Issue # 186 - Larry Mathews

Larry Mathews


Sacred Toys



Slack Action by Jeffery Donaldson (Erin, ON: The Porcupine’s Quill, 2013, 96 pp., $16.95).


If there’s a “central” or “essential” poem in this marvellous collection, it may well be the one titled “House of Cards,” whose speaker begins by quoting Jacques Derrida on Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism: that fine fragile cathedral” is the French critic’s condescending judgment. In the ensuing stanzas Frye’s assertion of the ultimate power of the imagination is contrasted with Derrida’s implied position that “sooner or later,  /  literature’s whole top-heavy elaborate estate ... / would come crashing down on itself ... .”  Rather than decide between the two, the speaker switches focus to describe a “child at work on a house of cards,” one of Donaldson’s many many metaphorical explorations of the creation of poetry, or art generally. The emphasis is on the dexterity and ingenuity of the child, who, although she “knows its equilibrium is a travesty,” nevertheless carries on until her project is complete: “Her patience is dizzying. Her fingers, feathers.” At poem’s end, the structure is still standing, precariously, “this dwelling she had a hand in making / that tapers at all odds above the fallen world.” It may “come crashing down on itself” at any moment, possibly even deliberately knocked over by the child herself. But for the time being it survives, a temporary monument to the Frygian view of art, “above time,” though Derrida is no doubt waiting knowingly for the inevitable implosion.

      And that’s Donaldson’s world in a nutshell. It’s Wallace Stevens’s world, basically, though Stevens is gestured to only once, in the title of “More than Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Listener,” the poet’s funny/serious take on the experience of giving readings. But the more pertinent Stevens connection is to the idea of poetry as supreme fiction, the best available substitute for the old-time religion of Romanticism, or, for that matter, of religion itself. It can provide no access to a world beyond the gorgeousness and intricacy of its own verbiage, and that will have to be sufficient, and for Donaldson it seems, for the most part, to be.

     This is not say that he’s unwilling to look the harshest of brute facts in the eye. Two of the strongest poems in the collection describe a visit to his father in an “assisted care” facility (“Slack Action”) and his response to the death of his mother, who had suffered from dementia (“Inspirit”). In the central section of this latter poem, he uses the encounter between Hamlet and his father’s ghost to examine, poignantly, the experience that his mother must have lived through:


     Yet I wonder who was most haunted there.

     Parent or child? The nasty lab brew went

     Straight to the king’s brains and froze him out.


     Can we even think how that must have felt?

     Your noggin ossified in stucco strips,

     vile and loathsome crust, synaptic through-puts


     numbed to stone, where loves once lived,

     its neurons cleaved, names and faces

     snowbound in their dark dwellings, the wires down.


     But there are few poems that draw so directly and nakedly on the poet’s personal experience. The main subject of Slack Action is poetry itself  —  what it is, how it’s composed, how it’s received, why it’s valuable. The book’s central section, titled “Toy Poems,” dazzles with its verbal exuberance, as poem after poem, each titled after a plaything — “Jack-in-the-Box,” “Spinning Top,” “Yo-yo,” and so forth  —  develops a poetry-related extended metaphor. Thus “Jack-in-the-Box” implicitly describes the composition of a poem, as the speaker-poet must relearn “the rote / lessons of form versus content,” which involves releasing “Your buried clown gathered to itself, / head lowered, scheming, its revelation / a joke.” The speaker is appalled at the content that pops up from the depths of his psyche (“a top-heavy doddering / expression’s gangling hysteria, joyful / as all get-out”), in response to the formal structure of the “music” that turning the handle creates. The poem closes on a note of comic self-deprecation, another of Donaldson’s rhetorical trademarks, as the speaker notes that this sort of thing happens every time, that he continues to “play,” thinking mistakenly that he “wouldn’t flinch / like this every time around.” While a poet may start from the assumption that his intellect is in control, as he works at his craft according to a well-understood set of rules, his imagination has other priorities and will make its presence manifest, however disconcerting the personal revelation that may result.

     “Jack-in-the Box” is the first in a series of nine such poems. They’re all beautifully wrought, thought-provoking, self-assured, subtly conceived, and fun to read. Like a good number of others in this volume, they deserve to have articles written about them, the sort that goes in for line-by-line exegesis, the critic sensitive to the nuances of the language and willing to explicate at length. I can’t do that here, of course, but here’s a passage from “Marbles” that may illustrate my point:


                          I loved the way the rainbows

and particles bent to the shape of their own element

and found their angles there, the arc and gleam


of each radiant crescent; how everything bathed

in its own lucidity. How even the mists were

clarities, how nothing made to be seen was unseen,


for everything inside them was just out there.

How each one was fixed for good, but how also

for variety there was variety, and how each new


marble in the game changed everything, simply

by adding itself.


     Still, even in these poems that celebrate all things poetic, there’s an undertone of nostalgia or regret that, as with the child’s house of cards in the poem discussed at the beginning of this review, the power won’t last — the speaker no longer has the marbles (“A day came when they were gone is all”), the child who owned a rocking horse has “long since moved on” (“Rocking Horse”), a lonely, patient figurine waits in her dollhouse for something to happen (“Figurine”). And the ostensible subjects of these poems are, after all, only toys.

     If that’s all that poetry is, is it enough?

     From the perspective of an individual poet, such as the one who wittily surveys his own career, in “The Selected Poems,” there is a point at which, “modestly convinced / of your lasting genius,” there is the expectation that it may well be:


they’ll quote your lines in English 105;

the world neglected them at its peril.

You are holding up the Canadian side,

at least as good as Auden or James Merrill.


But later, “Towards 85,” comes the disillusioning revelation that “the rest is a two-line bio at the end, / and fame a Universal Product Code.”

     More serious, at least in tone, is the Kafkaesque parable titled “The Stadium,” whose premise is that “all those from town / who have died” mysteriously assemble on the field at the local stadium; the living townspeople congregate in the stands but can’t communicate with the dead. At a certain point, “a bell rang in the bell tower” to announce the arrival of “the poet,” who “read aloud / a poem he had written specially for the occasion,” which was, unfortunately “hard to hear” because of the “general hum that persisted the whole time.” The townspeople go home; the dead stay where they are. No connection has been made between them. As for the poet, who also leaves: “The poem he had read / was about a toy he had lost when he was a child.”

     One can imagine Frye shaking his head sadly while Derrida smirks complacently.

     The facts that the poet’s part in the ceremony was planned and that he was introduced ceremoniously suggest that he was meant to fulfil the traditional role of some combination of shaman-priest-prophet-oracle, the figure who could somehow — in the rhetoric of the poem — be the catalyst to bring about the reunion of the living and the dead. But his voice was not strong enough. And the subject matter of his poem? To be uncharitable, one could say: trivial, inappropriately personal, beside the point, given the occasion. But maybe that’s the only kind of poem that he knows how to write. And perhaps, Donaldson may be suggesting, that’s the only kind that can credibly be written in the twenty-first century. That, and poems such as “The Stadium,” which implicitly lament that very fact.