Subject to Change, by Matt Thornburn


Although Subject to Change is Matthew Thorburn’s debut collection of poetry, the voice behind these poems is an authoritative voice of, say, a poet mid-career. There is an idea in this book of poems, and not only is that idea “subject to change,” but it is also the subject of change. To open the book, Thorburn quotes a Donald Justice poem in which there is a dichotomy of thought, an indecision: we can’t have two things in the place of one, and we are ultimately forced to chose one. It is an age-worn struggle, and Thorburn handles it deftly and quietly.

The first poem in the book, “The Critics Interrupt Their Interpretations of ‘Un Chat en Hiver’ for a French Lesson” has a slightly humorous title and sets the overall tone of the book. The poem’s wonderful movement is driven by different interpretations of what the sentence in French could mean, in English:

"A cat in the river," she mused—half-right. "Like us, a little
thing in a place wilder than what we can control."


"Perhaps more like a chat
by the river…"


"It's a cat in winter. The river's just what we imagined
it to be, only it's not there. And a cat in winter…I’m not sure
what that’s like." "Oh," he said, "it's not so bad,"
and the snow fell all that night like shredded photocopies of snow
on a thin white chat.

Every meaning the critics come up with elicits a unique response of the supposed situation. It is an odd situation; the varying, invented ideas behind a simple phrase like ‘un chat en hiver’ and how those ideas suggest similar ways of understanding life. What is nice about this poem is that it isn’t too portentous. In order to convey what he wants the poem to say, Thorburn relies on the voices quoted in the poem, not on his own voice. Thus, we do not need to put our faith as readers solely in Thorburn in order to come away from this poem with something of an idea for what the book is about. Though he is writing in the critics’ voices, the illusion he creates is one of outside authority.

It is notable how easy it is to encounter consistently solid poem after solid poem. The poems are so well-constructed, and use such a natural (and unique) voice, that Thorburn is able to slip into the mix a few sonnets as well as a sestina without pulling the reader out of the book by distraction of form amid free verse. Nothing is forced, and little is lost in his handling of these poems.

Another poem that deals with the mutability of language and how we experience language is “To the Last Gouache by that Dead Man, Max Jacob,” a prose poem:

Her here is not my here, but only because she’s taller. Max's
here—I mean Max is here. Still she grows bored. I grow fatter.
None of this takes long. At first: "You’re found, my lost." Then
later: "My found, you’re lost again."


Tomorrow I will misread Waist? for Was it? That happens. But
today the trouble’s the space between girl friend and girlfriend—
"between Ava and Eva," Max says.

This poem is contemplative, of Max Jacob and of a relationship. As with Thorburn’s first poem “The Critics Interrupt…” varying ideas/situations are borne of varying interpretations of language. But Thorburn doesn’t rely on the change, as it exists in the book’s world. Rather, he merely writes about it and goes along with it; less in a struggle with the change than a dependent observer. An arch of the book is the noticeable progression of lovers. It would be difficult to treat the ‘you’ or the ’she’ or, in some cases the names of these lovers, as one person. These women throughout the book, taken as a whole, are a device: a concrete example of change, that people are subject to change, internally and externally. The poem “Portrait of Former Lovers in the Spare Style of the Past Century” could be read as a nod to the movement of lovers throughout the book. In the poem there is only one woman, though it is hard to escape the poem’s title. Thorburn writes:

Let me explain:
she's just told him something which hurts

because it may be true. And now she’s turned
her face away. So all you get

is the flare of her cheek


Because she's already too far away,
or has decided she is.

Matthew Thorburn has amazing control in these poems, and it is one of the more authoritative debut collections. The last few poems in the book is one of the better ending sequences I’ve read, as everything towards the end quietly tapers off. Everything is more or less subtle in this book, and handled with craftsmanship. “Italian Coffee,” “The River,” and “Variations” (part of which is quoted below) are poems that you will walk away with. And Thorburn understands fully well that not everyone can feel the same or have the same thoughts in these poems, as they interact with them. Every situation is ultimately different, and will change:

The hills fall away to a shallow gully, bent reeds yellow and green, and so
there must be a hint of water there.


In the Tuileries women wear scarves against the brisk fall morning, don't
linger long. But the flowers still bloom. Oranges, reds: heart-colored


I see in its leaving why you loved the light.

first appearance in octopus 5