Sonya C. Brown’s Review of Jeffrey Thomson’s The Museum of Objects Burned by the Souls in Purgatory

The irresistible title of Jeffrey Thomson’s collection refers to a real place: Museo delle anime del Purgatorio, a single room in a museum on the Tiber that displays a number of glass-enclosed objects, many with black handprints marking them as if scorched by a burning hand. Supposedly, those burning hands represented the souls of people destined for heaven eventually but currently enduring purifying flames that divest them of their longings for past sinful ways. The poems inside this well-arranged volume often resemble enclosures, too, whether one envisions the stanzas (those boxes of words) as glass museum cases or penitents’ cells. The poetry exhibits formal variety, and my overall impression is that the most tightly-contained poems, the ones most hemmed in along the left margin, are the ones that threaten most energetically to burst loose, while the most flung-out lines—the ones that take up space on the page—are decidedly end-stopped. The contrast encourages more scrutiny, more consideration of the nature of flame, perhaps.

To drive the museum metaphor home, the poems also feature labels; for example, “The Fingers of Doubting Thomas” bears the caption: “iron, glass, wood, bone.” Although this labeling seemed opaque at times, I did not resent it. And the museum metaphor is not purely formal. Nearly every poem introduces an object from history, whether a clay tablet from Sumer featuring the world’s earliest known writing, “two sheep god Inanna,” or the foot of Mary Magdalene as in the opening poem —which fittingly reflects on the beginning of her journey as the reader’s journey through this museum begins. This is a collection that encourages you to be or become, with the help of Google, your own docent, discovering connections between each piece. And although Biblical references abound, many more modern figures of mythic proportion appear, from Ella Fitzgerald to Tupac Shakur to Han Solo, once rendered a sort of museum piece while frozen in carbonite for Jabba the Hutt.

Thomson often puts these figures into illuminating juxtaposition. Ella Fitzgerald sings “Mack the Knife” with limited recall of the lyrics one rainy Berlin evening in 1960; her struggle to remember — and her determination to succeed despite the gaps in her knowledge — is contrasted with the speaker of the poem, who, on a hot day in Rome, contemplates the broken Belvedere Herakles (or Michaelangelo’s reverence for that blasted form): “maybe // it’s the heartbreak / of the broken // the simple wrongness / that makes everything // whole.” It is just as intriguing to consider Tupac Shakur in relationship with St. Bartholomew, as the poem “Saint Bartholomew Flayed” invites readers to do, with its reference to “All Eyez on Me.” Another poem further conflates current events with classical history by reimagining the coronavirus alongside the Greek warriors inside the Trojan Horse.

On the Academy of American Poets webpage that features a related poem (“For the Blind Man in the Basilica di Santa Croce, Florence”), Thomson is quoted as saying, “[O]ne of my foundational beliefs is that there is always another layer, another meaning, another story, that our personal perceptions are limited and it is through art that we access the potential to be more than we are.” The poems in Thomson’s purgatorial museum invite readers to participate in uncovering or discovering the layers, in half-creating their own meanings as they contemplate the cathedral’s burning through multiple lenses. In one poem, ravens take the long view as they wing their way through the smoke of reminiscence:

Remember when
we all thought

it was sad

that medieval
cathedral caught
on fire? Ah, what

sweet summer
children we were.

The eponymous poem does not appear until nearly halfway through the collection, but its placement feels right, and it is among my favorites partly due to the arrangement of side-by-side stanzas that allow a reader to choose between perusing each stanza separately or, else, syncing the stanzas, scanning each stanza’s first line, each stanza’s second line, and so on. The options reinforce meaning:

the way
the prayer book has faded
the text has faded
the way the ashes
of the book
or the way

a burnt hand touches
the way
five burned fingers
caress the opened page
The Imitation of Christ
they stroke

Thomson’s collection begins and ends with burning, with questions that catch and set others to flickering. After reading, I half expected to see scorch marks left on the pages by my lingering fingers.