James's Reviews > Dunstan Thompson: On the Life and Work of a Lost American Master

Dunstan Thompson by D.A. Powell
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Aug 08, 10

bookshelves: poetry-poetics
Read from June 20 to July 01, 2010

I'll go ahead and say this: It's a shame Thompson became devout in the latter part of his life. His Catholic faith so consumed him that he all but forswore the conflicted, passionate, immensely complex and rich poetry of his first two books, Poems and Lament for the Sleepwalker. Many of the best poems from those are included in this collection, but the books cannot be reprinted in their entirety, per Thompson's will.

Instead, Thompson wants to be remembered by the poems he wrote from 1950 to 1974, most of which were unpublished and, as at least one of the critical essays in the book agrees, not as good as the poems he wrote in the '40s. Philip Trower, Thompson's partner and executer, stands by this decision, claiming that the later poems are "greatly superior" to the early books. But it seems he believes this because they reflect the peace of mind Thompson found through his religious rebirth, not because they are truly more accomplished.

Anyway, what this book shows is that Thompson, despite his somewhat self-imposed disappearance, deserves the recognition he earned at the height of his career -- because really, those poems are unforgettable. "This Loneliness for You Is Like the Wound" ought to be as well-known as Owen's "Dulce et Decorum Est" or Rimbaud's "Dormeur du Val" in the canon of war poems. Even the unpublished poems from the latter half of his life have some real knockout moments.

And besides proving its point, the book is engaging -- investigative but not too academic. My one gripe is that Heather Treseler's essay, probably the driest individual piece of the book, is also the longest. But the other essays, especially Katie Ford's, are very well written and recommend the poetry nicely. Ultimately the book gives you a very whole picture of Thompson. It acts as a tribute and is still basically impartial.
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