Troy Jollimore- On Tom “Thompson in Purgatory”

Troy Jollimore a Man in Limbo

Troy Jollimore, Book Critic Circle award winner and a guest of our class has written an incredible character study with Tom Thompson in Purgatory. A collection of what I would deem transcendentalist sonnets, Tom Thompson explores a uniquely Canadian point of view of American life. The Tom poems themselves are not so much sonnets yet when paired with the exquisitely beautiful free verse work they take on a transcendental slant. When reading this narrative of Tom Thompson’s life, certain themes emerge; fear of government observation, the inability to be loved, and the unconscious fear of being labeled an American elitist. I will explore what I believe to be Troy Jollimore’s style, his particular voice and technique, how I believe it succeeded and also what I believe are the books shortcomings.

I am lead to my assertion that Troy Jollimore is transcendentalist on the first page of this collection; he leads with a quote from Henry David Thoreau, “From the Boy Scout Manual”. From this excerpt Troy is setting the tone for his Tom sonnets; a motivated and thorough examination of his character.

I ask myself, why sonnets? I assume this classic and very structured form is in a way telling us about the poet. Troy, in the musical language of the sonnet is softening an often obnoxious, yet compellingly ironic, Tom. Troy’s two handed and deft humor aid his character and Tom’s likeability is only increased with every sardonic stanza. This is accomplished knowingly with the very choice of the Canadian hero Tom Thompson, superimposing a Group of Seven landscape painter who drowned in a canoeing accident into American life. Troy began this superimposition very well in “Trout Quintet,” it is Jollimore’s “glove box full of trout.”

The Tom sonnets however, do not reflect the classic Tom Thompson of myth and legend; they embody a modern man in a state of purgatory; very mundane tasks. I wonder if the objective of the philosopher Jollimore is to point out the very bliss found in such tasks, the beauty in the simple and the joy in the moments taken for granted. The juxtaposition of the mythic and transcendental “Tom in the wilderness” against the more ordinary picture of a modern and reformed “Office Space” Tom Thompson hints to a portrait of a man in heaven one moment, revered even immortal, to a man unwittingly stuck in “hell.”

I struggled with the recurrence of certain themes and asked often “why is this here?” the fleeting yet recurring references to government spying or the persistent appearance of rejection; I then realized that this collection all examine the distinctly American psyche. Jollimore from his outside perspective is attune to the unnoticed desire of Americans to be loved and our inability to receive it, due mostly to our cultural psychosis of mistrust in ourselves. Why else would a well adjusted person be afraid that government satellites would be watching them or that they were unworthy of romantic love, yet every sonnet smacks of it. Jollimore also gives credence to the belief that many Americans, while noble in effort, are constantly afraid of being labeled an elitist. From a Canadian perspective this is obvious, our distrust of the educated, our reluctance to change, or to be labeled a liberal or progressive. A former presidential candidate was labeled and elitist because he was too smart, too successful as a physician; maybe Jollimore is onto something.

Tom Thompson in Purgatory speaks softly, Troy is able to craft beautifully written lines of very tight language, and while he sometimes flirts with the border of a traditional sonnet he maintains the clarity and focus a sonnet provides. In reading these collected poems I searched deeply for connection to the character and it was abundant. Tom is a persona worth knowing, worth caring about; I found that I was not anxious but in an almost cathartic manner read each line with a common viewpoint and a desired destination.

Troy does fail to tie us directly to Tom and it is almost necessary to maintain the

split persona of the natural and domesticated characters. I did not however, understand the organizational choice Troy has made in including an interspersing of sad and yet poignant poems unrelated, in a sense, to the Tom Thompson sonnets. After reading the book a few times it seemed like two works were compiled to fill space, but if all the non-sonnets are taken in the context of a spilt persona work I think they make logical sense. The sonnets are an incredible picture of an ordinary man, and the free forms are paintings of a legend.

The judgment by some that the book is a direct, yet modern, extenuation of Berryman’s work is subjective only in that Jollimores work is wholly different. We cannot find the same narcissism in Tom as is sometimes evident in Berryman’s Henry; in fact Troy has made the separation from Henry apparent in several sonnets especially where he tells the reader that Tom is not interested in advertising he has never had anything to promote.

Troy often uses certain circumstances to illustrate the complexities of his character Tom; the sea is often referred to, when the sea/ was as far away as the stars. I find irony in the fact that Tom of the material world seems just as enthralled in the sea as his naturalistic counterpart. I also find a bit of ironic humor in the realization that water plays such an important role in the development of Tom Thompson yet it is water that killed the original figure.

Humor is definitely a sword wielded handily by Jollimore. Even the syntax inversions are employed so successfully that they seem to add a depth of knowledge to a character that may not all be. I could count on turning the page and discovering a new and fascinating morsel of knowledge about a most amusing character.

Troy Jollimore is a contemporary poet, a philosopher and the author of a most incredible book. Tom Thompson in Purgatory will make the reader question their own motives, it will most certainly make you laugh, raucously at times, and it will beg the very important question “What ever happened to Tom Thompson?”


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