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John Thompson, collected poems and translations

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The following poem appears in John Thompson, Collected Poems and Translations (edited by Peter Sanger):

Don’t talk to me of trifles; I feel the dirt in these:
what brightens when the eye falls, goes cold.

I have so many empty beer bottles, I’ll be rich:
I don’t know what I’d rather be: the Great Bear, or stone.

I feel you rocking in the dark, dreaming also
of branches, birds, fire and green wood.

Sudden rain is sweet and cold. What darkens
those winds we don’t understand?

Let’s leave the earth to be; I’m asleep.
The slow sky shuts. Heaven goes on without us.

I’m not going to try to dissect or deconstruct this poem. I’m not going to go on a long ramble about ghazals, a form I’m partial to when it’s kept tight (as Thompson kept this one tight). I’ll leave the ramble to this link about ghazals. I’m not going to talk about Thompson’s career, or tragic (some would say pitiful) end — if you buy the book, its introduction covers that.

I’m not going to talk about the disillusionment, distrust and loneliness I find seeping out of the poem above, nor the extreme and perfect dichotomy between the Great Bear and stone, nor about the poem’s tenderness, its confusion, nor its final grasp at stoicism.

So what am I on about? Well, this post originally appeared on my blog — one of the purposes of which is to look without heavy deconstruction at poets and poetry that have affected me, influenced me. And Thompson’s poetry has done that. I first read his work in the late ’80s, and felt an immediate and deep connection to it. The connection remains, perhaps deeper than ever. Thompson is one of the poets I return and return to, never feeling that I’ve fully digested him or that his poems have lost their salt sting.

Thompson’s work was my first brush up against the ghazal form. My first attempts to use it, to fit it to my own hand, were deformed and miserable and are now long gone into a dark landfill of unrecyclable [ugly word] crap. Ten or more years later, after having left the form to its own devices in whatever strange basement corner of the subconscious such things play in while a writer matures a little, I found that, whether I was ready for it or not, the ghazal was what I needed as the form for a sequence of poems which became the core of my first book.

I suggest that if you have any interest in poetry that avoids descent into sentimentalism and dreary, hackish, confessionalism, any interest in a poetry of clean lines, honesty, strong images and skillful technique, you could do worse than to check out Thompson’s work.

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About John MacKenzie

  • Bruce Chapman

    Like Mike Robertson, I was a friend of John Thompson. I find his work compelling – as was he as a person. He wrote a poem for my wife and my wedding which is in Peter Sanger’s book. We treasure the original. 30 plus years later we think of him as he was, and read his work. I miss him.
    A great poet can crystalize a moment, make you stop and look in infinite detail and wonder, and add to your experience in some fresh unexpected way. John did this.

  • Mike Robertson

    I knew John Thompson. He was my teacher and friend at Mount Allison. We went trout fishing together once. He had a canoe and we fished somewhere up in back of Silver Lake. In the late afternoon he suddenly insisted that we paddle to shore and then he ran off through the woods. It was a Saturday and he’d forgotten to buy his grog for the weekend from the Sackville liquor store. Hours later he came back for me and the canoe in the dark. “That was close” he said. Mike Robertson, Fig Tree Pocket, AUSTRALIA

  • I know exactly what you mean about returning to a poet. I find that same refuge and reconnection in the works of e.e. cummings.

  • Thanks, Eric.

  • Eric Olsen

    powerful, heartfelt and informative – thanks and welcome John!