Wonder and the Sacred
All Our Wonder Unavenged. Brick Books
Poetry and the Sacred. Institute for Coastal Research
Reviewed by Paul Milton
In his capacity as Ralph Gustafson Chair of Poetry at Malaspina University College, Don Domanski delivered an address in 2005 in which he sought to extricate the sacred from the conventionally religious so that poetry might share in it. For Domanski, the sacred is “the fundamental experience one has with time and space, with the seemingly endless corporeality that flows into our consciousness.” As such the relationship with all things that exist constitutes the sacred because each of those things reflects the most basic of all mysteries, the mystery of existence itself.
Poetry conveys this mystery not through the communication of meaning, but through the infinitely renewable act of creation. Where once poetry was considered to be the Promethean theft of fire, it now represents the effort to keep the fire alive. Domanski articulates a modernized version of the romantic/transcendentalist notion that poetry is a process rather than a product, a process connected to the creative processes of the natural world.
Ultimately, Domanski illustrates the points in his lecture by quoting in full the title poem of his 2007 Governor General’s Award-winning collection All Our Wonder Unavenged. The poem’s title begs the question, why should our wonder be avenged at all? The answer lies in the poem’s own reflection on the excess of wonder produced by life in “a world of abundance,” a world which overwhelmingly presents the subject with poetic possibilities and natural signs crying out for imaginative response.
The poem itself reflects the opulence of yet another attempt to respond to the fecundity of the natural world. Yet, the response is not requital or repayment; requital will not suffice to describe the poet’s sense of being decentred by wonder. Only through energies equal to those of revenge can he match or repay the gift or curse of wonderment.
The repayment comes in the production of the poems which necessitate and model the mindfulness in both the poet and the reader. Mindfulness, he says in the lecture, becomes a subversive act in an age centred on the self. The line “all our wonder unavenged” appears in the poem when the poet professes to understand the barking dogs’ motivation for biting their master. Their unlimited awe expresses itself in natural violence because it cries out for vengeance, for repayment of nature’s inexhaustible bounty.
The poems in this collection embody the ideas expressed in that lecture; simple everyday acts become transformed through metaphor and mindfulness into creative intensities. The act of tinkering with a clock provides a set of metaphors for a metaphysical examination of time. A walk to the river becomes a walk over Devonian hieroglyphs past a landscape of closely observed details towards the mythical Acheron, tributary to the Styx. On this walk Domanski observes the two mourning doves, like Whitman’s lonely hermit thrush, circling an absent third: “it’s the third dove the soul is always seeking / some part of us always looking for what can’t be seen / what won’t be revealed.” Oh what an endless work the mindful observer has in hand.
In essence, Domanski attributes to poetry the capacity to reacquaint the self-obsessed modern reader with the world in a sacred communion. As he says in the lecture, “[i]t takes a great deal of effort to see what’s in front of you, whether that’s a stone, a mountain, or another person. After much watching, after much witnessing of the metamorphoses from object to presence, you find that everything is self-luminous.”
Domanski’s poetry is marked by an intense interaction between its speaker and nature, reflective of a mystical experience of the natural world. Nothing remains as it would appear to the eye trained by convention or limited by the literal. Domanski’s world is forever in a state of recreation to the observer who remains mindful. His is a world of curves and deflections, not the world of edges occupied by the dulled people living in “The Rouged Houses.”
Whatever else Domanski accomplishes, he fills his poetry with lush language and vital metaphors. The body of a dead crow in “Twa Corbies” becomes “a trunk full of God’s dark clothes / to be worn on the Day of Judgement.” In Domanski’s world, a cormorant carries the universe, headlights breast the dark, and the shadows of rabbits sleep among hounds. His poems demand the mindfulness that transforms perception into a confrontation with the sacred. One must have a mind of winter to slip seamlessly back into the world of ordinary dead perception. Be careful once you lay this book down; the world won’t seem as simple and solid as it may have done before.