The Tantramar Marsh, a blend of sea and prairie, marks the border of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. The little white college town of Sackville lies on the New Brunswick side. It was to both that a troubled young Mancunian came in 1966 to teach English at Mount Allison University. A decade later he was dead.
John Thompson's death and work is the stuff of legend, or at least of heady anecdote. These days professors, too busy fighting sexual harassment cases, don't usually indulge in drunk driving-or at least aren't caught much. Nor do they typically stab hunting knives into tavern tables or randomly fire off shotguns. Thompson did such things, and his publicized rows with Mount A.'s administration were only matched by the devotion he inspired in his friends, students, and colleagues. The last two days of his life were spent drinking with students, drying out in the Sackville jail, and visiting a fellow poet. As a permanent division of labour this was plainly untenable.
Such dissoluteness is somewhat awkward to reconcile with the clean, hard, eminently sober lines Thompson usually wrote, especially the full range of them as presented here by Peter Sanger. This edition more than doubles the amount of Thompson's work previously collected. Up to now we've had At the Edge of the Chopping There Are No Secrets (1973), and the posthumously published Stilt Jack (1978) and I Dream Myself into Being: Collected Poems of John Thompson (1991)-the last collection, with an introduction by James Polk, merely combines the first two books. No extant piece of paper seems to have eluded Sanger. He's assembled every poem and translation, published or unpublished, early or late, that Thompson ever wrote, including a large chunk of translated René Char that was part of the Ph.D. thesis he did at Michigan State University, and his very last poem, a partly illegible ghazal he ground into a barroom floor with his boot.
With, I suspect, few financial resources, Sanger has dredged up many hitherto unrevealed facts about Thompson's life before his arrival in Canada. Thompson was dealt bad cards. Born in 1938 near Manchester, an only child, he was two when his father died. His mother virtually gave him up for adoption by relatives. Impoverished, he was able to get a scholarship to a good school, Manchester Grammar, and attended the University of Sheffield, where he studied psychology, economics, and modern history. He did compulsory service in the British armed forces with the Intelligence Corps in Germany, then saved enough money to enroll at Michigan State in East Lansing. There he switched to comparative literature. Then or later he absorbed lessons from the work of Theodore Roethke and Denise Levertov, and that of the great French thinker Gaston Bachelard. Dylan Thomas and the English so-called Poets of the Apocalypse had earlier gone into the mix. He became friends with A. J. M. Smith, the Canadian poet, critic, and anthologist, and with two US writers, Jim Harrison and Thomas McGuane, who later became well-known. He married a fellow student, Meredith Marshall; they produced a daughter, Jenny; he began to write poems. Mount Allison's was his first professional appointment.
Thompson's poems took flight in the wetlands of the Tantramar and found receptive readers at the new House of Anansi Press in Toronto. True to the tangled professional and personal relations obtaining there, Thompson had his first book edited by Margaret Atwood and began a love affair with Shirley Gibson (who later expanded her name to Shirley Mann Gibson), another Anansi mainstay-Sanger is noncommittal about the former, and almost superstitiously reticent about the latter. Yet, although he found some happiness with Gibson, and gained favourable attention to his work, Thompson was on the downslide. The year after his book was published, his house near Sackville burned down with most of his possessions in it-a fitting symbol for what was to come.
Alcoholism, a marital breakup (Meredith had returned to the United States with Jenny), general ill-health, manic depression: these are like a toolkit for death by misadventure. So it was that, like Malcolm Lowry, whom Thompson resembles in several respects, he choked to death on a mixture of booze and medically prescribed pills: suicide, an accident, or something murkily in between. There remains the poetry.
Sanger skirts the dodgy issue of how Thompson may have influenced his contemporaries, though he notes that "homages began appearing immediately after he died" by Atwood, D. G Jones, Michael Ondaatje, Alden Nowlan, Douglas Lochhead, and Phyllis Webb. The fact is that Thompson easily fitted into what was virtually a house style in modern Canadian poetry: clipped lines; terse diction; an extremely focused attention to birds, animals, and landscape; an atmosphere laden with doom, peril, or menace. To these, Thompson added his own peculiar blend of Platonism and pantheism, seeking out essences through his senses and the archetypal in the ordinary. Even a torn-down barn achieves cosmic significance:
in the muck I'll grow
crazy squash, cucumbers,
dance on my new horizon, watched
by her starry animals.
In "Barn II", excluded from At the Edge of the Chopping There Are No Secrets, Thompson calls the vanished building "a lost child, cooed/ to the breasts of the white bear." Something of a lost child himself, Thompson oscillates between the polarities of fire and ice:
Cold, cold: iron
blooms on my thighs: I strain
under ground, breaking
through frozen earth-
Thompson always manages a wonderful meteorological exactness ("Night is day, winter a single/ gust of wind which bangs/ the moon" he says in "Coming Back"), ever attentive to the significance of the homely and humble, as evidenced in titles like "Horse Chestnuts", "Crow's Wing", "Dung Day", "Ewe's Skull on the Aboideau at Carter's Brook", or the list he gives in "Turnip Field": "fir, grass, muscle, apple,/ the wind thick with salt".
The poet peaked with his first book. The next, Stilt Jack, is composed of ghazals. The ghazal, an Urdu verse-form whose exoticism and deceptive freedom has appealed to many Canadian poets, proceeds by what Thompson calls a "clandestine" order. Here's a random sample from ghazal XXIX:
The Lord giveth.
I wrote letters,
stitches of emptiness.
Absence makes what?
Music, beautiful stories,
tin, tin cans,
fingers on a pine table,
Throughout Stilt Jack are echoes of hymns and the Book of Common Prayer, allusions to friends and the work of other poets, and hammering reiterations. In unpublished notes Thompson points out that each couplet of a ghazal "may be considered a poem in itself." On the contrary, the kindliest way to read Stilt Jack is to consider the entire book as a single long poem. It has powerful imagistic moments and considerable cumulative force but Thompson wrote some of these poems while drinking, and it shows. Lines that one writes while drunk seem like stunning epiphanies at the time; regarded during a hangover, they're more like crossword puzzles. Thompson didn't puzzle over his: he just wrote more ghazals.
As for the translations, largely of René Char, they read like translations. Char may be one of these French poets whose economy and distinction of style don't survive translation, leaving only a sensibility and rhetorical tack that forcefully attract those on the same psychological latitude. At least, Thompson seems to have taken as his ruling maxim a passage from Char's "To Leave", in which sense somehow emerges out of clumsy syntax: "To make a poem is to take possession of a nuptial beyond which, to be sure, is grounded in this life, is inextricably bound up with it, and yet lies close to the burial urn."
In Peter Sanger, a fine poet himself who earlier produced Sea Run: Notes on John Thompson's Stilt Jack (1986) and has edited a special issue of the Antigonish Review (Fall 1995) devoted to Thompson's work, the Mancunian could not have a more diligent advocate. This handsome book, illustrated with photos from Shirley Mann Gibson's collection, comes equipped with the full scholarly apparatus: notes, bibliography, index-the works. Are the great pains Sanger took on the whole worth it? Well, yes. Though there are perhaps only a dozen previously uncollected poems here that could plausibly go into a Selected, one's glad to have it all. We can now look in the round at this reckless and half-crazed man, damaged in his Midlands childhood, only half-redeemed on the Tantramar Marsh.