J.K. Snyder on Domestic Economy

JOHN DONLAN’S Domestic Economy is a remarkable book; one way or another, it will be an important one. No one who cares for (or about) poetry – especially, perhaps, poetry in this country – will be disappointed in it; and, there is a deep temptation in reviewing it to say only that if you do care, you will buy it; pointless even to single out or name poems, since none misses the extraordinary intelligence of the whole nor the sheer triumphing pleasure of the poet’s sense of having broken through to statement:

Tunnelling out of occupied space
each barky trunk leaves its grave of ground
writing in its green calendar
Congratulations on finding your voice.

(Missing)

Domestic Economy constitutes one of the most assured, as well as the most beautiful, depictions we have of postmodern Canada; nor is it easy to say which is the more astonishing: the easy command of everything philosophical and cultural that has gone into bringing about the postmodern or the intimacy and immediacy with which the daily facts of life in this country are brought to art.

Beyond that – as if that weren’t enough – Domestic Economy forms the most penetrating and serious criticism, certainly the most creative, yet made of the major poet of our time, John Ashbery. I suspect Donlan is a young poet – all one learns from the biographical material accompanying the book is that he lives in London, Ontario and keeps a silver tabby cat – but he is a young poet who has given himself the hardest task of all: To unlock the technical secret of a master with such absolute authority that he is free to speak as he will with it; to do, in fact, what the master himself seemed incapable of or unwilling to do. Like Ashbery’s Shadow Train (1981), Domestic Economy is a sonnet sequence: Fifty poems make up Shadow Train; Domestic Economy features forty-nine.

This sonnet form, of which there were two or three instances in Ashbery’s earlier collections (though they attracted no attention as the possible solution to the problem of the sonnet, a form which English poetry seems not able to do either with or without for very long), is made up of four unrhymed quatrains, whose verse has completely abandoned a metrical base. Rhythm is controlled solely through phrasal patterns measured with exacting tact by enjambment and caesura: Here is Donlan on the Wire:

Making choices, we flex risk like a muscle,
launch out over the near-absolute zero
between solitudes. Another day, another
universe to feed like an insatiable child

who forgets the last time he was full.
His attention wanders like a searchlight,
hates shut doors more than a cat, barges in
with wet feet, sings as it flies

its spaceship into a de Kooning.
The figures of grace we shape in the air
are necessary. That they’re performance too
makes them invitations to a brief

freedom from what most people consider
possible. After the show, let’s have
a drink: let’s have whatever the spruces are having
if it’ll make us as wild as them.

The effect is an exhilarating release into intelligence and inclusiveness – this is a poetry whose door is always open – without surrendering any of the luminous pleasure that comes from tight formal beauty. The aesthetic gain of closure comes almost miraculously without that sense of things being forced or foreshortened: The “frantic completeness,” as Ashbery described it in “Grand Galop” of Surrey (who with Wyatt brought the sonnet into English).

Let us find out, if we must be constrained,
Sandals more interwoven and complete
To fit the naked foot of Poesy:
Let us inspect the lyre, and weigh the stress
Of every chord, and see what may be gained
by ear industrious …

(If by dull rhymes our English must be chained)

Keats proposed nearly two centuries ago, endeavouring as he said he was, “to discover a better sonnet stanza than we have.” No poet in the language has had a more industrious ear than Ashbery’s; there is a sense in which it might be said (he has archly said it himself that as a poet he has done anything but listen; but, of course, it was the listening of genius, and the reward has been immense for the vitality of the art. There is no more going around Ashbery than there was a way to go around Wordsworth or Eliot. Ashbery is never mentioned in Domestic Economy, nor is he alluded to in any direct way (unless it be in an anonymous bit of verse, more or less Ashberyesque, which makes up the second quatrain of the first and title poem). Eliot said good (we would now say strong) poets steal, weaker ones borrow. Domestic Economy is an appropriation of a form, not the imitation of a style. Far from being a piece of ventriloquism or tour de force of pastiche, Donlan’s Domestic Economy grants the highest kind of confirmation to the older poet’s technical discovery: It now belongs to the book of forms as solidly and as certainly as Milton’s breaking the “turn” (volta) at the sestet in the Petrarchan sonnet.

Donlan’s own discovery is that the form is not necessarily wedded to the notorious Ashberyian obscurity, that apparent flight from meaning, the “leaving out business,” which has reduced more than one critic to complaining that often there is nothing more going on in his work than an airless somewhat supercilious display of bravura syntax, signalling little beyond its own virtuosity. Sufficient acquaintance with all of his work would of course limit that view; but, one knows its origins. By contrast, Donlan is as direct, real, and as simply there as the …

                                             … bright
Cutlasses, Challengers, Z28s! – hard as
the Precambrian Shield we abandon, leaving
its lakes beaming along neglected sideroads …

(Cold Pastoral)

At the same time the cars are wonderfully and distantly commented on by the title’s allusion to Keats and by the full phrase, “Put up your bright/ Cutlasses …” (where Othello steps in for a cameo appearance). Donlan is a postmodernist, but his security in the canon is consummate. His is a world in which a meditation, witty as Donne but gentler, on the Heideggerean notion of Verwindung the historical “overcoming” or healing which recognises that health is a kind of belonging and the beginning of responsibility – though, of course, Donlan breathes no word of Heidegger) begins in history and ends in the new A&P that has replaced the old pool hall:

                                        Doctoring history
is one way we keep the present manageable,
racking the pool balls into a tight triangle

before the next hard break shatters their order
as far as the table’s rubber boundaries.
The old poolhall, where so much that is irreplaceable
happened is gone. But in the new A&P some faces

still shockingly connect. You hadn’t expected
so much to survive, the important parts, the human
memories that contradict or duplicate yours,
those others who contain you as they live.

(The Pas)

The pleonastic insistence of the book’s title (“economy” is, literally, oikos, nemein, domestic management) is deliberate. Behind it lies indeed plenty of “homework” of the other sort; though their names, like Heidegger’s, are never mentioned, the intellectual presences of Lévi-Strauss, Deleuze and Guattari, Derrida, Kristeva, the whole postructuralist pantheon can be felt, but in no conceivable way as intimidating. They have to rub shoulders with “… Ti-Jean, Stompin’ Tom, What’s-his-ears,/ play[ing] it for us again in our cheap kitchens …” where we have come, perhaps to that “condition of complete simplicity/ (Costing not less than everything)” which Eliot at the end of Four Quartets sets as the prerequisite to “arrive at where we started/ And know the place for the first time.”

Does anything know us better, more prophetically, or with more troubled love, than “Stable,” written two years ago, the day after Canada Day?

There must be something I forget to worry about.
That panic trying to lodge behind your breastbone
is useful energy, like the Reversing Falls,
for the right person. Who are you, anyway?

After several days on the respirator your sense of identity
can slip, leaving all that buoyed you up
unknowable. You drown in your strange body,
a terrified machine among machines.

You come out of it a step closer to the stars,
each self a story among other stories.
It’s surprising how little your spirit really needs:
my letters to Santa went into the stove,

blackened to negatives, restless, flew up the chimney
on hope to the North Pole. 0 Canada
during your fireworks last night
many of us felt ash fall on our upturned faces.

If Domestic Economy is apprentice work, it is the apprentice work of an enormous talent. For the moment we can only be grateful for the compensation and consolation it offers a country that has all but lost its soul.

“John Donlan’s Domestic Economy” was originally featured
in The Antigonish Review‘s Winter 1991 edition.
© 1991-2004 J. K. Snyder and The Antigonish Review.
All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of the author.