New poetry collection showcases beauty of Northern Michigan

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By Kate Habrel

In his most recent book, poet Russell Thorburn imagines familiar characters from around Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and beyond.

In “John Lennon on the Beach in the Upper Peninsula,” Thorburn imagines the titled celebrity wading on the Lake Superior shoreline:

“Just the idea that John’s here, his arms wrapped around his body,

like some whaler whose ship went down, glows in me like fire.”

A 2013 grassroots fundraising campaign earned Thorburn the unofficial title of the U.P.’s poet laureate . His recent book, “Somewhere We’ll Leave the World,” celebrates the joy of wandering. This is his seventh poetry collection.

His poems take readers on what Thorburn calls “parallel journeys” through nature and history. He uses familiar characters and personal experiences to reference the scenic beauty of Northern Michigan.

“The Lake Superior shoreline is very unique, and I love walking along the water, especially in winter,” said Thorburn, who lives in Marquette. “These characters, the environment, and my relationship within that environment created these poems.”

John Lennon isn’t the only famous name to appear in the book. Walt Whitman, Billy the Kid and Marilyn Monroe co-star in several poems.

But celebrities aren’t the only people featured in the book. Thorburn connects the landscape and soldiers in the Civil War.

“Union soldiers came back here to heal,” he said. “Quite often I read about people who served in Iraq or Afghanistan — they take a wilderness walk. So I thought, well, this is kind of like a precursor to that.”

Of course, Thorburn didn’t completely ignore the view. Images of nature and animals often surface in his poetry. Foxes are a common sight—sometimes appearing in unusual places. From the poem “Chinese Restaurant:”

“She tells the animal he can eat only what’s

on the carryout menu: egg rolls, noodles.

She shows him a table in the corner, not

understanding why a fox would want Chinese

at this hour.”

Thorburn in Palm Springs, California. Image: Gabe Thorburn

Several poems are based on events in Thorburn’s life. It’s those experiences that started his artistic career.

“It began much earlier when I was 18 or 19 in the Detroit area, and I had a garage band,” Thorburn said. “Music was very big back in Detroit, so there’s poems about that. And as a teenager and in my 20s, I wandered around. I hitchhiked. So a little bit of that spirit is in there too.”

Thorburn includes several poems about his time in the Mojave National Preserve in San Bernardino County, California. He was a resident artist there in 2012, staying in a desert study center near Soda Lake.

There’s a little bit of something for everyone in the collection—recognizable faces, natural beauty and musical turns of phrase.

In the end, Thorburn’s poetry insists that the journey is worth as much as the destination.

“I’m not trying to educate anybody, or teach,” Thorburn said. “It’s just to have the poem, and they’re on the journey with me as a reader. I hope you get on the bus and go on this journey.”

Learn more about Thorburn and his poetry at his website. “Somewhere We’ll Leave the World” is available from Wayne State University Press for $16.99.

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