1908 Bright and invisible and true

The White Light of Tomorrow
By Russell Thornton

Madeira Park: Harbour Publishing, 2023.
$22.95 / 9781990776533

Reviewed by Al Rempel


There’s a fire at the heart of Russell Thornton’s poetry, and it burns fiercely in his latest book, The White Light of Tomorrow. Thornton’s poems have a deep elemental underpinning and William Carlos William’s “no ideas but in things” approach, whether he’s writing about his father’s nightstand or the ring-stain that reminds him of his mother’s morning coffee. The poems in The White Light of Tomorrow are imbued with a mysticism, an enchantment that comes from a masterful use of repetition, leaving the reader with the sense that they’ve caught a glimpse of the ineffable. Bright light brings darkness, or alternatively, as Theodore Roethke puts it, “the darkness has its own light”: and North Vancouver’s Thornton illuminates these stark contrasts: the author juxtaposes a fierce love for his wife and family with the terrible darkness of his father. 

There’s a hypnotic feel to some of Thornton’s poems as he pivots his lines and thoughts around repeated words or phrases. In “Memoir,” dust is the mantra: “I will begin with the dust in the basement where I had my room…to the place below that is dark with dust.” Dust becomes more than its substance; it becomes the narrator’s fears, his past, his very self: “the dust may be me, but the dust forgets me.” In “Play Structure,” the repeated word is light, and in “The Name of the Creek,” both creek and name are employed: “It is just a name. It has no meaning, an Elder said to me. / The name of the creek has no meaning; the name arrives and arrives / as the creek arrives [.]” Thornton’s use of repetition is so pervasive and natural that when he writes “A Dance,” a modified villanelle, it doesn’t feel forced or out of place.

Interspersed throughout the book are love poems, each with an epigraph from the Song of Songs from ancient Hebrew scripture. Thornton writes these beautiful lines in couplets, perhaps deliberately echoing the poetic form of Middle Eastern poetry: “White light draws itself around you, and is a sheer garment, / and multiple pairs of birds perch in the swaying folds [.]” And in another connection to the book’s title: “to turn and face you would be to face a blind spot, / an expanding black dot, a blindness that was sight [.]”

Author Russell Thornton

Snippets of Thornton’s past are revealed in poems of his childhood, brief periods of happiness tucked within hard times. The poem “Woolco” has he and his brothers roaming free in the store where his mother, who held the family together, worked: “We loved Woolco. We walked almost proud out of the Red Grill / and spent my mom’s shift investigating our favourite departments…playing with much of the sporting equipment, riding bikes,” while evading the watchful eyes of the salesclerks. Difficult memories of his alcoholic father are here, too. In the poem, “The Fraser Arms”:


He said goodbye

to any history except what he created on the spot

and what was immediately a great archive

he then destroyed, sip by sip


His father becomes an actor whose own son was “just another person in an audience”; and audience or no audience, “his performance rolled on.”

Amid the darkness of the past, light permeates Thornton’s book: “Then in the morning, when I put my hands / in the water, it generated sparks. / When I cupped it, lifted it eye-level, / the water bristled with white light and caught / like pure electricity at my skin.” In “Power,” about an outage in the city, the narrator imagines electricity never coming back on and going out to make a fire, but when he comes back, he realizes “I will be blind to much of what I always thought real, / and when I rejoin those who stayed, found new shadows, / my wife and child among them, I will be afraid, / unable now to see those closest to me / here with what is bright and invisible and true.” The last line encapsulates Thornton’s poetry perfectly; as a reader, I savoured his book, and as a writer, I wanted to learn from it.



Al Rempel


Al Rempel’s books of poetry are Undiscovered Country (Mother Tongue Publishing, 2018), This Isn’t the Apocalypse We Hoped For (Caitlin Press, 2013), and Understories (Caitlin, 2010). He also has four chapbooks, the two most recent published by the Alfred Gustav Press: Behind the Bladed Green, Deerness, Four Neat Holes and Picket Fence Diaries. Rempel’s poems have appeared in various journals and anthologies across Canada, and some of his poems have been translated into Italian. His video poem collaborations have been screened internationally. For more information, please visit his website. [Editor’s note: Al Rempel has reviewed Patrick Friesen and Christopher Levenson in BCR.]



The British Columbia Review

Interim Editors, 2023-24: Trevor Marc Hughes (non-fiction), Brett Josef Grubisic (fiction)
Publisher: Richard Mackie

Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board now consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. The British Columbia Review was founded in 2016 by Richard Mackie and Alan Twigg.

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