Review of Baysville
From Craig W. McLuckie , Canadian Literature, # 145

Wisdom Systems

William McIlvanney uses an epigraph for his collected poems, In Through the Head (1998), which is germane here:  “It is of course an operation to unblock the heart, but a tricky one, where you have to go in through the head without getting trapped there.”    […]

In Baysville, Donlan attempts to reach “that part of our nature that exists independent of civilization, or even conscious thought […] what has been called the ‘deep unconscious wisdom system.’”  Yet, it is the heart, community, that he turns to in the end.


Donlan’s “wisdom system” is quite conscious in the range of reference: the personal (imaginary childhood companions), the popular (a Chuck Berry song), and the literary (Oscar Wilde, Maxine Hong Kingston, Flann O’Brien).

The first three poems in Baysville set the “mood” for the volume:  how one lives – from “Park,” “To be a meaning generator,” from Orderly”, “you travel, free returning to those visions/…/forgetting to live as if the fence didn’t exist;” from “Thinking Like a Mountain,” “It’s all in your head/ until it’s over.”  The refrain is consistent; it is Donlan’s mind that produces the narrative force of this book – chronological time, consistency of shape, an attempt to harness and restrict, control life for the self.


Donlan’s Coda emphasizes a negotiation through the head to the heart.  Structurally the poems in the Coda differ significantly from the mechanistic exercises of the main part of the volume.  “Wildwood Machine,” a brief fourteen lines, is one of the few poems that evokes feeling, albeit a negative one – the frustration of what he has attempted in the body of the volume:

Wildwood Machine

Diving into the past to save that boy:
the old wizard’s rescue mission.
What an improbable apparatus!
The boy is paper, the wizard is paper.
Between them, a real man, furiously breathing
life into them both –mouth-to-mouth
imagination.  He has to puff them up
to make them visible.  See the boy has cried
himself hopeless: the wizard must ply his skills
to help him contain his lack, not numb,
not relinquishing the pain of loss.
Like “jumpers” in nuclear clean-up crews
he limits his exposure on the site,
still fearing sorrow will root and grow wild.

The remaining poems in the Coda, continue, less successfully, in this emotional plane, contrasting the rigidity found in the rest of the volume.  A sense of inclusiveness is what is sought here: it is affirmed in the last poem’s title, “One of Us,” and underscored in its closing lines:  “He wished…/…/his furious magic sound would break the spell/ and place him safe again in someone’s arms.”  One is left with the Coda’s act of resuscitation, where more than a mind is present.

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