By James Salewoodland poems

This is a curious collection from Douglas Thornton: ambitious, epic in its style, containing many great lines and ideas, but also strangely baffling, quirky, and—I have to say—awkward.  The title, for starters, Woodland Poems, certainly led me to expect a kind of poetry that would be immediately accessible; instead, the titles left me asking who? Anectahi’s Chant, Wapiniwiktha, The Indian Ballad of Gitchy Naigow,  Tamosemis, and so on; I am not clearer at the end as to who they are and why I should care than I was at the beginning, but that said, consider this:

“There is a force connects one to the end
Of all things, that before the end
We may learn of it, and to us define
Of beauty, love, philosophy;
To make intelligence more than what
It is – divine – and by that broad
Effort leave a trace upon the present
Of which all must experience:”. [opening of “Wapiniwiktha”]

That opening approaches the sublime and much can be forgiven a poet who writes in such a manner; one senses the confidence in the writing and the urge to say something important, and with that too a commensurate elevation of style.

Perhaps the centrepiece of the whole collection is the poem “Minneola,” which is a poem spanning 48 pages; not quite full epic in scale or length, but certainly substantial.  The poem starts with the prologue of an old warrior and this is in heroic couplets (and it ends with an epilogue in the same form) and then we move into various dialogues between the characters who seem to be discussing wars past, present and to come; they debate and soliloquise largely in blank verse, with occasional bursts of song. Because the structure is dramatic, there are many echoes of Shakespeare in the syntax and language; for example, “Thus bad decisions must not breed / Another, and exile themselves!  So bird, / I am, and must feign me, a warrior, / And step into the warrior’s dark nest, / Then fly, to let this haggard body rest.” Some of the songs, too, seem Shakespearean, and have a great beauty and skill; for example,  the song “We see no more the Kittuwa” where the cross-stanzaic rhyming creates a lovely effect. But while this is all good, the difference from Shakespeare is perhaps the weakness of the poem. Yes, Shakespeare does have characters debate and soliloquise, but invariably because it leads to action; hence the power of the dramatic forms. But here there is a lot of talk about tomahawks and scalping, but there is no essential action; there is a battle retold at the end, and a triumph over an enemy we never meet or really care about; in other words, everyone is talking, thinking, philosophising, but not much else!  And this means the dramatic form is slightly wasted when there is no real drama except exposition.

Perhaps my favourite poem in this collection is “Joskeka and Tawiscare.” This avoids the structural problem of the “Minneola” by being cast not in a dramatic form, but in Spenserian stanzas. Here Douglas Thornton really shows his ability as a poet; Spenserian stanzas are extremely difficult to write well – on a par with writing a Petrarchan Sonnet – but they can be ideal for narrative flow that evokes descriptive detail. Take his wonderful opening to stanza two:

But if to look across that angered deep,
Where mingles dark and light, where shadows swarm,
To seize from fate, when thought seems fast asleep,
The turning point turns back into a storm.

The collection concludes with a marvellous and evocative lyric: “The Opechee.” Here there is a sweet simplicity of observation and emotion that is truly refreshing after all the heavy debates. It starts:

A bird late winter sang,
It’s sweet and simple tune,
The sounds I thought betrayed a man
If he were passing through.

That seems to me pure loveliness, and almost Hardy-esque. There is much, then, to recommend in this collection. It is certainly ambitious both thematically and technically.  My own personal caveat would be that I am not much interested in Native American Indian war councils and find that difficult to relate to contemporary life; but I accept that that might just be my limitation as reader than one in the poem itself. Certainly, there is a big intelligence at work here in creating these poems and considerable skill as well. I hope others will explore its riches.

 

Douglas Thornton is a poet and English teacher living in France and has recently published his first book of poetry entitled Woodland Poems which contains lyrical, narrative, and dramatical works with subjects invented, imagined, and derived from Native American culture.
James Sale, FRSA is a leading expert on motivation, and the creator and licensor of Motivational Maps worldwide. James has been writing poetry for over 40 years and has seven collections of poems published, including most recently, Inside the Whale, his metaphor for being in hospital and surviving cancer, which afflicted him in 2011. He can be found at www.jamessale.co.uk and contacted at james@motivationalmaps.com. He is the winner of Second Prize in the Society’s 2015 Competition

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One Response

  1. gm

    this minnesota boy grew up amidst the lakes and plains of the warriors to whom minneola may refer. a lot is in the spirit. excellent review

    Reply

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