Tuesday, December 14, 2010

David Donnell's Settlements

I hadn't read anything by David Donnell until two weeks ago, but the excellent Alex Boyd blog piece on trivial subject matter by Canadian poets wherein he used a Donnell poem as example, combined with his name turning up in this year's GG longlist, piqued my curiosity. To get a sense of prior work, and to see how it may have changed over the past quarter-century, I turned to his GG-winning Settlements (1983).

One of the poems, "Geese", is for John Ashbery. Easy to make the link. Ashbery's stream-of-consciousness often bores me to numbness, but at least he takes you on a partial journey, entertaining for up to half a poem. Donnell, here and elsewhere, just likes to talk, like a weary (or more to the point, wearying) barfly on the upward trajectory of drink. The connective tissue is so slim, the poem(s) immediately fall apart, and more resemble a collection of bone fragments than a living body. Quoting here doesn't do justice since the full impact of the ADD irritation isn't borne without the entire poem. And I'm not replicating fifty or more lines here. In any event, if interested, just pick up a copy and turn to most any page.

Brahms gets two drive-by checks in two different poems. Interesting. I'm not a Brahms fan, finding the sonorities (though warm) indistinct and pulseless. My two favourite composers, Shostakovich and Haydn, were rhythmic dynamos, and I believe parallels on the latter two men to poetry I prefer are appropriate.

Like most conversation, the rhythms in Settlements are of the flat, occasionally subdued inflection, mode. I suppose the pull is for the curious juxtapositions: "Her underwear lying on top of my corduroy pants looks like/a surreal image of my connection to the country I grew up in and left foolishly" (from "Lakes").

But however curious the obstreporous barroom raconteur, there comes a time, fairly early in the evening, for the other patrons to look at their watches and consider other options. I made it, though, to three poems from the back before crying "Uncle".

Donnell is fond of the list poem, not surprising in one who likes to count without momentum or linkage.

He also likes to offer instructive, unembellished sentences devoid of interest, purpose, or investment: "South American sailors are religious and wear gold earrings." (from "South American Sailors"). But it's not all driver manual English. The lyrical sentence, seventeen lines down, ups the temperature and pleasure a quarter-degree: "Day breaks and reflects in the water like a long blue dream." Yes, a long blue dream. Evocative. Blue. Dream. That is long.

Donnell considers himself funny. "Skirts are interesting I like skirts skirts are great./Maybe I'll wear a dress on Monday./I've got fairly interesting genitals myself./A loose dark red dress with a tweed jacket in case it gets cold." (from "What Men Have Instead Of Skirts").

But it's not all fun and games. Donnell wants it both ways. There's a strain for profundity in several poems (though the humour in most poems is just as strained, as well). This is also from "Lakes": "Ideas are simple./Work is simple./I associate Jane with the country and simplicity./Karen with the city." Ideas and work are simple if you've never thought or worked. And if this long poem had worked, there would be no need for the explicit connection, which would have cancelled any joyful discovery in a crafted symbolic unfolding. But there was never any depth to uncover, so the reader gets a trite dichotomy unsupported by anything in the poem's full frontal.

Again, this won the Gov-Gen for poetry in 1983. How it got categorized as poetry in the first place is the riddle.

Up next: Donnell's "Watermelon Kindness" (2010).

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