Domestic Economy by John Donlan
Reviewed by Mark Young (Scene magazine (London ON) 1990)
My introduction to John Donlan’s poetry came almost two years ago when we solicited some of his work for the library anthology, Images ’88. They arrived – three little sparse poems: The Boss, Little Eva, and Mirage, and I remember that we marveled over their depth and simplicity. “That’s really all he wanted to say?” “What do you mean? I still haven’t taken it all in.”
And then I encountered the poetry again at a reading the next year. He was reading from his manuscript Domestic Economy which has now become his book, and I remember saying something like, “His use of words is so, so … economic.” You can’t get away from the title: everything Donlan writes he writes economically.
The poems themselves are set up with such a strict regimen – four stanzas of four lines each for every poem – that they force us to ignore the structure of the poem and instead contemplate its substance. Punctuation is arbitrary and especially favoured is the “period” with its sudden finality. But that’s not the fun part; the fun part is his novel outlook.
I pictured in my mind a man who had at one time never imagined writing poetry, but who one day traded his old cow (his cynicism) for some magic beans. These beans showed him new ways of looking at things and of making language work differently. He seems to invade our world again as a new-converted foreigner to whom everything is different; it is a journey that every poet should make. His poems must be created by magic. There are so many surprises, so many complex ways of linking imagery that they can only come from his own special vision – they are not natural connections or resolutions.
His imagery is fascinating and engaging; he has a way of suddenly pulling a specific out of the obscure and into glaring focus. Intense feeling exists alongside ironic comparison … sometimes his images just struck me as blindingly apparent. In the poem, “And On,” the first line appears: “Enduring days as closed to love as banks …” Yes, I can see the cold steel of the impregnable vault, the faceless teller slamming her window down CLOSED. And no love exists there. Images come alive in your mind – the way good poetry should.
Take your time with these poems. Consider them as a box of extremely rich chocolates: have a few after supper each night, just enough not to satisfy an urge to gorge yourself on the whole box and end up feeling overfilled. They are best enjoyed a few at a time; there is much to absorb.