By Shane Neilson
Don Domanski has been fortunate to be blessed with a few canny critics and blurbists. He’s been called a seer and a necromancer of words, “a cross between Robert Bly, Ted Hughes, and the Brothers Grimm,” and the poems have been variously described as “earthy and astral, dark and buoyant,” “half fairytale and half flesh.” There is something consistent in these descriptions; they indicate the marriage of opposites stirring at the core of his poetry, what one critic has called “the struggle to bring the cosmos and its citizens to us whole.” And it’s true. Domanski’s poetry, when read with attention and openness, traverses the ordinary and the extraordinary, illuminating both. He takes our daily objects and experiences, and by carefully relating them to each other, in unexpected contexts, transforms our entire version of reality. But this isn’t magic. It’s metaphor.
Borges reminds us: “Like all abstract words, the word metaphor is a metaphor; in Greek it means ‘transfer.’ Metaphors generally consist of two terms, one of which is briefly transformed into the other.” So Domanski has described a car as “this sink of dishes [driving] along the coast,” or, in an earlier collection, the sea as “a vast underworld/of purple threads.” Not enough could be said of the way Domanski manages to stretch the limits of an image’s capacity, and yet almost never lose the accuracy of its associations. It’s no simple feat, since time and again one reads poetry where clarity has been marinated in fancy to the point of tastelessness: “Lepers nest on the surly cats of glistening delirium,/ feet of fire drowning in the attitude of relinquishing foreheads/ remember always the barriers so cupiditously defended…”
I didn’t make that up—it’s early Frank O’Hara (‘Invincibility’). It reads like a witch’s cauldron of private symbols stirred dramatically by poetic feeling; how Dr. Johnson disparagingly defined metaphysical wit: “a kind of discordia concors; a combination of dissimilar images, or discovery of occult resemblances in things apparently unlike… The most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together.” But with Domanski, logic still lurks behind the alchemy, which stirs us toward recognition of the world we inhabit. Isn’t the following effective because, above all, it immediately (and chillingly) makes sense?
an axe is a piece of wood
with a scream fastened to one end
a man is a piece of flesh
with a storm fastened to one end
sometimes they meet at night in the street.
Wit is at work here, but “wit” in the Classical sense, what Aristotle defined simply as the ability to make apt comparisons. Domanski’s metaphorical strength is closely akin to what Eliot called “richness of association.” Even closer, perhaps, is Stephen Dobyns’s description of this yoking of disparate images as a series “of sympathetic affinities: the idea that all things are connected.” In Domanski’s verse, we are buoyed along by the revelation of each image’s associative transformation.
But something is happening in his poetry that is much deeper than adeptness with images. In Domanski’s writing, the illusion and the reality are so closely interlaced that metaphor becomes a state rather than a literary device only. Often, you are already inside the image, or the image is inside you (“the wind takes the earth and blows/ it drop by drop into your ear”). In his verse we continuously ascend and descend between the two levels of surface narrative and submerged metaphor. You always have to be on your toes because every road or room in Domanski’s lines, like Richard II’s prison cell, is peopled with “A generation of still-breeding thoughts.” His descriptions stretch beyond the common metaphorical trope of “this is that,” and elaborately breathe as metaphysical conceit. In this way, Domanski does share the preoccupation with analogies between macrocosm and microcosm, as well as the capacity for elliptical thought and paradox that characterized 17th century poets like Donne, Herbert and Marvell.
In “Dangerous Words” you are again summoned through the landscape of Domanski’s shadow-world. It resembles our own physical world, with trees, thistles, wind and a river. Paradoxically, it seems less real but more alive. In the first two stanzas, you are in a dreamy stage of half-sleep, an equal participant in the nocturnal landscape (“you are ashes mixed with rain and sleep/ leaves rustling in a closed hand). Suddenly, in stanza three, “dangerous words pass under your window,” and you are dropped inside the metaphor itself, where words, personified, lead you through the narrative. You follow them to a clearing in the woods, where they are camped like hobos. Their few belongings suggest some kind of desperation.
There is an atmosphere of great trepidation and apprehension—even fear—at this point in the poem. After all, what are you doing here? Why are you drawn to these fugitive words? You know you should turn back, and yet, it already seems too late. Already you are reaching to touch them, and when you do “a small tongue [will wake] in the grass … which means you’ll never see/your home again…”
In many ways, this poem speaks of the addictive, seductive powers of utterance, of naming things, of that particular buzz of crafting a surprising phrase. We are language-animals. When we use “words that no one has ever used before” we reinvent the world by employing a voice that resists conventional response. When used imaginatively, words are dangerous, not only to those regimes or totalitarian states that seek to control discourse, but also to the individual’s notion of the static Self. “Dangerous Words” is a description of an encounter with consciousness that alters us forever. Domanski not only narrates this for us, but also equally enacts it through his display of metaphoric invention.
Most metaphors and images are simply employed to make the action of the poem more vivid. Yeats writes: “An aged man is but a paltry thing,/ A tattered coat upon a stick,” and we immediately and unforgettably see a man’s thinness and shabbiness through the comparison. Often Domanski’s metaphors also collapse time and space, so that his poems seem to exist in a kind of pre- or post-history. In a later collection, one poem begins:
in the fishmarket at night
lying side by side on beds of salt
the fish lit up the building
their eyes full of candles
older than paradise
Notice how, first of all, the fourth and fifth lines aptly evoke that strange hall-of-mirrors translucency of a fish’s eye, but simultaneously invoke the unbroken link between the present and the primordial. In many ways, what Domanski’s writing enacts is Northrop Frye’s interpretation of the axis mundi, “the journey of consciousness to higher and lower worlds.” In mythology, this journey is represented by images of ascent such as Yggdrasill, the world-tree of Norse mythology, or Jacob’s Ladder in the Bible. (Domanski’s description in the poem “Wolf-Ladder,” of Wereland is “the wolf-eared corner where two worlds meet”). To demystify this, I would hasten to add that this action is not a priori a spiritual or mythological one, but is, just as easily, one of ontology. It can take place when two seemingly foreign phenomena are successfully bridged by thought and language, like the Yeats analogy above. The decisive moment—where apprehension breaks through to a new awareness, where that small tongue wakes in the grass—is the lyrical moment, which serves as a conduit between the physical world and the life of the imagination. It is similar to Joyce’s secular idea of “epiphany,” the sudden and acute intensifying of consciousness. Once words are approached and touched, Domanski is suggesting in “Dangerous Words,” we’re cursed by our increasingly inadequate response, and we must reach for them again. And any poem that refuses cliché, digs for hard-won metaphor, and pressures the nuances of language and rhythm, will set us on that path, by challenging our perceptions, and ushering us toward a transitory immanence. As Don Domanski has done here.