By Rose Miller, Staff Reporter
Professor and accomplished poet Jeffery Thomson drew a sizable crowd to the Emery Community Arts Center last Friday evening for the launch of his new book Fragile. Following the book reading and a round of questions from the audience, Thomson settled in the lobby to autograph copies for sale by local bookstore Devaney, Doak, & Garrett.
As the book depicts Thomson’s travels, confrontation and contemplation of mortality becomes a joining thread throughout the memoir, culminating in a brush with death more personal than the rafting venture gone awry. “My heart surgery was the moment the book I was writing became clarified,” Thomson explained in an email, “When I understood how it was coming together as a thematic whole.”
Fragile begins with Thomson’s first visit to Costa-Rica when he was 22. “It sets up a narrative,” said Thomson to the audience, “confronting a dangerous world.” The reading that followed was taken from the first chapter of the book. In the chapter the young Thomson, ignoring the reservations of his traveling buddy Dave, decides to bicycle up the 3000 meter Cerro de la Muerte, The Mountain of Death.
Thomson’s rich prose entwined the physical torment of the grueling 9 hour ride up Costa-Rica’s highest peak with the emotional and existential poignancy that gripped him as he confronted the danger of the elements.
His narrative shifted between the vivid descriptions of the Costa-Rican landscape and poetic allusions to John Keats and other writers and images including that of Christ, always bringing the focus back to that laborious struggle up the steepening mountain road. The reiterating idea that he was “on the edge of nothing and something” punctuated the intercutting threads of the split narrative.
As he began to resent Dave and the car he’d taken instead, Thomson described his legs pumping and pumping, “becoming a thing onto themselves.” He pinpoints the feeling of bodily escape and the necessity of “digging into pain to get past it.” The chapter drew to a close as he finally reached the summit after 9 hours and eventually makes his way back down into the city of San Isidro.
In an interview following the event Thomson was able to reaffirm an important theme that surfaced throughout the selected reading. “I am trying to get at physical experience that is both beyond the normal extreme, but that is also grounded in the world.”
He explained that what he felt during his experience on Cerro de la Muerte, while something important, doesn’t equate to spirituality in his mind. “Our experiences in the world, in nature, often get translated into spiritual language and thinking, but I am not interested in that,” wrote Thomson. “I don’t believe in it. So there has to be another way, and I am trying to get at what I think it is in the writing.”
As the reading concluded, the audience who’d been rapt throughout its duration, gave Thomson a well sustained applause. Following a brief discussion, Thomson proceeded to the lobby to autograph the copies for sale. Many of the audience members lingered around conversing with Thomson and amongst themselves for several minutes after the conclusion of the event. While a few students were present the majority of those in attendance appeared to be faculty, community members, and relations of the author.
While Thomson has published other books such as the poetry collection Birdwatching in Wartime, Fragile marks his first large scale project with prose. A member of the audience asked him about that transition. He explained that it took a little time to get the feel of being able to transition within the narrative and jump around while making sure the reader still knew where he was. He said, “Those things in poems are easier to get away with.” He also found that the original draft of the book was highly poetic and transforming the draft to more “accessible prose” was part of the editing process.
Thomson will be releasing another collection of poetry called “The Belfast Notebooks” in 2017 and he is also currently working on a historical novel set in Ireland.