Review of Baysville
From Anne Burke , Prairie Journal of Canadian Literature, January 30, 2008

Review of Spirit Engine, by John Donlan

This collection of fifty-three lyric poems spans eons and layers of Pre-Cambrian life.

As the geological formations of the earth’s crust have “Rock folded and refolded,” the poet displays himself “Thumbing and re-thumbing/this dog-eared book” (“Stone Beach”, p. 11) He listens to the beating of his heart “in 10 seconds”, then asks himself “How many more beats, my heart?” (“Bushed”, p. 12) He explores the duality of “your other nature, nature under all.” (p. 13). There appears to always be the immutability of nature, through which reincarnation occurs, however much we might like to ignore history.

At times, he is suspicious and withdrawn (“Soil Building”).  He suffers losses. (“Columbine: for Stephen Reid”) Nature teaches him lessons about anarchy, patience, protection, and “you don’t talk.” (“Across the Line: for Elizabeth MacCallum and John Fraser”, p. 16) He admires a female tern that feeds its young, without the ambiguity of humans, or “these nihilistic kids” (“Noise: for Ken Synder”, p. 17) He rejects “too much history” (“Diary”, p. 18).

Nature is receding, even as some of us are more attuned to it, than others.  (“Bush Blues: tuning Vestapol”)  He mocks the platitude: “It’s all good” (“Pink”, p. 20) The emotional outbursts of the Id conflict with the ego and the superego (“Object”) The erotic interplay between nature and humans is compared with the oscillation between the solitary and companionship (“Gratitude”, p. 22) In “Prey”, he recalls his “first kill”, like the reptilian birds and insects, “hunting’s hardwired into me, love and need/united.” (p. 23)

In “Fountain”, the interplay of light and water expresses the poet’s strong emotions, “white water/flying, vanishing, becoming sky.” (p. 24) The subconscious comes shooting to the surface.  The act of covering the mirrors signifies death, as well as hiding the ravages of one’s ageing.  (“Here: for Jimmy Donlan, 1901-1982”)  Geologic formations do not disclose the age of the earth (“Survivor”) He addresses an “Inner Voice” in the daily routine, echoing “call” and “recall”; the known and “unknown”; appearing silent and steady.  (“Influence: for Elizabeth Bishop”, p. 27) The polluted ocean becomes “sea and sky are black, invisible” (“Lo”, p. 28) Spirit adopts the pose of “white crystal” (“Solstice Song”, p. 29)  A canoe ride resembles the heroic salvation of the infant Moses (“Canoe Meditation”, p. 30)  Emotion is written in nature personified.  If only drinking “could dissolve/past and future” (“As If You Knew”, p. 32) The life force rushes through opposing forces, such as: “up” and “down”, “here” and there; “life and death”; light and dark. (“Two Heavens”, p. 33) He is only an “amateur”, existing on a pension, being “employed” as an acute observer of nature (“Torso”, p. 34)  Wilderness conflicts with civilization (“I’ll Fly Away”, p. 35)  In a  domestic tableau, he family emerges as “sister” and “Mum”, but he seems to care the most for their pet “Scamp”, in mutual stories. (“Within My Head on Upside Down”, p. 36)  The template of “tempus fugit” appears ironically unvarnished (“Nostalgia”, p. 37)  He is curious about the economy (“Scavenger”)  He feels as if he has lost his mind (“Written in the Dark”)  He explores the axiom   of “If only.” (“Snapper”, p. 40)  Like the beavers, we believe “we’ll have work every day”, followed by “”If”. (“Wiggisey”, p. 41)  He endorses “CBC Radio Brave New Waves” (“Looling: for Rachel Saunders, 1984-2006”, p. 42) Like a beaver, he is “Long in the tooth”. (“Bank Beaver”, p. 43)  Some aspects of nature appear “irreducible”. (“An Economics of Happiness”, p. 44)  He demands “the mind’s/silence, for just one fucking minute?” (“Inenarrable”, p. 45)  He points to Tom Thomson’s art and the fallibility of school teachers (“Person of Snow”, p. 46) In “War Baby”, “We revel in having more than we deserve” (p. 47).  Nature taught him its language (“Post-Industrial Landscape”, p. 48) He helps nature, by leaving it alone.  (“Bedford Social”)  What does he have in common with forest, muskrat, or galaxies? (“Empire”)  In his boyhood, he was ignorant of nature (“Wetland”) He envies the spectacular displays of nature in the changing seasons. (“Indian Summer”)  Birds mimic song, but he knew the truth of his mother’s deteriorating medical condition.  (“Catbirds, Mockingbirds, Starlings”, p. 53)

He masquerades “like a bogus boiler inspector” (“Devil’s Paintbrush”, p. 54) There is “one way” or “one delay”. (“In Loco Parentis”)  He enters the cold water, fully expecting winter’s coming.  (“The Elgin Angular Unconformity”, p. 56)  He envisions the end of his life, while contemplating work and love, as antagonistic elements, to endure the pain.  (“The Secret of What Is Important”, p. 57)  It is important to “teach”, “repeat” and “defy”.  (“Galactic Dynamics”, p. 58)  An insect’s “animal energy” tends to say “So fucking what” to the inevitability of death. (“Stable Base”, p. 59)      An insect is capable of evolving into a literate and thinking being, if given enough time.  (“Garter Lake Gazette”)  The ecological development of mountains made possible an orphanage.  (“Babies’ Cottage”)  In “Mother’s Day”, he composes a letter of regret, with the salutation of “Dear Nature.”  He detects the movement of frogs, turtles, and a fawn, before looking at the activity of the stock market (“Lily Pond Margin”).  Humans are as insignificant as a wasp, in the scheme of things.  (“Rivers and Mountains”)  The “big bang” theory of creation is set aside, in favour of “something began remaking itself.”  (“Minnows”)

Over four pages of note accompany the poetry texts, which are useful, but not essential to aesthetic enjoyment of this lattice work piece of reconnoitered wildness, wilderness, and magnification of living beings which are invisible to the naked eye.  The poet envies and cherishes a way of life which is inexorably escaping our grasp, due to human invasion and occupation of animal and plant territory.

Donlan is a poetry editor at Brick Books, who also works as a reference librarian at the Vancouver Public Library.  This is his fourth book of poetry, after Domestic Economy (1990, 1997); Baysville (1993) and Green Man (1999).

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