by Matt Donovan
Mariner Books 2007
Reviewed by Diane Schenker


The Complicated History of Things

donovanMatt Donovan’s first book Vellum displays a mature voice, the voice of someone who has lived and paid attention. There is a hungry intelligence at work here, one that is never flaunted, always shared – “did you know that . . . ?” Donovan takes us along through the vagaries of his mental journey, engineering beautiful moments where we recognize things we’ve experienced but never stopped to put a name to.

For all his arcane knowledge, Donovan is in essence a poet of relations – human to human, human to landscape, human to things made by humans. He is discreet. He is understated. There is no melodrama in these poems. But he changes our understanding of relationships by pushing us from point of view to radically different point of view, physically challenging our perceptions. He strings together images that send us away and back, creating a vertigo of scale change.

Perhaps the locus of the book, where Donovan states his working thesis, is “A Partial Invocation of Our Days”:  “…Today let there be simply / plenitudes of making, a bravura of fabrication.” He guides us through a tactile catalog of what that could mean, ending with:

                                                                        … For this is what was
chosen to offer us joy: knitted V-neck cardigans; coyote fence posts

looped with wire; a pair of work boots snared in the telephone lines,
laced by a single knot into one dark, improbable shape.

There is also strong ekphrastic thread throughout Vellum. The opening poem, “Pulling Down the Sky,” is an almost-prose piece, but with a tight, poetic compression that hangs us on a scaffold observing a renovation of the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling. In other poems we journey through an illuminated manuscript page, Montezuma’s painters, sketches by John Keats’s friend Joseph Severn, Giotto, Audubon, a concert of John Cage’s 4’33” and in a single poem, “Towards the Sound of a Heron Stepping on Ice,” a catalog of Duchamp, Rauschenberg, Pollock, Picasso, and the film studies of Eadweard Muybridge. “Licking the El Greco” has an incredibly funny point of departure, a strange act of rebellion that goes right into the painting, questions the entirety of our relationship to art and comes up with this response:

… far better
to find ways of approximating saying, to lunge, for instance, the tongue’s wet tip,
to manage, lamely, a flick of consecration, to respond to human touch with touch.

Donovan’s encounters with art never seem gratuitous. He is, rather, fascinated with the existence of art. His encounters with art embody a “why” – why look at this? How does it make us feel? What if we don’t feel what we’re “supposed to”? Donovan pushes off the texture of art, the failings of art, the miracles of art, the insistence of art, all the while convincing us that art is essential to human existence.

On relationships between people, Donovan observes – and slides us in sideways. In “What I Mean When I Say Blossom,” for example, he tricks us; his title trails to the opening thought and through the shapes of a succession of thoughts, the unsaid, the wishing to say, the not quite saying and finally, the relationship itself, a quiet moment of love:

Our bodies will soon begin to move, or perhaps lie perfectly still,
& for a while I won’t need the name of anything at all to be clearer.

Feelings that have no names, the awkward, scratchy aches of love and beauty, moments of embarrassment and yearning, of failing when so wanting to reach across and touch – these comprise Donovan’s land. He cozens words into a kind of spell and makes us stand there with him, watching, amazed.