Review of Baysville
From Jay Ruzesky , Event, Winter 1993-94

Windows, not Frames

While John Donlan was working on Baysville he published an essay in Event 21/1, in which he explained part of his writing process:

More and more I’ve come to understand how little of my awareness is in my conscious control, and that a great many of my thoughts and ideas are merely convenient fabrications, rationalizations that suppress large parts of experience.

It seems to me that those lines illustrate what the infinite work of poetry is.  All language is a kind of organizational fabrication that necessarily highlights some parts of experience while concealing others.  The kind of order that language produces by making relationships allows us to skim over whatever it is we might otherwise endlessly consider: without words we might never get beyond the colour and texture of our morning toast.

Real awareness exists beyond language: we feel deeply as we simultaneously taste and smell and hear and see and touch.  Poetry (most poetry) plays with language in a way that tries to disrupt its usual order.   Because poetry doesn’t “make sense” in a way that other writing does, it encourages readers to slow down and read what’s not in the poem, to bring their own lives to bear on the lines in front of them and meet the poem somewhere off the page.

Donlan takes an interesting approach to this kind of play.  He has attempted to encourage thoughts that are more than “convenient fabrications” to emerge by sticking to a formal structure.  He also seems (judging by the dates of composition appended to each poem) to limit the time allowed for each poem to complete itself.

Anyone who has tried to write a few rhymed (for instance) lines will understand how liberating formal structures can be.  Serendipity abounds when a word that fits the form disrupts the original idea of a rhymed piece and carries it in a direction other than the line of intended poetic argument.  Often the surprises that playing within those structures create can be deeply shocking: perhaps uncovering a lost memory, or showing the writer what he or she might otherwise not admit.

Baysville seems full of these moments.  There’s not a poem in the lot that has obviously been included to flesh out the manuscript.  Neither are there one or two poems that are clearly superior to the others.  This is an ontological collection which asks to be read at once like a diary and a religious text.  It’s not a book to breeze through.  Rereading the same poem several times when you’re in different moods is a more satisfying way to approach Donlan’s work.  The hamlet from which the book draws its name provides a  loose context for these poems: for readers, it is an imagined place in which we can root the insights that don’t appear to be connected to anything else by logic.

This is not to say that the poet doesn’t make connections.  Take “Utility,” for example, which begins

There’s a glow on those loved
who know it.

And ends with

It hurts, it burns: and worst
is finding how you hold
that hot, dark bulb
for you, not them.  They live:
no light.  Let go.

In between, it becomes a poem about the destructive capability of memory.  Like the rest of the collection “Utility” reads like a five page poem edited to twenty lines.  Only the important insights remain.  Reading Donlan’s work is like looking at the sky through a window: one knows how much more there is than can be contained by a frame.

The three poems that make up the coda to Baysville are interesting and may point to where Donlan will go next.  The flights toward surrealism here don’t work for me, but the last poem, “One of Us,” is quite wonderful, despite the way it is formally opposed to the rest of the book.

The “Notes On The Poems” included at the end of the book irked me because of the limits they place on content.  The note for a poem like “Soto” for example makes the piece deeply resonant, but after reading the note I could no longer see the poem from several angles.

“Understanding Confusion” almost makes an argument in the form of an explanation of how to read this book:

[…] catch the soul’s eye
with beauty, let it feed
on what it loves to recognize.
Let pain sink under the freezing river’s
slush shifting, hushing memories…
The air is sharp, and bites me
awake.  My eyes sting
and water — I don’t know why.
Grief comes, a little grief, and passes, and I cry
to see it go, and I am left blinking
and smiling at the tears chilling my cheek:
between “Inhibition, or Hardness of Heart
and its opposite, Sentimentality,”
my careful head, my ready heart.

Donlan risks being inaccessible by asking his readers to feed on what they love to recognize.  The speaker’s voice is extremely likeable and is open and honest.  It asks the reader to be similarly undefended and to allow the words to sting without needing to know why.  He presents nothing to quarrel with: either you understand these quiet poems in your own way, or you don’t .  For the ready reader there is plenty of food for the soul.

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