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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
Two poets find pain and beauty in the 21st century condition.
By JOHN FREEMAN
Published April 15, 2007
Poetry is often either funny or good, but rarely is it both. It is in Tom Thomson in Purgatory, Troy Jollimore's dexterous debut collection, recently named winner of the 2006 National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry. Borrowing John Berryman's linguistic inversions and Walt Whitman's mossy particulars, Jollimore injects a much needed jolt of helium into contemporary poetry.
Like all the best comics, Jollimore is tremendously skilled at appearing casual. About half of Tom Thomson in Purgatory follows Tom's shuffle through the world in sonnet form, complete with internal rhymes and nifty couplets. Tom makes photocopies, breaks up with a girl - "There was a woman, some few months ago,/She left some things around." - and cozies up to the concept of love, again, until he is rejected, again.
Jollimore, ever the poetic cartoonist, paints the scene as if it were a back page New Yorker cartoon. "Love pays a visit. Just to check on him./ Drops by quite unannounced, unfolds a chair,/sits in the corner."
In Jollimore's hands, purgatory becomes a copy room, an office full of bickerers, a grant proposal deadline, a disembodied cubicle life where the sting of romantic rejection roams freely.
The sonnet sequence of the title makes up only half of this book. The other half, though it occasionally refers to Tom, is written in a very different register. The poems describe a world as lush and green and alive as any landscape Thoreau visited. Indeed, Walden's ornery bard provides the book's frontispiece quote.
Reading these poems, you get the sense that Tom's malaise has more to do with being ripped out of his natural environment and thrust into false contact with others. Sitting in his office, Tom is a modern man with modern problems; standing in the natural world, he can be a mythic figure:
He likes this place
because the satellites cannot see it
and the water is pure.
He likes this place
because it is where the trout come,
where they stop.
Here is the state of ideal existence, for Tom at least, at one with the world, at one with himself. Everything else, even romantic fulfillment, becomes a treacherous navigation.
"Love," Jollimore writes in Cosmology, one of the finest poems in this book, is really just "the black box in the works/pulled out of the wreckage/and puzzled over."
Go out and find this book, and you will find a new and exciting voice in American poetry, emerging from the purgatory so many poets know, but this one never deserved: obscurity.
John Freeman is president of the National Book Critics Circle.
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Tom Thomson in Purgatory
By Troy Jollimore
MARGIE/Intuit House Poetry Series, 96 pages, $13.95