WALKING THROUGH THAT VALLEY: James Reiss on Jonathan Thirkield’s The Waker’s Corridor

wakers corridor

The Waker’s Corridor, Jonathan Thirkield, Louisiana State University Press


A poet in his mid-thirties whose first book wins the Walt Whitman Award has a lot to celebrate. His book comes wrapped in the blessings of its sponsor, The Academy of American Poets; it is all but guaranteed to be reviewed, not relegated to Dustville among dozens of other debut volumes; and it will forever be linked with Whitman, whom Emerson famously greeted in 1855 “at the beginning of a great career.”

At the start of his gig on Parnassus Jonathan Thirkield may not yet be our preeminent bard, who happened to be from Brooklyn – Thirkield’s a Manhattanite. But even a casual glance at “The Waker’s Corridor” reveals its awesome precocity, along with its flaws. From time to time if Whitman slipped, so does Thirkield – and who doesn’t? – even when the causes for their pratfalls are as different as banana peels and black ice.

From the get-go, let me say that I’ve seldom read lines of poetry quite as fresh as Thirkield’s. When George Orwell declared, “Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print,” he might well have been hoping for language as unusual as what you’ll see in the very first chiseled lines of Thirkield’s book; here’s the beginning of the sonnet-like “Streamside”:

A perfect scene: a voice unwarrantedly
sweet exiting the shade: a man’s red mouth
rough cheeks white skin: in wood – a gondolier
plays the scattered pieces of his fiddle-form
in broken light and audience estranged
from living sound: but sweetly arcs his song:

Aside from the opening gambit, “A perfect scene,” an essential but perhaps a slightly hackneyed turn of phrase – as well as “rough cheeks,” which could be scripted from a Gillette commercial – these lines sound new-minted. The man’s voice being described as “unwarrantedly / sweet” alters the common adjective “unwarranted” – as in “Your cruel remarks are unwarranted, Don” – to an adverb I find exotic. Furthermore, the man’s voice is “exiting the shade,” rather than “emerging from the shade,” “shining forth from the shade” or some such crap. In context “exiting” could almost be called a neo-geo locution. Lines 3–6 depict a man in the midst of singing an opera or an operetta like Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Gondoliers.” But notice how the image, “the scattered pieces of his fiddle-form,” evades plainspoken photo-realism and evokes something more visually abstract or surreal. The penultimate quoted line in isolation, given its continued iambic-pentameter underpinnings, suggests the first canto of “Paradise Lost,” partly because of the inversion of the verbal “estranged.” At any rate, the sixth quoted line rounds off this portrait, which turns out to be of a son and his father, with panache and a nostalgia emphasized by the “sweet” in line two becoming “sweetly.” Please notice the Spenserian echoes in “sweetly arcs his song.” Considering these half-dozen splendid lines, I’m red-faced – red-mouthed? – when I say that the seventh line of Thirkield’s little elegy is sappy as can be. “[W]ith the innocent abandon of a child” is thematically central to “The Waker’s Corridor,” but that doesn’t prevent it from being the tritest line in the book. Thank goodness, it’s the only howler I’ve detected in sleuthing through 84 pages.

The opening sequence of eleven 14-liners, “Fatherland,” uses colons the way A. R. Ammons did lo these many years ago, to give the impression of a continuum. Rather than interrupting the “flow” of things with those stop-sign punctuation marks, periods, Thirkield creates the illusion of A giving the green light to B, B giving the green light to C and so forth. The result may be something like Whitman’s catalogues incorporating multitudes, although Thirkield steers clear of Whitmanesque parallel-structured lists. He doesn’t steer clear of sequential narration, rhyme, iambs and, as Mark Levine writes in his blockbuster blurb, “formal procedures.”

Still, Thirkield’s formalism is a whole nuther sort of ism than the one I associate with, say, the Expansive Poets of the 1980s. Of the 41 poems in this book, 23 have titles followed by numbers in parentheses as in: Upstate (7:127). If you’re citing a passage from the Bible, you refer to chapter and verse, i.e., Psalms (23:4). Yea, though Thirkield has walked through that valley – “The Waker’s Corridor” is surely about the shadow of death – in his day job he is a Web designer and refers to more than half the poems in his book by the number of their stanzas and lettered characters. To describe “Upstate” as having seven stanzas seems ho-hum enough. To specify that each line in “Upstate” has 127 characters, minus spaces, bespeaks an obsession with form unique to an era of Twitter. Not one line of the prose poem “Upstate” approaches the maximum limit of a Tweet, 140 characters, yet the poem’s choppy, retarded sentences and fragments suggest Twitter’s newspeak. Here is the first full basket case of a line from “Upstate” – count the characters (minus spaces) for yourself:

The mental institution was funny. The way the mad are funny. From the cement recreation area. She could not see beyond the figures. Left by felled trees.

“Upstate” is certainly not funny ha-ha! It recalls a boy – one of Thirkield’s high frequency words throughout is “child” – visiting his father in a sanatorium. Whereas the poet takes pains to depict the woman in the first stanza with a compassion he expresses in subsequent stanzas – only then to focus on his emaciated, exhausted father – his modus operandi is as cold-blooded as a king in his counting house. I don’t know much about the tools of a Web designer’s trade, but perhaps the “sodal” – a “modular java irc bot” – which Thirkield gives thanks to on his acknowledgments page, has something to do with formatting his “stanza/character” poems. Whether he uses a techie’s tool or counts out his characters on his fingers, his poems press the digitized envelope in ways I haven’t seen. Back in the 1980s, without using a computer, the excellent Cincinnati poet David Schloss labored to justify both the right- and left-hand margins of his poems. More recently, another Ohioan, now transplanted to Charlottesville, Kevin McFadden, came out with a strenuous first poetry collection, “Hardscrabble,” much of which is based on brilliantly recast anagrams. Well, Thirkield sings in his chains like a different sort of sea. In fact, to belabor the pun, he represents a kind of sea change in poetry.

What does Thirkieldian poetry entail? Two-thirds of the way through “Lilac (9:111)” a line and a half put forth an ars poetica: “You read. I am, for you in ink, the voice / undressed. Tear this sheet from this whitewashed stone. Wear it!”

First of all, then, these poems present “the voice / undressed.” Recall Yeats, in “A Coat,” celebrating the poetic “enterprise in walking naked. ” Recall also Stephen Berg and Robert Mezey’s 1969 anthology, “Naked Poetry: Recent American Poetry in Open Forms.” Somewhere beyond Yeats and Berg/Mezey, Thirkield’s voice is attuned to bare feelings, particularly grief. The disorder and early sorrow of a twelve-year-old who lost his father to suicide pervades every single page of this book. The fact that its poems are “dressed up” in costumes sometimes as elaborate as Pavarotti’s only underscores their transparency, how well they fit a tragic libretto. To switch metaphors: as if robed in the emperor’s new clothes, Thirkield accompanies his father’s ghost across the stage in his very own revival of New York’s Circle Repertory Theater, which Papa Robert Thirkield co-founded in that same Berg/Mezey year, 1969. Naturally, “Hamlet” features prominently in Thirkield fils’s book, as do Edgar and his father, Gloucester in “King Lear,” along with Miranda and Prospero in “The Tempest.” Which brings me to Point Two:

More than a little of Thirkield sounds Shakespearean. Take, for example, Thirkield’s colloquial iambic-pentameter line, “Now turn our thoughts to bangers and to mash”; or else “A bout of grief whirrs the priest i’ the rib cage”; or certain lines that distill the essence of a song sung by a Globe Theatre actor: “I had a clock it woke all day / in hiccupped white embattled cries / I broke my glasses on the street / to blind my sense of dignity” – these four tetrameter lines are part of “Father’s Song.” Obviously, the apple didn’t fall far from the tree; young Jonathan is haunted enough by his dad to have inherited – or deliberately acquired – his old man’s thespian gifts. The thing is, the son’s grins and grimaces aren’t the poetic equivalent of “staged” gestures that derive from, say, Stanislavsky’s method. If all the world’s a stage, one thing seems sure: the emotions infusing Thirkield’s book are not programmed but real.

A dozen “Mystery Plays” constitute the poet’s homage to the medieval York Cycle of dramas popular centuries before Shakespeare. No wonder the superb scrivener of historical poems, Linda Bierds, chose “The Waker’s Corridor” as this year’s Whitman winner. Thirkield’s “Mystery Plays” pilfer from Bierds Territory, which is vast but includes the fifteenth century, as slyly as a cat burglar. Here’s one of them in its entirety:

IV. The Chandler’s Play (6:36)

On the wall, a horse tied to a change-house,

Tiny. A candle in the glass above, its flame

The same burnt hay sloping across the whole

Encaustic pasture: snow patched, trees to

Hazel strings, a bird trap. Unpeopled now,

Three crooks lean against a flat muted sky.


Short but not sweet like “Streamside,” “The Chandler’s Play” is not so much a play as it is a description of a painting in a candle maker’s house. Notice the painted horse “tied to a change-house,” possibly a tallow factory, in synch with the sinister “bird trap” in line 5. Notice the “encaustic pasture”; this hot beeswax painting, a style famous as far back as 100 A.D. in Egypt, may well have been completed by the candle maker. If his landscape bristles with the hayfields and pastures Brueghel relished, the countryside is “unpeopled,” sans Brueghel’s vast unwashed crowds of Flemish peasants. Instead, three shepherds’ lonely “crooks lean against a flat muted sky.” Auden might have appreciated how these stringent musical lines complement his own deceptively nonchalant “Musée des Beaux Arts.”

Notice also that “The Chandler’s Play,” along with Thirkield’s eleven other mystery plays and some other verse here, is double-spaced. This style of printing has gained favor with various avant-garde writers. I can find no reason why the format is deployed except to give a poem some airy space between its lines. It may be merely a waste of paper, but poets are experimenting with ways of making a reader plow (like Auden’s “ploughman”?) through lines more slowly and deliberately. As I’ve noted elsewhere, the poem comprised of stanzas with an equal number of lines has lost favor among the new millennium’s upstart crows, who, like Thirkield, have resorted to other means of expressing their obsessions, their rage for order.

It’s as if the phrase “Alles in Ordnung,” as well as its Dionysian twin, “Gefühl ist Alles,” reverberate as rallying cries throughout this book. Accordingly, Thirkield uses German, at one point fractured, to set his ducks in order. He’s more of a Wunderkind than an enfant terrible, even if his surname is Danish, not Deutsch. And the title of the second section of his book, “Abendland,” reminds us that German speakers refer to the Occident, or New World, as “evening land.” Americans call Japan the “Far East,” despite its being west of Seattle. So it makes sense that, for Germans, the land of the setting sun is a locus of darkness.

No doubt about it: “The Waker’s Corridor” (as opposed to “The Walker’s Corridor”) is, in the mightiest sense of the word, a “dark” book. It is dense and sometimes nearly impenetrable, like an infernal dark forest. Its 100-plus-line title poem, like many of the most nakedly emotional pieces here, is not a stanza/character Kunstwerk. Rather, it is an insomniac child’s rite of passage, a sleepwalker’s tour of a house during a night of thunder and fantasy in New York City; his parents are away, while a neighbor woman baby-sits, cracks an egg in “a simple white bowl of German design” and tries to reassure herself and the child that “it was thunder,” not the world’s end. The child’s mind fills with names of distant places, and suddenly the waker’s corridor turns into the Wakhan Corridor, an area in northeast Afghanistan so remote that only Osama bin Laden and the CIA may have heard of it. As the poem chuffs and rumbles on its far-reaching itinerary with nary a blooper of a line, nary a phrase that is not musical or painterly, you may realize that the ”corridor” in Thirkield’s book title is anything but narrow and confining. Nope, the Northeast corridor – that parochial hall of mirrors – opens out onto a Great White Way reaching beyond the stars because, at under forty years of age, Thirkield is one of those precious few poets who has arisen from dogmatic slumber and is fully, intensely awake.


James Reiss, whose last name rhymes with “peace,” grew up in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City. http://www.jamesreiss.com/

One response to “WALKING THROUGH THAT VALLEY: James Reiss on Jonathan Thirkield’s The Waker’s Corridor