BILL ROBERTSON, SASKATOON STAR PHOENIX. June 29, 2019
Finally, from John Donlan, comes his sixth collection, Out All Day (Ronsdale Press, $15.95). Donlan, who divides his time between Vancouver and South Frontenac, Ontario, was once writer-in-residence at the Saskatoon Public Library and included here, among poems about the various geographical regions of Canada, is a section on the Plains. Yes, the Shield, the Cordillera, and other parts of the country find their way into this collection, but what we really have here is a series of beautiful meditations on life, love, and loss.
Donlan understands what the Ancient Greeks knew when they dreamed up their exquisite gods and goddesses. Those gorgeous and fickle immortals looked at humans and understood that their beauty lay in the way the sadness of mortality tinged all they did and felt. Out All Day is calm thinking of everything from seed fluff to moles, frogs, pond levels, the death of dear friends, and the poet’s own heart, all set to music.
It’s good Donlan’s been a writer-in-residence here and elsewhere because his craft is exquisite, most poems organized into three-and four-line stanzas, occasionally rhyming, in which the poet allows his meter to spill past line’s end — carefully, consciously — all so he can draw together an extended metaphor that smacks of surprise and wonder.
Opening poem South Frontenac, about his summer home, pulls together teenagers fuelled by sex roaring down the highway, the casual death of an ecosystem, and birds eating bugs off the grill of a wrecked truck. The sad, inevitable cycle of life is all here, in four stanzas, as well as that old Greek hubris. Do we learn from our mistakes? Usually not. In Lotus he chides himself, “That’s how far I am from enlightenment/ and perfect peace.”
There are too many good examples here to quote, but suffice to say that Donlan tries to balance the beauty of life with grief at its loss, both in the local sense of a dear friend or the general sense of parts of the environment. He makes direct addresses to grief and sorrow (“Sorrow and I have been avoiding/ each other lately”), says in Poundmaker that it’s “To make peace/ with grief that rends me,” but comes around to “Yet how good a world,” as he does in Earthquake.
Is life all good? No. Or bad? No, again. “You live on in us as an ache,” he says in Grackle, but “we know sorry’s grounded in love.” That line’s from a lovely sestina. There are a couple more here, and they’re lovely, too.