and significant poetic response to what Heidegger saw as the time of the “world’s night” [see endnote #4]. In Running out of entropy, I hear that authentic note struck again and again.

 

In his easy, acrobatic play with language, Thorne knows precisely just how far to let things run – as far as he dares and no further. An exception might be the collection’s final section, where Thorne lets “The Antipodean Adventures of DJ Donny Johnny” unfold over 31 pages in 124 stanzas of exuberant ottava rima. While the long poems, “Land and Language” and “Home Invasion” command the full weight of Thorne’s poetic prowess, the inclusion of DJ Donny Johnny in this collection puzzled me at first, with its unlikely and hilarious plot, until I realised it was Thorne’s contribution to a project by 15 prominent poets – Thorne being the only Australian – to update Byron’s long poem, “Don Juan” [see endnote #5]. Thorne uses DJ Donny Johnny in his own Byronic art of “showing not telling” as he ticks off Australia for its sometimes comic often tragic and shocking shortcomings. In doing so, the DJ poem forms a counterbalance in mood and tone to the earlier long poems in the collection.

 

The collection is structured in six sections, three of which are long poems – “Land and Language”, “Home Invasion”, and the DJ poem. One entire section, “Leiber / Stoller” literally rocks with musical allusion, but then, all Thorne’s lines, like “the vines in staves” he writes of, are “pruned like a rock beat” [Music in the vineyard, p53]. In each line, each phrase, is a well-honed, technical adroitness and mastery.

 

The section, Lank Tree, from its initial quote from Frances Webb to the short poem, “A short history of Cuba” and its opening line, “After the days of rum and Hart Crane” shows the often gleeful contrariness in this poet as he slides from fierce wit to sharp edginess in a moment, letting ideas collide – and I the reader am caught – “plucked from the world of commonsense” [Frances Webb, The ward, p40]. Here is the dizzying clarity of Thorne’s depiction of the madness of our age, in the poem “The Blackbird of Peace”. The poem works despite its crazed mixing of “the dialectic of war” with four-and-twenty hours of the news channel alongside images of pastry, Exocets, and beauty queens …

The sauce is on the pie. The pie is in the face.

The drone is above the village.

The king is in his counting house.

[The Blackbird of Peace, p41]

 

And through all this, Thorne does make sense.

 

There is finally, I discern, a deep and vulnerable gentleness, in even his strongest themed poems.

 

Don’t touch the air

 

Yes, you can play outside, but …

Meanwhile then thousand ks away

Missouri snowflakes click the counter,

and here the experts have all reached

their permissible levels. Fixing

the problem is now a job for those

who have no idea. We have no idea.

There is an idea, somewhere, in the memories

of Little Boy. This little boy, three,

looks out the window to where

he has never been, to where

the problem is invisible and patient.

 

Beneath him they are building a wall of ice

to keep the sickness in the earth.

Once it came from the air, then from the sea.

There is no nurturing element, only

a mother’s warning love, fierce

as fire, strong as atoms.

[Don’t touch the air, p18 – from the book’s second section, titled, Fukushima Suite]

 

Thorne’s given a huge amount of his writing time to poetry – and to other people’s poetry – over the years and to the cause of literature in Tasmania. I doubt there are many contemporary poets to whom the phrase “generosity of spirit” could be ascribed more accurately. His poems often include fleeting references to other poets – here, to Gwen Harwood, Lauren Williams, Kent MacCarter, eric beach –for whom I recall Thorne giving a truly superlative launch speech. What he said then of eric could be said of Thorne: “Being a poet has meant involvement in the community … being a poet is being fully and creatively human, and he does it magnificently” [see endnote #6] He’s been a tireless reviewer, publisher, festival organiser, launcher of books and promoter of poetry. Most Tasmanian poets owe Thorne a debt or two for all the time he’s lavished on them (myself included: see endnote#2), through the Launceston Poetry Festival (now the Tasmanian Poetry Festival), writers’ organisations, and most of all through his Cornford Press – which he named after his hero John Cornford, who died fighting in the Spanish Civil War.

 

Thorne’s biographical notes are impressive. In Sydney in the 1960s he hung out with John Tranter and Robert Adamson, the three being regular participants in the Poetry Society of Australia’s workshops at Sydney University in 1968, along with Vicki Viidikas, Robert Gray and others. This was the heyday of the magazine, New Poetry. He moved back to Tasmania in 1969, where he has lived almost ever since. After a writing scholarship at Stanford University in 1971 came the New Poetry award in 1973, the Marten Bequest Travelling Scholarship in 1978, numerous writers grants and fellowships from the Australia Council (in 1975, ’77, ’78 and ’79), grants from Arts Tasmania in 1986 and ’92 and from the Eleanor Dark Foundation in 1993. He directed the Tasmanian Poetry Festival from 1985 to 2001. Recent achievements are the William Baylebridge Award in 2007, the Christopher Brennan Award in 2012 and the Gwen Harwood Prize in 2014.

 

Running out of Entropy is his 7th book since 2004 – and far from suffering from entropy, Thorne’s poetry is gaining in momentum. Long may it be so. Australian poetry needs more work like this. I cannot say enough how impressed I am with the calibre of his work. I keep asking myself, why did I not see Thorne this way earlier? “A prophet in his own land” …indeed!

 

Endnotes

 

#1

“Profile: Walleah Press” by Christopher Ringrose, Australian Poetry Journal, v.6 n.2 2016, pp9-19.

 

#2

I’ve known Tim Thorne for over 30 years – it’s impossible to pretend there are non-porous boundaries on an island especially when it comes to poetry. I owe Tim a huge debt of gratitude, as do most Tasmanian poets, for publishing my work, inviting me to read and for inspiring my blog’s name – at a festival on Tasmanian writing, sitting way up in the gods at the Peacock Theatre, he had shouted down to a panel on poetry, Why is no one on the panel from anywhere north of that line somewhere in Elizabeth Street where the latte runs out? But this is no puff payback – it has been an honour to review his work.

 

#3

Mark Roberts. “Review short: Tim Thorne’s The Unspeak Poems and other verses”, Cordite, 19 February 2015, http://cordite.org.au/reviews/robert-thorne/

 

#4

Heidegger, M. Poetry, language, thought, chapter 3: “What are poets for?” Translation and introduction by Albert Hofstadter. Harper and Row, 1971.

 

#5

A Modern Don Juan: Cantos for these times by divers hands, edited by Andy Croft and Nigel Thompson. Nottingham UK, Five Leaves Publications, 2014.

 

#6

Tim Thorne, launch speech for Eric Beach’s Weeping for lost Babylon, 28 April 1996. The Write Stuff v.2 (Pandora archive, https://webarchive.nla.gov.au/awa/20140125140034/http://the-write-stuff.com.au/archives/vol-2/weeping.html )

 

 

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