Writing poetry is like playing the piano with your hair.
~ Don Domanski
Don Domanski’s All Our Wonder Unavenged invokes Walt Whitman’s notion of idleness—the poet’s passive yet passionate receptivity to the world. Winner of the 2007 Governor General’s Award for Poetry, All Our Wonder is Domanski’s eighth book, a brilliant yet unassuming collection of verse whose subjects range from insomnia to the hummingbird’s heartbeat, from childhood to the history of sunlight. With his generous white beard and jaunty sailor’s cap, the Halifax-based Domanski could pass for Whitman’s East Coast cousin. His allusive, incantatory style and liberal line-lengths conjure other parallels as well. Acheron, Proteus, Caravaggio, John Keats, Wallace Stevens, and the Buddha make appearances in the poems and attest to the pleasures of reading. All Our Wonder also celebrates the pleasures of perceptual experience. Drawing on dreams, memory, and intuition as well as a host of “ologies”—mythology, theology, cosmology, biology, and geology—Domanski’s poems document the “fetish-shine of the moment.” If, as Whitman wrote, the poet contains multitudes, it is because he pays attention.
Despite titles such as “Water Strider,” “An Old Animal Habit,” “In the Afterforest,” and “The Field Sadness,” this is not Canadian nature poetry. As in Domanski’s previous books, the poems in this collection transcend local and national distinctions by gesturing towards the metaphysical, so that rain is “disguised as loss,” branches are “monosyllabic”—“same word for each leaf”—and the poet is a voice, deep in the forest, “making language out of what / is seamless and inconsolable.” A self-named animist, Domanski envisions a world in which the poet is on equal footing with animals, plants, water, and light. Part of nature, rather than superior to or separate from it, the poet profits from this “second sight.” His “luminous regard” falls equally on the visible and the invisible, encompassing the “metaphysics of the grass,” the “language of the soil,” the sun’s “yellow throat,” and the “passion of the dogviolet before it is seen.”
The shorter poems of the book’s first two sections give way in the third to a series of masterful long poems, including the virtuosic title poem. “All Our Wonder Unavenged,” “In the Dream of the Yellow Birches,” “The Silence of Remembered Time,” “A Trace of Finches” and “Ars Poetica” graph the microcosmic and macrocosmic, marrying perception and thought, time and death, poetry and nature. In “Ars Poetica,”
nature’s a heavy brocade to rest your cheek against
a rough green on a raised pattern still it’s all we have
that and its description that and an endless monologue
we pour blood into from morning to night
For Domanski, language is not absolute but “half-dark,” the poem a speculative “bestiary” with “each word biting the tail of the next.” Domanski seeks something below the level of thought, something unwritten and unspoken that gives meaning to the “raised patterns” of language and phenomena. Poetry, he writes, is “a long journey / towards form and absence”:
to write poetry is to sign-off the words yourself
take them from the visible and return them to the invisible
burnishing the backs of beetles as you go
In “A Trace of Finches,” redemption comes not from acts of angels but in the flight of gods “small as finches.” Divine or angelic qualities are transmitted through a kinship of belief, passed from observed to observer, from poet to reader:
an angel should appear just about now to still the stillness
a divine messenger to pat down the hair of the sleepers
instead there’s this bit of faith floating out there
somewhere above the valley floor a wild belief
that the earth will sustain us see us through
that we’ll be angeled through with light at the end
Poetry pays homage to astonishment. The poet believes not in signs but wonders. In the book’s final poem, “In the Dream of the Yellow Birches,” it is not language that lasts but the distilled light of the blank page, the secrets inscribed on the “Underside of Stones”:
pages slough off their words remain blank
for a few moments when the cover is finally closed
when it opens out to a great distance
the reader also sheds what has been written
what remains is the light twice removed
from paper essence of a weightless and thermal rise
layering in where the words lost their way.
Undaunted by language’s failed graces, Domanski’s All Our Wonder Unavenged celebrates the still-sacred space between the spoken and the unspoken, the visible and the unseen, the real and the imagined. To leave wonder unavenged—this is Domanski’s aim. For poetry should be the opposite of vengeance. “I would like to curse nothing,” he writes. The poet dwells in a world of abundance, but it is a world “unaltered” by his belief. Summoned into this rich, multitudinous world, Domanski’s readers are fortunate witnesses to their own unnamed wonder.