Windows, Not Frames

Reviews of Baysville

Jay Ruzesky: “Windows, not Frames”. Event, Winter 1993-94

While John Donlan was working on Baysville he published an essay in Event 21/1, in which he explained part of his writing process:

More and more I’ve come to understand how little of my awareness is in my conscious control, and that a great many of my thoughts and ideas are merely convenient fabrications, rationalizations that suppress large parts of experience.

It seems to me that those lines illustrate what the infinite work of poetry is. All language is a kind of organizational fabrication that necessarily highlights some parts of experience while concealing others. The kind of order that language produces by making relationships allows us to skim over whatever it is we might otherwise endlessly consider: without words we might never get beyond the colour and texture of our morning toast.

Real awareness exists beyond language: we feel deeply as we simultaneously taste and smell and hear and see and touch. Poetry (most poetry) plays with language in a way that tries to disrupt its usual order. Because poetry doesn’t “make sense” in a way that other writing does, it encourages readers to slow down and read what’s not in the poem, to bring their own lives to bear on the lines in front of them and meet the poem somewhere off the page.

Donlan takes an interesting approach to this kind of play. He has attempted to encourage thoughts that are more than “convenient fabrications” to emerge by sticking to a formal structure. He also seems (judging by the dates of composition appended to each poem) to limit the time allowed for each poem to complete itself.

Anyone who has tried to write a few rhymed (for instance) lines will understand how liberating formal structures can be. Serendipity abounds when a word that fits the form disrupts the original idea of a rhymed piece and carries it in a direction other than the line of intended poetic argument. Often the surprises that playing within those structures create can be deeply shocking: perhaps uncovering a lost memory, or showing the writer what he or she might otherwise not admit

Baysville seems full of these moments. There’s not a poem in the lot that has obviously been included to flesh out the manuscript. Neither are there one or two poems that are clearly superior to the others. This is an ontological collection which asks to be read at once like a diary and a religious text. It’s not a book to breeze through. Rereading the same poem several times when you’re in different moods is a more satisfying way to approach Donlan’s work. The hamlet from which the book draws its name provides a loose context for these poems: for readers, it is an imagined place in which we can root the insights that don’t appear to be connected to anything else by logic.

This is not to say that the poet doesn’t make connections. Take “Utility,” for example, which begins

There’s a glow on those loved
who know it.

And ends with

It hurts, it burns: and worst
is finding how you hold
that hot, dark bulb
for you, not them. They live:
no light. Let go.

In between, it becomes a poem about the destructive capability of memory. Like the rest of the collection “Utility” reads like a five page poem edited to twenty lines. Only the important insights remain. Reading Donlan’s work is like looking at the sky through a window: one knows how much more there is than can be contained by a frame.

The three poems that make up the coda to Baysville are interesting and may point to where Donlan will go next. The flights toward surrealism here don’t work for me, but the last poem, “One of Us,” is quite wonderful, despite the way it is formally opposed to the rest of the book.

The “Notes On The Poems” included at the end of the book irked me because of the limits they place on content. The note for a poem like “Soto” for example makes the piece deeply resonant, but after reading the note I could no longer see the poem from several angles.

“Understanding Confusion” almost makes an argument in the form of an explanation of how to read this book:

[…] catch the soul’s eye
with beauty, let it feed
on what it loves to recognize.
Let pain sink under the freezing river’s
slush shifting, hushing memories…
The air is sharp, and bites me
awake. My eyes sting
and water — I don’t know why.
Grief comes, a little grief, and passes, and I cry
to see it go, and I am left blinking
and smiling at the tears chilling my cheek:
between “Inhibition, or Hardness of Heart
and its opposite, Sentimentality,”
my careful head, my ready heart.

Donlan risks being inaccessible by asking his readers to feed on what they love to recognize. The speaker’s voice is extremely likeable and is open and honest. It asks the reader to be similarly undefended and to allow the words to sting without needing to know why. He presents nothing to quarrel with: either you understand
these quiet poems in your own way, or you don’t . For the ready reader there is plenty of food for the soul.

“Wisdom Systems”. Craig McLuckie. Canadian Literature, #145, Summer 1995.

William McIlvanney uses an epigraph for his collected poems, In Through the Head (1998), which is germane here: “It is of course an operation to unblock the heart, but a tricky one, where you have to go in through the head without getting trapped there.” […]

In Baysville, Donlan attempts to reach “that part of our nature that exists independent of civilization, or even conscious thought […] what has been called the ‘deep unconscious wisdom system.’” Yet, it is the heart, community, that he turns to in the end. […]

Donlan’s “wisdom system” is quite conscious in the range of reference: the personal (imaginary childhood companions), the popular (a Chuck Berry song), and the literary (Oscar Wilde, Maxine Hong Kingston, Flann O’Brien).

The first three poems in Baysville set the “mood” for the volume: how one lives – from “Park,” “To be a meaning generator,” from Orderly”, “you travel, free returning to those visions/…/forgetting to live as if the fence didn’t exist;” from “Thinking Like a Mountain,” “It’s all in your head/ until it’s over.” The refrain is consistent; it is Donlan’s mind that produces the narrative force of this book – chronological time, consistency of shape, an attempt to harness and restrict, control life for the self. […]

Donlan’s Coda emphasizes a negotiation through the head to the heart. Structurally the poems in the Coda differ significantly from the mechanistic exercises of the main part of the volume. “Wildwood Machine,” a brief fourteen lines, is one of the few poems that evokes feeling, albeit a negative one – the frustration of what he has attempted in the body of the volume:

Wildwood Machine
Diving into the past to save that boy:
the old wizard’s rescue mission.
What an improbable apparatus!
The boy is paper, the wizard is paper.
Between them, a real man, furiously breathing
life into them both –mouth-to-mouth
imagination. He has to puff them up
to make them visible. See the boy has cried
himself hopeless: the wizard must ply his skills
to help him contain his lack, not numb,
not relinquishing the pain of loss.
Like “jumpers” in nuclear clean-up crews
he limits his exposure on the site,
still fearing sorrow will root and grow wild.

The remaining poems in the Coda, continue, less successfully, in this emotional plane, contrasting the rigidity found in the rest of the volume. A sense of inclusiveness is what is sought here: it is affirmed in the last poem’s title, “One of Us,” and underscored in its closing lines: “He wished…/…/his furious magic sound would break the spell/ and place him safe again in someone’s arms.” One is left with
the Coda’s act of resuscitation, where more than a mind is present.

Cary Fagan, “Three poets: Donlan the mindful, Redhill the visceral and Bruck the witness.” Globe and Mail, Saturday, February 12, 1994.

Every new generation of poets has a hard struggle to get out from under the shadow of the previous one, even as they too must face the perennial problem of readership. Perhaps what is most astonishing about John Donlan and Michael Redhill (who are both publishing second books) is how confident their voices are. That’s understandable considering how advanced are their poetic skills. Julie Bruck takes a more modest stance but in her own way she is an equally talented poet. Interestingly enough, while each of the three has different strengths, they share the same weakness.

In the notes to his book, Donlan explains that Baysville ( a hamlet in Ontario’s Muskoka region) symbolizes for him the deeper unconscious mind. It is a place from childhood that he yearns to reach again in the belief that it might bring peace to his intelligent, articulate but relentless inner voice. Instead, his mind “drones on,” his thoughts continue to swarm like an annoying “column of gnats.”

What makes these poems challenging to read, besides Donlan’s masterfully condensed style, is that they are not set in a specific moment in the external world so much as in the poet’s head. His language reflects his moving thoughts, unmelodious and percussive. “To be a meaning generator like that red bush,” he writes, hyping up William Carlos Williams’s famous dictum about the wheelbarrow. But Donlan can’t simply be, and the reader feels the poet’s mind racing the way a dog chases own tail.

I think it is part of the point that, despite all the intellectual movement, the poems feel almost paralyzed. While they reward second and third readings, they never cease feeling hermetic; a mind racing itself doesn’t easily let another mind in. “You have to decide to live,” Donlan exhorts himself, failing absolutely to do so. I suspect that he prefers living in his head to any place else.

Mark Young, Baysville by John Donlan. Scene, (London, Ontario), July 15-July 28, 1993.

This is the first collection from John Donlan since Domestic Economy in 1990, which is definitely too long to wait.

Baysville has all the same wit, feeling, and linguistic acrobatics that the previous collection contained, but it doesn’t just pick up and continue on the same tested path, but instead lights out into new territory. If you remember, Donlan’s poetry in that book was restricted to four stanzas of four lines each, religiously observed in all poems. The new collection is made up of “precision-crafted sonnets” of about 20 lines each. This new form allows for more variation in line length and some more experimentation with dialogue. It is also good to see a poet challenging himself with new methods instead of just sticking to the tried and true.

There is even a section at the end, entitled “Coda”, which features two long poems, which were very well-executed, with the same concise, taut feeling as the shorter ones. “Grief” is moving without being sentimental, and has the same cyclic resolution as myth and legend – the kind of resolution which is lacking in, and even in opposition to the shorter poems. Donlan’s poetry often frustrates the mind because it won’t work stick to one train of thought, won’t follow an argument through to its logical conclusion. Instead, he carries you along with one set of images and an idea of where they might lead, and then shunts you off another way, and then another. Your train of thought derailed, your explanations exploited, you can merely follow along hoping to pick up the track in this new direction. So there’s always a certain amount of disorientation, even though you can feel the connection of the ideas, your mind can’t make the leap to connect the meaning. The new imagery presents an analogy for the feeling of the old (as if analogy applied to feeling). An example could be chosen at random, but here is an excerpt from “Wade”:

The tourists are sick of summer You could
hijack a tractor, tow your own weather
down the bare beach: no one would know.
Nobody wants trouble. We’ll pay anything
not to see some pupa, big as a Ford, hatch into
our unremembered dreams. If we fell in
where we could drink standing up, we’d fling our Saint
Christopher medal for shore and yell
“Swim, little Jesus, or we’ll both drown.”

Sure, I’ll follow, but I don’t know where we’re going next.

The funny thing is, Donlan very calmly assures the reader in his “Note on the poems” at the end, that there is a definite thread of intent running through all the poems, that they all form some single purpose. I had to laugh. But it doesn’t matter, the poems are excellent reading. And I feel I should append the same sort of warning as I did with the last collection. Reading these poems quickly is like entering a pie-eating contest: you stuff and hastily re-stuff your mouth with more and more delicious crust and filling until your mouth is so full that you realize you aren’t even tasting it – and you can’t swallow. Read them slowly.

John Tyndall, “Probing the human existence: London poet John Donlan records his concerns, loves, and fears in Baysville.” London Free Press, June 5, 1993.

The town of Baysville in the Muskoka region represents for London poet John Donlan the creative, questing source of life.

These poems tap into that energy which underlies all of our human existence; thus, when one reads this work, all sorts of connections and recognitions come to mind.

The structure of the poems is tight – akin to the sonnet. In Donlan’s last book Domestic Economy (Brick Books, 1990), the poems were fashioned into strict quatrains. This submission to specific forms does not limit nor make routine the ideas, observations, and feelings; rather it frees and emboldens Donlan.

In the coda to his new book, Donlan includes Wildwood Machine, one of the poems closest to the sonnet (minus the rhyme scheme), and then two works, Grief and One Of Us, which explode the form he has set for himself. The effect is exhilarating.

All of the poems, except those in the coda, are dated and are presented in chronological order. This is a tremendous way to appreciate the changes through time that thought and imagination have wrought upon the poet. Baysville is a record, from October, 1988, through June, 1992, of Donlan’s many concerns, loves, and fears.

The poem Shield delves into the sad ecosystem of the planet, but Donlan brings it home to us: “Look – rhino-horn dust; / and just the cleverest carving / in ivory; mahogany napkin-rings;/ plenty of hot water heated by power/projects translated from the Cree / and other former residents of James Bay.”

Window of Opportunity records the grief of separation and divorce from a loved one (What we’re left with is us …”) and the pain in observing others: “On a lawn a mom and kids haloed in sun:/ it looks like a stone paradise. It must be. And/ love’s rope joins this weight to another, spinning/ like an Argentine bola to bring us down,/ running on empty, crying, driving home.”

However difficult life may be for the poet, he can renew himself with a revelatory diving into the waters of Lake of Bays. A collection to be read and reread, Baysville charts the assured growth and maturity of John Donlan as a poet.

Mary Dalton, “Signs of the Tar Baby”. Books in Canada, December 1993. […]

For John Donlan, the instructed heart arises from “that part of our nature that exists independent of civilization, or even conscious thought.” Baysville, writes Donlan, is “partly an encrypted autobiography.” The first three lines of the opening poem might be taken as a statement of Donlan’s project:

To be a meaning generator like that red bush,
artifice without taking thought, awareness
of mystery under your clothes.


Like John Ashbery, Donlan defeats narrative and thwarts logic through disconnected images. One is reminded of Andre Breton in his 1924 Manifesto of Surrealism: “Put your trust in the inexhaustible nature of the murmur.” Through Donlan’s skill with musical phrasing, line, and image., these seemingly haphazard observations embody the findings of contemporary physics: reality as particle flow within a field of probability. Donlan is the bird for those who dismiss contemporary poetry that does not enact flux in some such fashion:

Say goodbye to the monument
losing its bearings in the rush of sensation:
a birds bursts from its mouth, scattering a new sound
along the river.

(“Play Dead”)