Review of Baysville
From Mark Young , Scene, (London, Ontario), July 15-July 28, 1993

Baysville by John Donlan

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.

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