Amanda Jernigan drinks at the grave of John Thompson
IT WAS NOT love at first sight.
I was introduced to the poetry of John Thompson in the one university-level writing class I took — at Mount Allison University, in a hardwood-floored, high-ceilinged, Hart-Hall classroom, in which Thompson himself may once have taught. We had an assignment: write something called a “ghazal.” Thompson’s ghazal-sequence Stilt Jack (1978) had been held up as an example.
I sought out the library copy of Stilt Jack. It was not only well-read, but well-loved: the corners mashed, evidence not so much of hours spent on desks as of days spent in satchels and handbags. Its cover had been handled to a buttery texture; in places, the varnish was cracked and worn so the white of the cover stock showed through, flour in the palm-creases of a baker.
Thompson — teacher, woodsman, marsh mythographer — is New Brunswick’s canonical tortured-brilliant poet, as well known for his life (shortened by depression and drink) as for his work. That the work has weathered the romantic biography speaks to its value: his two books, At the Edge of the Chopping There Are No Secrets (1973) and Stilt Jack, remain, elusive, scholarly, wild. But when I first encountered the work, there in the library, I was skeptical. There was the thanatos of the poems (a frequency turned up in the mix by my knowledge of Thompson’s biography); then, there was the speaker’s queasy relationship with the feminine (“women have one word or too many…”).
But I was prejudiced against the book from its very beginning. In his introduction, Thompson writes, “The ghazal proceeds by couplets which (and here, perhaps, is the great interest in the form for Western writers) have no necessary logical, progressive, narrative, thematic (or whatever) connection.” Emphasis mine. I read on: “The ghazal is immediately distinguishable from the classical, architectural, rhetorically and logically shaped English sonnet.” Classical, architectural, rhetorically and logically shaped: this was the poetic world in which I felt comfortable. I like sonnets.
I remembered my professor’s description of the ghazal: the links between the couplets should be “intuitive,” she said, suggested not by story or argument but by “nuance and tone.”
What did this mean?
I thought about the pickup line once administered to me by a young man in the campus pub: “I know you’re a great poet,” he said, “but [but?] would you like to come and smoke a joint in the graveyard with me?”
The logical leap fulcrumed on that conjunction seemed to me to be exactly the sort of thing the ghazal form demanded.
I did not go to smoke a joint in the graveyard. I did not take to the ghazal form.
FIVE YEARS LATER, I encountered Thompson’s poetry again. This time I was working as an editor, having returned to Sackville, New Brunswick, Thompson’s old haunts, in my post-student days. The manuscript spread out across my desk was Peter Sanger’s brilliant White Salt Mountain, a collection of essays on “Words in Time” by another — very different — Maritime mythographer. Sanger and Thompson are both scholar-poets; they both write out of a sense of the equal importance of, indeed the co-inherence of, the physical and metaphysical worlds. But I say “very different” because Sanger — the most prominent Thompson scholar (his Collected Thompson has just been republished, in a revised and updated edition) — has to some extent defined himself in relation to Thompson. Sanger’s interest in balance, in limits, is in part, I think, a reaction to his sense of Thompson’s excess(es) — though Sanger knows his Blake. His work suggests that he has felt differently at different points in his career about whether or not Thompson reached the palace of wisdom.
Sanger is erudite, and careful. One does not really “edit” his books: one endeavours, rather, to ask him questions that are as unfoolish as possible, in order to determine if what he’s done is what he set out to do. (Almost always, it is). Attaining any degree of unfoolishness in this respect is no small task, however. My first step when confronted with one of his manuscripts is to pack myself off to the library with a list of call-numbers and a capacious rucksack.
On this particular library-visit, I went for the Thompson section: signing out, again, that velveteen copy of Stilt Jack — still, I was happy to discover, on the shelves — as well as Sanger’s commentary on the book, Sea Run, and Sanger’s Collected Thompson, then in its first edition. I was still troubled by the thanatos, the sometime misogyny, of Stilt Jack. But I had to acknowledge that Thompson was a more careful poet than I’d given him credit for. And also that he was a better-read poet than I.
I began this essay in response to an interviewer’s request that I reflect on Thompson’s influence on my own work. It’s a dangerous game to deny influence. It so easily turns into “the lady doth protest too much, methinks.” But I do believe that my initial encounter with Thompson’s work was too glancing — and too mediated by own (admittedly ill-informed) skepticism — to have had much direct influence on my poetry. In my scholarly work, however, I was and have continued to be influenced by Sanger’s approach to Thompson — particularly in “Sand Mountain,” the Thompson-essay in White Salt Mountain, which initiated that second trip to the Mount Allison library, in 2004.
In “Sand Mountain” I saw a kind of criticism I wanted to write: one that took account not only of the critic’s read experience but of his lived experience, as it fed into and flowed out of a text; one that allowed for changes over time, of mind and heart, in both author and reader; and one that was attentive not only to “the text” but to “the book” — the particular physical artifact in which one encountered a particular set of words.
That “velveteen copy of Stilt Jack,” for instance.
“I HEAR YOU’RE coming for the Thompson love-in.”
This was Thaddeus Holownia, the New Brunswick photographer who now owns the Jolicure property that was Thompson’s. We were speaking on the phone, a week or so before “White Salt Mountain: A Gathering of Poets,” a day of talks, musical performances, and poetry readings to be held in Sackville in honour of Thompson. I knew that Holownia’s tone didn’t spring from any skepticism, on his part, about the value of Thompson’s life or work. Holownia has made artwork in conversation with Thompson and his oeuvre (see Holownia’s Working in the Dark, a collaboration with Sanger, just published [full disclosure: I contributed a poem]). He has also acted for years as self-appointed caretaker of the cemetery in Jolicure where Thompson is buried. Holownia’s comment sprang rather from his skepticism — a skepticism he knew I shared — about the cult of personality that has grown up around Thompson’s memory.
I said, “I will endeavour to keep the hordes of Thompson admirers from descending, in search of relics, on your property.”
On the day of the “White Salt Mountain” gathering, Holownia appeared, weaving his way through the assembled listeners at the Bridge Street Café, to the table where Sanger and the poet Harry Thurston, both longtime friends and collaborators of Holownia’s, were sitting. The skepticism I’d heard in his voice on the phone seemed somewhat tempered by the sight of these friends — or perhaps by the Saturday-morning sunlight coming in through the café windows, or perhaps by the genuinely cheering music of the bluegrass band (Grand Sass Parilla) assembled on the makeshift stage. Holownia looked, if not like a believer, then at least like a man prepared to suspend his disbelief.
Janna Graham, organizer of this gathering, welcomed us. Sanger read his poem “Marsh Greens: Burnt Coat Head,” with this wonderful consonantal trickle: “With any luck / his wife will hook her / a seabass before / she takes off in the truck / all tackle and handbag / to pick a last quart / of blackberries.” Thurston read beautiful, spare poems from his series “Broken Vessel.” Poet-critic Anita Lahey read, too. Her poem “Man Tearing Down a Chimney” (his pickup “munching gravel, casting a wake of white / dust”) was the perfect complement to Sanger’s “Marsh Greens.” Grand Sass Parilla resumed the stage.
By this time, Holownia had decided the gathering should be documented on film. We assembled — poets with our books and satchels, musicians with their instruments, audience members with their babies and coffee cups, somebody’s dog — in the sunlit parking lot down the street from the café, and Holownia made our portrait with his banquet camera.
That evening, Sanger delivered the keynote address. He spoke movingly, pointedly, carefully, to a nearly full house at the Owens Art Gallery, about Thompson’s life and work, and about the relationships (real, imagined, and “imaginal”) between them.
By this time, Holownia had decided that an expedition to Thompson’s grave might not be out of the question.
We piled into our pooled vehicles, poets and friends, maybe a dozen of us altogether, and rumbled out to Jolicure on the High Marsh Road, into the marsh’s astonishing darkness. We parked in the drive of Holownia’s house, and ducked through the bracken that separates his yard from the cemetery. Bumping our shins on headstones, coming up short on frost-heaved turf, we found our way to the gravesite by the light of a small candle that Holownia had placed on Thompson’s stone.
Holownia was at the grave, holding a bottle of Famous Grouse scotch whisky by its neck. A forethinking poet took from his pocket a dented flask of similar provision. A clinking sound came from the direction of the house. It was Holownia’s partner, expertly negotiating the dips and mounds as she picked her way across the cemetery, bearing a tray on which were set a cupboard’s-worth of tumblers.
Holownia poured us a round.
This, I thought, is an unlikely gathering: poets, artists, and one biologist (Holownia’s partner), stamping our feet in a Jolicure graveyard, warming our whisky over Thompson’s flame.
Or perhaps it was merely my presence here that was unlikely. It occurred to me that my undergraduate suitor (“I know you’re a great poet, but...”) would be proud of me, out here drinking whisky in the graveyard. A cow lowed in the distance. A Jolicure cow, like those recollected in the eleventh ghazal of Stilt Jack. “There’s all the noise here,” I thought, quoting (could it be, from memory?), “it’s so quiet.” A car rumbled by on the road.
Sanger — who, in addition to being very learned, is very funny — ventriloquized: “Those Jolicurians,” he said, lowering his brows, “tromping around in the graveyard, under the full moon. What are they doing out there?”
Holownia poured a glass for Thompson and set it on the stone. He raised his own glass. Squinting at us, with this perfect, Holownian mix of earnestness and irony, he said, “Hey, man. Long live poetry.”
AMANDA JERNIGAN's latest book is All the Daylight Hours (2013). Her work has appeared in Poetry and other magazines.