Nick Thran is a poet who makes trouble. He makes trouble both for language and the power relationships language mirrors. Thran works under the umbrella of James Tate, alongside surrealist post-Tate troublemakers on both the southern (Patricia Lockwood, Tony Hoagland) and northern (Alice Burdick, Kevin Connolly) sides of the border.
It’s provocative, then, that his third book opens in quiet residence at Al Purdy’s A-frame house in Ameliasburg, Ontario – home turf of the persona-centered Canadian “place and nature” poetry that Thran and his fellow weirdos have inoculated us against. It’s a meaningful opening for Thran, given his established cosmopolitan reputation.
“Only the Barns,” a representative highlight, takes an Ameliasburg barn for its physical aspect (“wind-worn wood”), its connotative aspect (“The barns don’t do impressions of stones or their maternal groves of trees”), and the aspect that can only exist in a Thran poem (“And after the last words have been uttered in the dusty, federal air … broadcast the insides of the barns”). Further into the opening section, a snowy conversation with a peer ends this way: “My friend is myself. I’ve inherited this. / We’ve been talking the same way for eons.” Quickly, Thran begins to play with Purdian masculinity and its language.
The title poem lives in a middle section, in which the poems are all mayoral: “Mayor Small Time,” “Mayor Peaceful Protest,” etc. This is the section most distinct from Thran’s known voice. The mumbling pop-myth collector behind both Earworm and Every Inadequate Name has been swapped for an updated, if less vocally varied, take on Anne Carson’s The Life of Towns. Here Thran does efficient work, ending on generous ambiguities: “A motorcade spawns at the mouth of the river” (“Mayor Confetti”), or “Visible now / are the snow- / filled pools / that border the backs / of an alien wealth” (“Mayor Estate”).
The third section, called “River,” will sound most familiar to readers of Thran’s earlier work. Here we find “game” poems that summon Ionesco as well as Tate, like the unusual “The Particular Melon” and the bittersweet “Obit.” These poems come last but feel older, predating the settled “A-Frame” section or the civic-mindedness of “Mayor.” Some fans will love these the most, but I am particularly impressed by Thran’s newer skills, as he directs the nervous energies of his style into longer engagements with theme.
D.G. Jones’s observation that Purdy’s poems are about “how to live without power” flavours Mayor Snow. Politics, fatherhood, humiliation, and love are all “things that have happened” to Thran’s speakers. Mayor Snow moves away from Earworm’s shrugged shoulders into a grumpy meditation on powerlessness and responsibility. Despite Thran’s troublemaking instincts, the book centres on questions of resignation: how to live with dignity, how to be happy, and how to get by. What could be more Purdian than that?