Timothy Thornton’s Jocund Day.
I first came across Timothy Thornton in the first issue of the Cambridge Literary Review which published his ‘Fire Shift’ which demonstrates his inventive approach to language and the honesty of his material.
He and I then discovered that we were following each other on Twitter (there is still an essay to be written about poets and social networks) and swapped notes / views on Simon Jarvis and Luke Roberts (we’re both fans). To cut a longer story short, I have a copy of ‘Jocund Day’ (which will be published this summer) and want to describe why I think it’s so good. In addition to CLR, Department has also published ‘Chamber Aubade’ which is also part of the ‘Jocund Day’ sequence together with a lengthy and forensic analysis by Alex Davies.
I want to treat ‘Jocund Day’ (JD) as a single work because that’s how I read it and because I think the sequence has some important things to say about male desire and about language.
As I’ve said with reference to Keston Sutherland’s Odes, the average British male isn’t comfortable with desire which he mostly equates with lust and usually stumbles into complete incoherence when trying to think about desire for another person. Most British writers, novelists and poets, can’t write about these things with any degree of honesty and accuracy. I know and understand this because I have the same problem.
The sequence bears an epigram from a lyric that is attributed to Thomas Campion to be found in ‘Giles Earle His Book’ (1615):
O but wherefore should soe faire a face, retaine a heart soe cruell ?
Then dispare, dispaire aspiring thoughtes, to gaine so rare a iewell.
O but when I cull, & clip, & kisse,
mee thinkes there hidden treasure is,
Which whispers in myne eares all this,
Loue’s flames require more fuell.’
What’s really good about JD is that it expresses and explores this stuff without ever being overly dramatic or flamboyant. There’s an incredibly light cadence being deployed that belies the depth of what’s being expressed.
I also might be wrong, Thornton make use of ‘am’ words – amid, amok etc in the sequence and I found this had some resonance with me but couldn’t work out why. After some mulling I realised that it was redolent of the ‘amo amas’ declension that someone once tried to drill into me at school. Feeling pleased with myself, I then checked it out with Tim who informed me that this connection hadn’t been in his mind at all…. So, I’m going to proceed with caution and try hard not to extrapolate too much.
I’ll start with an example from the first poem ‘Hunting Tungsten Out’:
which is it / isn’t it a cradle, now. Tring! — aces sluice this
for, oh, YES, we do rely and
chances are after all just
chances you cute scrape little scaffold, your vacant
plangent slump / nt then hold then my hand my mm
bee on the Voynich, O ! you melt my eyes
shut over just that gantry ; that we slept by
when first we slept
(lines 3 and 8 should be indented)
The bebrowed criteria for quality is whether I wish I’d written something and whether what’s been said is expressed in an original and interesting manner. This more than fulfils both of these, ‘then hold my hand my mm / bee on the Voynich’ fills me with poetic envy and the description of the desired one as a ‘bee on the Voynich’ is startlingly clever once you start to think about it. The play of possible meanings around ‘scrape’ (as a noun) captures a lot without really trying. I’ve written before about Prynne’s definition of O as a sign of ardency and/or unmediated experience but it’s used here to denote a change of pace into something more lyrical and intense. I could also point to the choices offered to the reader by ‘scaffold’ and ‘slump’ but I’ll think it’s best just to say that there’s a great deal of skill involved in this kind of word choice.
As for desire, ‘Hunting Tungsten Out’ ends with:
I flicker. Suppose now
you want to handcuff me, my
gristle, sinew gallowglass.
The contrast between ‘But I flicker’ and ‘Suppose now’ is another example of Thornton’s dexterity and ability to operate across several levels without appearing to exert effort. Only those of us who’ve tried to obtain (and failed) to obtain this mix of complexity and delicacy will realise just how accomplished this is. The choice of ‘gallowglass’ might appear to be jarring until you read the line out loud.
The second poem is entitled ‘Chamber Aubade’, Thornton is a musician as well as a poet so it’s safe to say that both of these terms are being used with a degree of precision and that the term has more meaning/connotations than I can wring out of them. What I can offer is the OED’s definition of both. ‘Aubade’ is defined as “A musical announcement of dawn, a sunrise song or open-air concert” and ‘chamber music’ is defined as ‘music intended for performance in a private room, as opposed to a concert hall, church, etc.; (subsequently) any music composed for a small group of musicians and typically played with a single instrument to a part’. This is more abstract than the first poem but just as effective, we begin with a three-line play with ‘hector’ that is further extended towards the end. Davies pays a lot of attention to ‘hector’ but I think I’ll concentrate on other issues. The first is one of style, there are very few poets writing good material that’s as ‘difficult’ (i.e. not initially apparent and in need of further attention) as this and nobody as far as I am aware is writing with this quite compelling blend delicacy and complexity. I’ll try and give a couple of examples from ‘Aubade’ The first occurs in the middle of the poem:
Back then betwixt the flint
and crown the chroma is become
the other vane the
What I think I’m trying to say is that very few poets would have followed ‘the chroma is become aberrant’ with ‘Hushabye / the other vane..’ It could be argued that ‘betwixt’ is affected or mannered but I’m a great fan of the word and would have no problem seeing back in everyday conversation. The meaning isn’t immediately apparent and readers may need to look at the context of the rest of the sequence before some clarity emerges. Given that again there are several thin gs going on, it is remarkable how light this use of language sounds and feels.
The poem ends with these three lines:
beta-end, stand tiptoe,
taut and let
the cairn-elect be yet.
‘Cairn’ needs to be considered in conjunction with ‘henge’ that occurs earlier in the poem and we also need to be mindful of the let / elect / yet rhyme and half-rhyme but again it’s the balance between complex and light that is so impressive and invigorating – ‘beta-end’ and ‘cairn-elect’ both function on multiple levels and are neatly separated by the command that closes the poem
The poem also has its more straightforward and lyrical moments:
the tincture glitch the tax the lid I love I lark the
all I love encircling you in rifled white, we wick
the birds alight : amid : ashore :
I think this just needs me to point out the tenderness and the agility of the central phrase ‘encircling you in rifled white’ to demonstrate that this material does contain a remarkable balance between light and dark.
The third poem is called ‘Tattoo’ and is much shorter in terms of both line length and the number of lines. There are two other poems with the same title in the JD sequence. This starts with a very definite statement- ‘The pressure is derived / from here and now…. before the ‘you’ is again addressed-
I will say you sing some
other song and you that I
am too much / blazing up and
Which is lyrical and succinct without over-egging the pudding the last two lines are again examples of Thornton’s skill and originality-
that ten paces glitch, the corner
of your eye.
The next poem is entitled ‘Bull Canvas’ and it makes me smile a lot in its depiction and celebration of male desire. Again the use of language is extraordinary – being inventive without at any time feeling portentous or forced. It’s also funny, there’s ‘sweating like gone off / ham (like shiny ham on a credit card)’. There’s also this uncanny feeling that Thornton is letting us know more about himself without in any way being confessional or overly serious.
There are so many impressive lines in this that I’m tempted just to copy it out without further comment. However, I do feel the need to point out that anyone who can write ‘is my strand of wholly sincere herringbone glances’ is worthy of serious attention.
The poem is not without its difficulties- it starts quite obliquely and there are odd phrases (‘shoulders the finch gantry’ and ‘tasked ah / senator in me will you’) which will need careful untangling. Things get more direct as the poem proceeds and there’s a sense of celebration that builds towards the end-
last, about how to burn the tar summer
thru with fuck and vassalage and drink.
The second ‘Tattoo’ poem is shorter than the first and acts as a kind of lyrical interlude before ‘Fire Shift’ which is much more complex and ambitious than what has gone before. There are more you/I juxtapositions and it’s clear that something unpleasant is going on – the loss of teeth, being bruised and strapped to a gurney but the wider context isn’t entirely clear.
There’s also some cleverness that doesn’t quite work:
I am sticky in the sun and am encouraged
toward diligence, as a shelf along a wall.
Which sounds good until you try to think about it, at which point the final phrase appears either redundant or empty.
To be fair, things improve as the poem proceeds with a palpable sense of urgency and danger, the you/I motif is used to good effect.
Throughout Jocund Day Thornton uses the forward slash (/) in the middle or towards the end of lines as if to signify additional pauses or line breaks. This can be impressive when used sparingly but does get a bit tiresome with the more frequent use in ‘Fire Shift’.
The third ‘Tatoo’ poem provides another lyrical interlude before the stunning ‘Hart’s Tongue’ which starts with three line stanzas dealing with desire and obsession and images that shouldn’t work but do- skin held in an urn, ‘hairline reveille’, ‘sand catenary’ and the ‘am’ words device.
The poem is only a page in length – the stanzas are broken by a single line (‘together here amassed’) and ends with
or just to brush up, once
enough against you.
This is followed by the equally stunning ‘Cairn-Punching’ which reads as a less structured riff on the same kind of theme – the I and you are still used but not in opposition – the ‘you is addressed more directly and reference is made to the process of writing. There are bits that I still need to unpack (‘heron stamp’, ‘this patent civil breathing apparatus’) but this kind of originality is certainly worth serious attention.
The sequence ends with “Alarum, Da Caccia” which is a kind of extended reprise of what’s gone before and (to extend the musical metaphor) a more structured improvisation around the themes of love and desire. It succeeds in being both startling in its use of language and phrasing and in a quite compelling kind of lyrical honesty. The good bits are brilliant and the less good bits are still very accomplished-
into teasing finger-
nails : barely
not at ease, we
lie stood cruciform
now lighting limb-like flares of
raw meat now run
blasted to the rubber.
As usual WordPress won’t let me format this properly but I think that most would agree on the quality of this stuff and the ‘we / lie stood cruciform’ acting as a perfectly centred ‘bridge’. This I would put forward in the ‘very accomplished’ category whereas this is brilliant-
But for now, for the moment, we
should hold, the quarry still extends into
the room, and we can make it stay. You’re off
your guard : asleep : and I
will watch asleep for infantrymen, listen
close for birds along the line, tugging
at your only vest
the bellringer’s fist can wait and want.
(The first, fourth and seventh lines should be indented).
This would be a fairly straightforward expression of love and care but what makes it special (to my mind) is the use of ‘still’ in the second line, the image of watching asleep for infantrymen and the inclusion of ‘only’ in the seventh line. It’s this kind of craftsmanship that’s a joy to read- I’m even prepared to forgive the highly annoying use of Greek without clarification towards the end.
In summary, ‘Jocund Day’ is pleasure to read and rewards the attentive reader. Timothy Thornton is clearly a rising star in English verse.