Contemporary Poetry Review

As Reviewed By:
James Pollock

White & Black Magician:  Jeffery Donaldson

Once Out of Nature by Jeffery Donaldson. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1991. 75 pages

Waterglass by Jeffery Donaldson. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1999. 77 pages

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          It seems to me there are two Jeffrey Donaldsons. One is a wonderfully imaginative lyric poet who, in his first two books, has written a dozen excellent lyrics, including three or four that are among the best ever written by a Canadian. One may describe this Jeffrey Donaldson as a poet of white magic. The other is a necromancer, an author of brilliant but often willful dramatic monologues that evoke the spirits of the illustrious dead. I find only two or three of these poems to be ultimately convincing, although one of them, I must admit, is a masterpiece. One may describe this Jeffrey Donaldson as a poet of black magic. What they have in common is erudition and impressive technical virtuosity, which have been evident in this poet’s work from the beginning. 

Of course, in dividing him this way I’m speaking of Donaldson the poet. He is also a literary critic and professor of poetry and American Literature at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, and recently co-edited a superb collection of essays on Northrop Frye’s late work entitled Frye and the Word: Religious Contexts in the Writings of Northrop Frye. He has published critical essays and reviews on the poetry of W. H. Auden (the subject of his doctoral dissertation), Rainer Maria Rilke, James Merrill, Geoffrey Hill, Mark Strand, and, above all, Richard Howard. But there really is no third Jeffrey Donaldson; the work of the scholar and the work of the poet are inseparable. 

Richard Howard, the modern master of the dramatic monologue, has exerted the strongest influence over Donaldson the necromancer, symbolized by Howard’s having written an introduction to Donaldson’s first book of poems, Once Out of Nature (1991). Of the forty poems in both that volume and Waterglass (1999), Donaldson’s second and most recent book, fully a dozen are dramatic monologues very much in Howard’s line of work; most are either spoken by, addressed to or otherwise concerned with certain illustrious European writers, artists, and musicians from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, including J. M. W. Turner, Pierre Bonnard, Gustav Mahler, Claude Monet, Rainer Maria Rilke, Martin Heidegger, Osip Mandelstam, Gustav Klimt, and Sigmund Freud, although there is also one devoted to Vitruvius, the ancient Roman architectural theorist. But James Merrill has been nearly as influential as Howard; in an essay on Merrill that refers to that poet’s necromancing epic of the Ouija board, The Changing Light at Sandover, Donaldson seems to be speaking for himself as well as Merrill when he writes that poetry “establish[es] . . . our connection with all the elusive voices that change us and make us who we are, lost loved ones or the wholly other company on that side of the proscenium arch in which we feel ourselves continually instructed and renewed.” It is a “mystic theatre of the word,” as he puts it elsewhere, where one’s artistic progenitors, the sources of the self, may be kept alive, or rather, brought back to life. 

Like both Howard and Merrill, Donaldson is a poet of considerable erudition and remarkable technical virtuosity; his poems are written in beautifully modulated verse, shapely stanzas, and varied and often complex syntax. Like them he is acutely aware of the dead metaphors buried just beneath the surfaces of words, and like them he resurrects these dead metaphors tirelessly, using all their favorite rhetorical resources, especially ambiguous enjambment and paranomasia (puns). Consider, for example, this passage from the poem “A Floating Garden at Girverny,” spoken by one of the deceased Claude Monet’s pallbearers, who is describing what it was like to lift the dead man’s coffin:

                                    We stood inside

            out of the cold and lifted the whole man.

            Not quite equal to it, his body tipped


            in the coffin, restless in the ascent,

            the assumption we had so awkwardly

held out to him, impatient for the grave


he would —how many times!—roll over in. 

          It’s delightful the way Donaldson brings this cliché, this dead metaphor about “rolling over in one’s grave,” back to life by making it almost literal and physical. The same may be said for the word “assumption” in the fifth line of this passage, which, while not a cliché, has nevertheless hardened into an abstraction in our everyday speech; Donaldson uses it here in its more concrete, though defunct, theological sense (“to take up into heaven”) as well as in its modern economic sense (“to take possession of, to make one’s own”), and both meanings shed light on what is happening here: the painter’s pallbearers are in a sense leading him to heaven, but, as disciples of the great man, younger painters and patrons of the art, they are also asserting their rights of artistic inheritance. To take another example: in the phrase “restless in the ascent” in the previous line, the word “ascent” is also a pun on “assent”; that is to say, Monet’s corpse is physically restless from being lifted up, certainly, but the man’s spirit also feels, we may imagine, a bit uncomfortable at having so thoroughly won the assent of his artistic heirs. There are more strands to unravel in these lines, but this should suffice to convey Donaldson’s method. 

          Or rather Howard’s method. I am afraid I get the feeling too often in Donaldson’s monologues that I am hearing the voice not of Mahler or Vitruvius, but of Richard Howard. The stylistic mannerisms he takes out of Howard’s mouth include, besides a near-constant onslaught of paranomasia, the following: the exclamatory interjection (“the grave / he would —how many times!—roll over in”), the superfluous deployment of italics (“Since for ourselves, decisions / are never made, / just entertained”), and a self-conscious lingering over the propriety of a word (“That’s the right word, / I hope, involvement”). The speakers of these three examples, taken from three different poems, are, respectively, Monet’s anonymous pallbearer, Gustav Mahler, and an unnamed patient of Sigmund Freud. That they all sound remarkably alike, and remarkably like Donaldson’s poetic master, is a serious fault, given that our poet, I presume, is trying to bring these figures to life as individual characters. Consider, by way of comparison, the dramatic differences between Robert Browning’s jealous Duke of Ferrara in “My Last Duchess” on the one hand, and the envious monk of his “Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister” on the other: the former is all urbanity and sprezzatura, the latter nothing but sarcasm and curses. 

            The example of Browning raises another difficulty with Donaldson’s dramatic monologues. As the critic Robert Langbaum argues, in his important study of the genre entitled The Poetry of Experience: The Dramatic Monologue in Modern Literary Tradition, dramatic irony is of the essence; it is crucial for there to be at least some tension between our identification with the speaker and our judgment of him or her. He analyzes examples by Browning, Tennyson, and Eliot, among others, to make his case. But Donaldson is, generally speaking, not interested in dramatic irony; he is writing about his intellectual and artistic idols. It makes me wonder why he doesn’t choose genres more suitable to his attitude: the ode, perhaps, the homage, even the elegy. 

            This is not to say that his dramatic monologues are never successful poems. Two or three are very well done, including “At Toblach” in his first book, and “The Last Session,” in his second. And one of them, as I said earlier, is a masterpiece. I’m talking about the poem on Monet I have already been discussing, “A Floating Garden at Giverny.” I want now to take a look at it as a whole, and put my finger on what makes it so good. The first thing to notice is that the speaker is not Monet but one of his anonymous disciples; given Donaldson’s attitude toward Monet, we may assume that the speaker of the poem is a stand-in for the poet. If this pallbearer still sometimes reminds us of Richard Howard, at least we are not asked to imagine his voice in the throat of Claude Monet. Moreover, the metaphorical identification of speaker and poet suggests that what the speaker is doing—that is, raising Monet up, taking him up into heaven, and at the same time taking possession of him—is a metaphor for what Donaldson himself is doing in this poem: that is, raising the painter from the dead, and staking a claim on his inheritance. In other words, the poem is a delicious allegory of itself. 

That would be enough to make any poem interesting, but there is something even more significant going on here. The poem uses poetic strategies more often associated with the pastoral elegy than the dramatic monologue. The speaker tells the story of Monet’s funeral procession, and how, once the pallbearers have lifted up the coffin, the painter’s wife Blanche suddenly decides to replace its grey pall with his beautiful bed spread,

                                                            all embroidered

                        with blossoms, the drawn, free-floating yellow

                        and orange of waterlilies, seamless


                        and stemmed in a water stitched of whole blue

                        silk, itself threaded by appearing

                        shadows of cloudy white on gold. 

Moreover, when the pallbearers carry the coffin outside into the garden, where winter has left “the rose-beds and the rows of bell-flowers / razed to the earth,” the new pall is transformed beautifully into the Impressionist floating garden of the poem’s title:

                                                             But as we stepped


                        down, we felt an opulence bearing with us

                        in the bright pall, whose needled green and gold

                        flared clear an instant in the frosted air,


                        its colours as the daylight fell in sheets

                        stirred a little, rose, lengthened and dissolved

                        in luminous folds that moved . . . . 

          This is beautiful writing, and the image itself is beautiful. But it is only when we recognize that these embroidered flowers are the flowers of pastoral elegy, as in, for example, Milton’s “Lycidas,” or Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” —the latter another poem about a funeral procession for the poet’s hero —it is only then that the originality of Donaldson’s poem suddenly becomes clear. For his flowers are explicitly the flowers of Monet’s art and not of nature. (“Once out of nature,” writes Yeats in “Sailing to Byzantium,” “I shall never take my bodily form / From any natural thing.”) And it is precisely this that enables “A Floating Garden at Giverny” to achieve a genuinely plausible and moving elegiac consolation, which is something English-language poets have been struggling to do convincingly for more than a hundred years. Although it is framed as a dramatic monologue, the poem is most effective, ultimately, as a gorgeous, vivid, and moving ceremonial elegy in the pastoral tradition. That this is the first poem in this poet’s first book is astonishing. But its success has to do essentially with its lyrical qualities; the fact that it is a dramatic monologue is almost beside the point. 

            I turn now to Donaldson’s white magic, his lyrics proper, with a great deal of pleasure. There are twenty-four of them in his two books, and of these, fully a dozen or so are excellent, and three of these are, as I said earlier, some of the best Canadian lyrics ever written. The latter include “Bearings,” from the first book, and, from the second, “Feddy Doe,” and “Above the River.” The rest are as follows: “Rented Space,” “The Man Who Drew Days,” and “By Word of Mouth: At the National Portrait Gallery, London,” all from Once Out of Nature; and from Waterglass, “One for Safe Keeping,” “What Goes Without Saying,” “The Tale of Bricks,” “A Wedding Cake,” and “Wind.” The first thing one notices in these lyrics is the change of voice: rather than incessant echoes of Richard Howard, suddenly we hear the voice of Jeffrey Donaldson. The brilliant wit and formal grace remain, but now they are accompanied by strong feeling and an unleashed imagination. 

It’s as if the imagination of the poet is no longer tied to the stake of biographical research; rather than laboring willfully to melt down and forge the diary entries or letters of some historical personage into dramatic monologues, he is free to transform his own experience into lyric poems. Consider the childlike playfulness of the following lyric, for instance. Keep in mind that the poem is entitled “Wind”:

Forty paces from the house I live in,

                        across the street, beside the stone wall

                        of mottled grey boulders cobbled into place,

                        the men appear once more, the ones who come


                        without a word or sign to stand beside

                        the tall, medieval, wooden catapult

                        wheeled on stone wheels down the street in the dark

                        from across the bare outlands, stopping there


                        opposite my house, beside the stone wall,

                        and together load awkward, unwieldy

                        sandbags that are the size of dead bodies

                        onto the catapult and launch them one


                        after another against the house front,

                        and sometimes one of them will come straight up

                        to the house and bang on the window panes

                        with his bare fist and then go back to his place,


                        and when I have just about had enough,

                        they will suddenly stop, break up, and go,

                        and just leave the sandbags and the catapult

                        where they lie, if you can believe it.

          This deceptively simple poem wryly imitates the structure of a tall tale, an act of pulling someone’s leg that is only given away in the final line with its pun on “lie” and its suggestion that one might disbelieve it. And yet what turns out to be the poem’s conceit (the wind as medieval artillery unit) is so surprising, fresh, and unforgettable that it seems to me actually true, that is, a true act of visionary myth-making. (Although I realize such a vision of nature as an attacking army will feel more true to a devotee of Blake than a follower of Wordsworth or Rousseau, and at any rate more true to a Canadian than an inhabitant of a more temperate climate.) And finally, notice how relaxed and natural the tone is in this poem.

Here is another example of what Donaldson is capable of, a brief lyric entitled “One for Safe Keeping”:

                        Under the plumb gold

                        of October sun,

                        the maple in the field

                        will hold its own


                        until the last leaf

                        has come off,

                        and fallen god knows where

                        into the brown duff.


                        That leaf is here now,

                        tucked somewhere unseen

                        inside the chiming

                        millionfold green


                        that shimmers in the air.

                        If I knew where it was

                        I could watch the last one

                        chime and shimmer with the rest.

The poem is, as usual, beautifully composed. Notice, for instance, the way the consonantal off-rhymes in the first two stanzas, concerned as they are with the coming diminishments of autumn, modulate into the full rhyme of the third with its image of the present burgeoning summer, and then give way to an unrhymed fourth stanza with its bittersweet longing. Moreover the structure of this poem is brilliant, moving surprisingly from the future to the present to a longed-for eternal vision of both future and present at once. And finally, I suppose the whole poem may be read as a punning allegory, in which the maple leaves stand for the poet’s own Canadian poems printed on the leaves of the book we hold in our hands, each “chiming” and “shimmering” along with the others, though destined like them eventually to be destroyed; the poem’s final awareness of the ultimate impermanence even of the best poems is quite moving. But again what is most affecting, ultimately, is the sense that this is the poet’s real voice, a mix of colloquial North American speech (“fallen god knows where / into the brown duff”) and high lyrical diction (“the chiming / millionfold green”).

            I want to finish by looking at a poem that is among Donaldson’s three very finest lyrics to date: the strangely titled “Feddy Doe,” from Waterglass. The poem concerns the poet’s childhood memory of being sent to bed by his father each night with a mysterious and magical phrase: “Cooshay and feddy doe: Up the wooden stair / and to sleep.” What follows is a mystery story about language, delicately woven into a displaced myth in which the child-poet, like “Orpheus the wrong way round,” ascends a staircase to his bedroom, which he calls the “underworld’s upper sphere.” Here is what he encounters there:

When I turned, the bed was ten miles away.

There was an oblong window of moonlight

on the floor, and beside it a chair,

and in the chair, propped like a tippler
bunched up under his own weight, my father's
oak-carved, antique marionette looked out.

Cuttings of sun-browned curtain for a suit
patched with neat squares of a checkered dish-cloth.
One leg was off. All up in arms with string.

Its face was painted like a tart's, red cheeks,
red lips, hysteric smile, and oak-hard stare
that returned the blank appearances in kind

of whatever it saw there in the dark.
I didn't see, for each night what brought me
to my senses with a shake was the gaze

itself, impenetrable, laissez faire,
whose point I only later understood.
You start seeing things if you close your eyes.

          What this “Orpheus the wrong way round” finds when he gets to his bedroom “underworld” is not the shade of his dead Eurydice, but a simulacrum, a frightening puppet belonging to his father; and what this means, to borrow a critical term from Northrop Frye, is that what we have here is a demonic version of the myth of Orpheus the poet. To my mind the father’s antique marionette stands for all the one-dimensional historical speakers in most of Donaldson’s dramatic monologues, the ones who all seem to sound like Richard Howard, Donaldson’s poetic father, throwing his voice like a ventriloquist. And, as I have argued above, it is only when the poet can bring himself to close his eyes to the world of history and biography that he begins to see things, that is, to see true imaginative visions.

As for the mystery of language in this poem, it turns out its solution has much the same lesson to teach as the encounter with the marionette, though from a different perspective. In response to his father’s urgings,

. . . “Cooshay and feddy doe,” I replied,

feeling that often, with no stronger spell
to ward off chimeras I knew were there,
a home-made incantation worked as well.

And chimed “up the wooden stair and to sleep . . . .”
For that was what they meant, the cryptic sounds,
my father said. Two ways to put the same thing.

The magic part was French Canadian,
that much I knew. As for the English half,
I had to follow through it to the end

in no uncertain terms, and at his word . . . .

But it turns out the father is mistaken; “the magic part” means something quite different, and in fact it holds the key that will turn this displaced myth from its demonic into its authentic version. This is exactly what happens when the mystery is finally solved in the closing stanzas of the poem:

Cooshay and feddy doe. As I grew up,
I felt the same need to trade the mystic
theatre of the word for cause, effect.

By the time I heard “coucher” in first-year
French, I was only just learning to lie
down among half truths, and wanted the rest.

But feddy doe? . . . how would I get from there
to wooden steps in French? I didn't know.
And then one night, a movie on tv,

a woman sees her daughter off to bed,
reads to her from a book until she sleeps,
kisses her brow good night. “Fais des beaux rêves,”

she whispers in her ear. And I saw a child,
with closed eyes, long gone for a sweeter dream,
lost in translation on the wooden stair.

The final pun on “translation” as transfiguration is deployed here in the service of an exquisitely beautiful and moving vision of childhood, and one, moreover, which is a profound act of self-instruction by the poet: his advice seems to be to eschew ventriloquism, the black magic of the marionette, for the transformative dreams of the visionary imagination, what he calls in his essay on Merrill the “infinitely expansive interior spaces of myth and metaphor,” the white magic of lyric poetry.   

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