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Review of Baysville
From Peter Richardson , Arc Poetry Magazine, summer 2009, issue 62

Brief Reviews: John Donlan, Spirit Engine.

Reading this fourth collection by the author of Domestic Economy, Baysville,  and Green Man, I had the impression of watching a gifted outdoor sketcher working fast in failing light.  The trees, insects, birds and mammals observed in these poems are pitched against the twin threats of mortality and environmental degradation.  If this may seem both gloomy and hewing to a well-worn tradition, Donlan goes his own way, partly by adding personal experiences to this mix of woodland glimpses and self-examination, and partly by refusing to be cowed by the mea-culpa-chanting school of much recent nature poetry.  Of the book’s 53 poems, almost 50 are four quatrains each.  Within that 16-line limit, the author has found elbow room for sizing up what matters without lingering.  Lyrics like “Fountain”, “Minnows”, “Solstice Song”, “Wiggisey”, “Here” and “Devil’s Paintbrush” show a voice that can weave self-deprecation, moral inquiry and koan-like description with extraordinary ease.  Why then did I have trouble finding quotable moments?  The answer may lie in Donlan’s style which does not lend itself to excerpting.  Whole poems jostle for inclusion in what would become an essay-review.  With that proviso in place, the following lines from “Indian Summer” offer a glimpse:  “Leaves turn to brilliant going-away/ presents (…)/ spectacular good-byes/ to the visible remembered world (…) considerately cheering / the living with incandescent memento/ mori…”.  In a waterfront poem entitled, “Noise”: “ A tern scans the shallows, / feeding, hunting, figure-eighting the bay; / you envy her bedrock purity / of intent…”.  Both pieces show a narrator yearning for a spectacular non-verbal gift.  It’s as if John Donlan wanted to become bedrock or lichen to learn patience for an ice age or two.  Also evident in these poems is an attempt to showcase a mind continually dancing along the surface of what it wants to engage with.  “Inenarrable” catches the poet shushing himself in the woods:  “Is it too much to ask, to ask the mind’s / silence, for just one fucking minute?”  In fact, throughout the collection, rapt description shares equal billing with reminiscences, doubts and yearnings.  About a third of the time, Donlan is successful.  This may not sound like a high batting average but given the difficulties inherent in what he’s attempting, it is impressive.  Most of the near successes in Spirit Engine are worth reading because the author is a discerning watcher.  In “Rivers and Mountains”, after comparing “human busyness” to “wasp’s buzz” we’re told that, “Up in the hardwood canopy / a wood thrush out-lieders rivals to persuade / a open-hearted listener it’s all good…”.  Ultimately one comes away with a sense of gulfs traversed, including the author’s mother’s death in which the moment of closure has found him tongue-tied.  While it may be yielding to hyperbole to believe, as Ken Snyder claims on the book’s back cover that “…you have to go back to Donne and the metaphysicals to find this much feeling (…) and wit combined with such music,” Spirit Engine does a more than credible job of compressing loose-limbed philosophical asides into solid descriptive bursts.

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