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West coast state of mind

Birds, Metals, Stones & Rain contains just the types of poems you might expect from a West-Coast Canadian lyrical poet like Russell Thornton, and then some, which is one of the reasons it manages to avoid clichés and remains engaging throughout.

With Thornton’s Vancouver home as a primary backdrop, his prolific compilation of poems balances familial themes with natural settings and their relation to the urban landscape. Thornton writes in free verse, but many of the poems could be considered lyrics—not the kind that rhyme, but personal meditations governed only by a steady cadence.

The epigraph to the McGill alumnus’s fifth poetry collection opens like this: “Birds, metals, stones, and rain are mother, father, daughter, and son,” After first reading those introductory words, my thoughts were that he was probably making some kind of overarching metaphorical statement about how the parts of the natural world resemble a traditional family structure—but Thornton had more literal ideas.

He alludes here to poems in the anthology that share the connections listed—some uplifting and sentimental, others disturbing. The inspiration for “Playing With Stones” is Thornton’s revered daughter, who has a ritual of collecting the smooth stones outside their apartment when they arrive home. “Blade,” on the other hand, details the painfully tense relationship Thornton shares with his father through a dream in which they face each other, ready to strike with razor-sharp metal blades. These two poems say a lot about their author’s mindset and style: much of his work stems from everyday ruminations about the natural fixtures of Vancouver and the joys of being a father, but he never shies away from bleakness and harsher convictions.

For instance, “Nest of the Swan’s Bones” laments the local industrial and environmental changes that have taken place in Thornton’s lifetime alone: “The wild white swan is dead. Where I caught trout as a child, no trout swim now.” Holding himself to a standard of accountability for his surroundings, Thornton writes, “I am a person. I soil the cage in which my heart flings and flings itself against the bars.” “Nest” begins with an epigraph from a Robinson Jeffers, an American poet considered an icon of the environmental movement. Other authors and works that warrant an introductory quotation in this collection include Euripides, the Book of Exodus, and renowned Canadian poet (and fellow McGill graduate) Irving Layton. In an interview with Canadian Literature, Thornton cites an encounter with one of Layton’s works as the catalyst that hooked him into seriously pursuing poetry.

Thornton is at his best with poems that explore temporality and relative change. My favourite poem in the anthology was “When the Big Hand Is on the Starfish,” a journey through time and space within the Art Deco-style Vancouver Marine Building. Once the tallest structure in the British Commonwealth, the building is a canvas for depictions of the nautical flora and fauna found in the nearby Pacific Ocean. Thornton uses the iconic clock in the lobby of the building, which has replaced numbers with marine creatures, as the central device of the poem, his jumping off point for a delve into the region’s past. It’s a history lesson compressed and disguised as a beautiful daydream-like meditation.

Thornton proves with Birds, Metals, Stones & Rain that he is a polished poet, both in the flow of his verses and in their content. The animals, landscapes, and overall elements of Vancouver and their intersection with his revealing personal life give the volume a clear aesthetic. It’s a combination that makes all the poems feel thematically linked, but still varied enough to feel like we’re not reading the same retread words over and over.

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