Jean Nordhaus on Matthew Thorburn

String by Matthew Thorburn. Louisiana State University Press. 2023.


The title of the poem that opens Matthew Thorborn’s seventh collection announces immediately the narrative nature of the work to follow:



there was crusty bread
a last half-loaf a rind of cheese
my parents danced in


the empty kitchen they knew
we would never come back


With that “once,” we enter the story. Partway through, however, the story seems to start again:


once in the tall grass there
was a tan captain
chest smooth pants unbuttoned


his holster amazed him
by being empty
Rosie groaned spat clutched


her wrinkled pink dress
pointed the pistol
between his eyes between


the trees I saw how
everyone dies


and again:


but once I was
a boy who talked in circles

talked in circles I walked
in the woods there was
nowhere I wouldn’t follow her.


Immediately evident in these opening lines is a sense of urgency and dislocation produced by the unpunctuated, headlong spill of sentences, the skillful rhythm of repetitions, and the suggestive leaps and juxtapositions that lend Thorburn’s tale of love, loss, waste, and destruction its rare intensity.


The tale unfolds in a world upended by war, although a specific context or country is not given. There are echos of the Holocaust, of the on-going war in Ukraine, of a setting largely rural, maybe close, maybe far, maybe even here. As in all good poetry, what is withheld is as important as what is told and raises the matter from the local to the universal.


The speaker is “a boy.” The poems that follow relate his memories: of bombings, of soldiers and inquisitions, a firing squad, a barn’s burning, the loss of the beloved Rosie and of his parents. There are specific characters: an Aunt Adelaide, a tailor, a doctor named Saltzman, and an Uncle Albert, who is part of a trio of musicians playing ragtime music in the pre-war world. Yet we do not rest, as readers, on solid, historical ground. The faintly surreal quality of the events recounted is signaled by that unstable rind of cheese the parents may have danced in, a doubleness of effect enabled by the lack of punctuation.


The onward flood of unstopped sentences creates tremendous impetus. The poems rush forward, but a reader wants to go back, because the language is dense and rich with implications, ambiguous links, loops and connections that illustrate the shaping metaphor from which the collection draws its title, String.


The theme is explicitly introduced in the opening lines of a poem titled “Wouldn’t Hold”:


Everything is made of
loops made of long
lines Mother said and it
began to unravel


the string of the world
running out of my pencil


The physical act of writing is seen here as a brave, if ultimately futile, attempt to grasp and hold the experienced world.


That notion is developed more fully in “There’s This String,” the (appropriately long and narrow) 10-page poem that binds the collection and plays out the implications of its central metaphor in many astonishing permutations. Here string or rope suggests an apt descriptor for everything: for plot, the thread of a story, for complex personal connections and entanglements, for the bonds between father and son, for music-making (violin strings) and poetry-writing (lines of cursive script). It appears and reappears (as also in poems throughout the collection) as piano wire, telephone line, sewing thread, umbilical cord, a woman’s hair, “a river rushing/away,” and, again, vis à vis poetry, as a ploy against death:


this tangle
of words
I keep
saying out
loud repeating
so it won’t end so
I can reach
its other end
where you
will all be
or never get


What impresses about this poem and the collection as a whole is the brilliant cohesion of craft, structure, idea and imagery and the richness of invention. The image of tangled string surfaces in other poems disguised in a stethoscope, fishing line, the darting and looping of a bat’s flight. In String, it seems, Thorburn has spun his metaphor out as far as it could possibly go and brought home a fine book of poetry.

Jean Nordhaus’s six volumes of poetry include Memos from the Broken World, The Porcelain Apes of Moses Mendelssohn, and Innocence. She has published poetry and dance criticism in numerous journals and served as review editor of Poet Lore. She lives in Washington, DC.

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