Saturday, October 6, 2012

The Poet on the Poem: Matthew Thorburn

Matthew Thorburn is the author of two books of poems, Every Possible Blue (CW Books, 2012) and Subject to Change (New Issues, 2004). A third collection, This Time Tomorrow, is scheduled for release from Waywiser Press in 2013. He is the recipient of a Witter Bynner Fellowship from the Library of Congress, the Mississippi Review Prize, and two Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Prizes. His poems have appeared in literary journals such as The Paris Review, American Poetry Review, Poetry, and Prairie Schooner. A native of Michigan, Matt has lived in New York City for more than a decade. Today's poem comes from Every Possible Blue.
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Still Life                                         

     —Pierre Bonnard

That he would go back
after hours to retouch
the ones hanging in the gallery—
he must have had an in
with the guards—to get it righter 
if never right, you've heard
before. How he'd revisit
the light—bring it up
or turn it down—just as I have
returned to this morning
all afternoon. They make me
hungry, these two pears
he must have hurried to paint
so she could eat. A few green ideas
about grapes. The apple
shows off its high bald head.
To be fascinated by fruit.
Not fruit, but light. Imperfect mirrors,
imitation mirrors. His broken
pinks and reds, green and
yellow mottle, this dash of white—
no, light—no, canvas
showing through. I almost catch
my face there, looking back.
I know this fruit. I've eaten it
all my life, though this basket's
new to me—a few brown twists
of vine, uncertain transport
but I'm moved. I'll say that.
Made to speak. Such
tenderness, his abiding
affection for anything touched
by light. And he needed
so little. A few pieces of fruit.
A window. The sky
trying on every possible blue.  

DL:  Tell us something about the impetus behind this ekphrastic poem. What compelled you to attempt to enter the painting, to repaint it with words?    

MT:  A few years ago, I took part in a weekend poetry workshop in Manhattan where we were given an assignment to complete during our lunch break: go find a place to eat and write, then come back with a new poem to share with the group. Faced with this deadline, I ducked into a nearby Chinese restaurant and turned—in a panic—to my go-to poetry prompt: write about art.

I like poems that emphasize visual details and enable you to really see things—colors, shapes, light and shadow—so writing about paintings comes naturally to me. Sitting in that restaurant and staring at my blank page, I thought of Pierre Bonnard, one of my old favorites, and his light-filled interior scenes. I remembered, too, this sort of famous story about him: he had a habit of going back to his paintings to add a little more color, make something lighter or darker, or change some detail he wasn’t happy with—even after they were hanging in galleries or shows. I remembered Jane Hirshfield has a poem that describes this painterly form of revising as “Bonnarding.” Since I was working from memory, my poem doesn’t match up exactly with a specific painting of Bonnard’s, but I tried to convey the feel of his work and some of my feelings about it. As I say in the poem, after looking at and thinking about his paintings, I was “made to speak.”   

DL:  I'm intrigued by the introduction of "she" in line 14. Why did you hold her back and then give her no further mention in the poem?  

MT:  There’s that place where all the wonderful ambitions of trying to express yourself creatively run up against the practical business of everyday life, and that’s a place that always interests me. Whatever musical phrase or clever line break I’m just about to get right as I revise a poem, dinner still needs to be cooked, the dishwasher emptied. I still have to go to work every day. Being aware of this friction is partly a way of staying grounded, and it makes the act of writing a poem that much more meaningful. (Tess Gallagher’s wonderful poem “I Stop Writing the Poem” is about this, and about much more than this.) I guess I was imagining the same was true for Bonnard too: as a painter he may have seen these pieces of fruit as colors and shapes to be explored in paint, but to Marthe, his wife—she’s the “she” I had in mind—they were apples and pears, there to be eaten. I hope a little note of thoughtful tenderness comes through, too, in the way he hurries his work along so she can have her lunch. 

That’s all a very roundabout way of answering your question. Marthe appears in many of Bonnard’s paintings. These paintings aren’t portraits exactly, but they wouldn’t be the same without her. I suppose I thought she could nonchalantly appear in my poem too, fleetingly but in a way that felt important to me for the ballast it provides. Otherwise for me the poem is mostly concerned with what a strange thing it is to be so focused on one activity—in this case painting, being fascinated by light—and to feel that obsessive urge to get it right on the canvas.

DL:  While you make only one brief reference to the "she," you make ample use of repetition. Light and fruit both appear four times. Then you repeat sounds as in the rhyme of right, white, and light. The same sound is echoed in the assonance of I, ideas, high, life, vine, abiding, sky, trying. Tell us how you crafted these musical effects.    

MT:  I appreciate you noticing the music of the poem, because that’s something I strive for as a writer and admire as a reader. I love rhymes and off-rhymes that fall within lines, as well as assonance, repetitions and echoes, and all the rhythmic effects you can produce with patterns of long and short lines, or by using phrases and fragments of sentences. I usually write and revise out loud when I’m working at home, so I can hear how lines sound. Of course I couldn’t do that in the restaurant, but surely did later on when typing up the poem and revising it. 

DL:  As I read this poem, I feel as if I'm witnessing a mind at work, reaching and stretching for what it wants to say. I think your use of syntax is responsible for this effect. There's the reversed order in the first sentence which covers seven lines, several fragments, several sentences broken by the use of dashes, and a few declarative statements followed by their negation, e.g., "To be fascinated by fruit. / Not fruit, but light." Was all of this intuitive or crafted?  

MT:  I love the way certain poems convey the sense of a mind at work, the poet working out her or his thoughts—saying something, hesitating, backtracking and correcting—as the poem moves forward word by word. That’s something I admire in my friend Stuart Greenhouse’s poems, for instance “Poppy-red.” And it’s something Elizabeth Bishop probably invented in her “Poem,” when she interrupts her own methodical, detail-by-detail description of a faraway landscape—it’s a poem about a painting—to exclaim, “Heavens, I recognize the place, I know it!” So I was definitely conscious of striving for a similar effect in different ways throughout the poem.

But there’s also the fact that I was on the spot there, with a short window in which to get my poem down on paper, so what shows through in the poem is also my effort to get to the heart of the thing.  

DL:  What made you choose the single stanza form?

MT:  I wrote the first draft of this poem quickly—for me, anyway—and so it felt like one long thought or breath. As I work on a poem I usually try different line breaks or stanza breaks until I find the form that feels right for that particular poem. Certain poems need some air and light to shine in between stanzas, to give the reader those pauses for breath or that little extra emphasis of a stanza break, as opposed to a line break. But here I wanted to hold the focus in this lingering moment, so it’s one long breath and then it’s done. Readers, please enjoy this recording of Matt reading "Still Life," along with some of Bonnard's paintings.


  1. A fine poem and interesting interview.

  2. Wow - that's a great interview.

    Diane, I really appreciate your deep reading of Thorburn's piece. What a stunning poem it is. You analysis helps me realize why I like the work.

    A couple of years ago I won "Subject to Change" (via Book of Kells - Kelli Agodon's blog), and now I am eager to expand my collection of his work.

    Thank you.

  3. Thanks! So glad you enjoyed both the interview and the poem. And I'm confident that you'll enjoy the entire book.


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