Every new generation of poets has a hard struggle to get out from under the shadow of the previous one, even as they too must face the perennial problem of readership. Perhaps what is most astonishing about John Donlan and Michael Redhill (who are both publishing second books) is how confident their voices are. That’s understandable considering how advanced are their poetic skills. Julie Bruck takes a more modest stance but in her own way she is an equally talented poet. Interestingly enough, while each of the three has different strengths, they share the same weakness.
In the notes to his book, Donlan explains that Baysville ( a hamlet in Ontario’s Muskoka region) symbolizes for him the deeper unconscious mind. It is a place from childhood that he yearns to reach again in the belief that it might bring peace to his intelligent, articulate but relentless inner voice. Instead, his mind “drones on,” his thoughts continue to swarm like an annoying “column of gnats.”
What makes these poems challenging to read, besides Donlan’s masterfully condensed style, is that they are not set in a specific moment in the external world so much as in the poet’s head. His language reflects his moving thoughts, unmelodious and percussive. “To be a meaning generator like that red bush,” he writes, hyping up William Carlos Williams’s famous dictum about the wheelbarrow. But Donlan can’t simply be, and the reader feels the poet’s mind racing the way a dog chases own tail.
I think it is part of the point that, despite all the intellectual movement, the poems feel almost paralyzed. While they reward second and third readings, they never cease feeling hermetic; a mind racing itself doesn’t easily let another mind in. “You have to decide to live,” Donlan exhorts himself, failing absolutely to do so. I suspect that he prefers living in his head to any place else.