Earthly Pages: The Poetry of Don Domanski
selected with an introduction by Brian Bartlett
All Our Wonder Unavenged, by Don Domanski
Reviewed by John Herbert Cunningham
Domanski was born on Cape Breton Island in 1950 but raised in Sydney, Nova Scotia. He currently resides in Halifax. His first book The Cape Breton Book of the Dead was published in 1975. Two of his books Wolf-Ladder (1991) and Stations of the Left Hand (1994) were short-listed for the Governor General’s Award which he eventually won with the publication of All Our Wonder Unavenged, originally released as a chapbook. He has been widely anthologized and his books translated into several languages. His wide range of interests — religion, natural science, mythology, etc., etc. — spill over into his poetry. As Bartlett states in his introduction, “Domanski’s past isn’t so much one of social, economic, or nationalistic struggles, as one of geological and biological change … mythic resonances, and religious, philosophical, and scientific thought. Domanski’s imagination is drawn not merely to the past in general but specifically to the primeval, to the origins and early manifestations of things, now known only fragmentarily.”
Which provides a nice lead-in to Earthly Pages, the Laurier Poetry Series edition of Domanski’s selected poems with selections from his previous seven books. The volume is rather thin which is typical of books in the Laurier series. However, they are generally well-selected and provide a good overview. Brian Bartlett, as previously indicated, provides a good introduction and Domanski himself provides an effective afterword. The problem comes in the Table of Contents. It remains a mystery why Laurier would leave to the end of the book information that outlines where a poem was published and the date of publication, rather than placing that information in the Table of Contents, the most logical place for it. Now that the mechanics have been disposed of, lets turn to the poetry, keeping in mind the admonishment given by Bartlett at xiv: “In Domanski’s poetry and prose, silence and intuition beyond language — rather than language without metaphor — is where a fuller understanding resides.”
Earthly Pages opens with ‘Beldam’ from The Cape Breton Book of the Dead. The Free Online Dictionary defines ‘beldam’ as: “An old woman, especially one who is considered ugly from Middle English, grandmother, indicating respect. And it is indeed respect that colours the lines “old gal, old wart, your celtic pounds / simply balance the house when it teeters / your remedies never cure / your advice is always wrong / your kindness drowns cats/and overwaters geraniums.” Despite whatever failings this aging woman has, she is deeply loved.
‘Sub Rosa’, from his third book War in an Empty House (1982), shows the influence of Rumi who wrote “Try and be a sheet of paper with nothing on it.” whereas Domanski wrote: “In each rose it is deep December. In each rose there is a half-risen evening that never ends. There is also a dark house full of women. Singing women on black beds. We sometimes hear them in the waking night. We sometimes pick up their voices while walking alone in the garden. They sound like a sea of roses, like a harp made out of paper.” We can hear the pages of the Arabian Nights being turned, the whisper of the Kama Sutra, we vision the dreamlike surrealism of the roses and the black bed. But true surrealism does not come through until ‘At Daybreak a Hairsbreadth Turns to Blue’ with its lines “you do want to meet her / but not like this / not with all these moons / growing out of your head / not with all these stars / pouring out of your side.” This is a song to Domanski’s muse “but it can only be at midnight / it can only be once / it can only be forever,” evoking the power to create.
Surrealism is a significant element in Domanski’s poetry and, in ‘Love Poem on the Sabbath’, it reappears along with Rumi (if Rumi ever did disappear from Domanski’s poetry): “your face reminds me of an angel’s fact / because an angel’s face is half-way / between a goldfish and a young girl.”
There is a subtle change in style in his last book preceding Earthly Pages, Parish of the Physic Moon (1998). The mood is less wistful, there is more a feeling of awe at the world around him, and the lines become longer. This can be felt in the last stanza of ‘Walking Away’:
I walk northward cries of loons feed the pine needles a faith
curled lightly around rain and the shafts of feathers
the pine trees lean inward like sentries guarding things unborn
they know the nourishment of drifting
through secrecy after secrecy
their roots halfway down into bedrock
root hairs following the blonde caravans of Elysium
the dark procession to Tartarus
they know these paths and roads the stones in the road
what it means to walk away from everything
The last line echoes the first but, where the first line asked a question “what does it mean to walk away from everything”, the last line answers as if from a distance, the distances of Elysium and Tartarus which, from the Britannica Online Encyclopedia, was “the infernal regions of ancient Greek mythology. The name was originally used for the deepest region of the world, the lower of the two parts of the underworld, where the gods locked up their enemies. It gradually came to mean the entire underworld. As such it was the opposite of Elysium, where happy souls lived after death.” This poem is about walking away — from intellect into the realm of intuition, the realm that reaches from Tartarus to Elysium — and the root hairs are those that extend deep into the cranium, into the right-hand side of the bicameral brain. As Domanski says at p. 54 of his Afterword, the “general sway of the mind over the ground of being can be an intimate, intense experience, opening us to the new textual opportunities. Intuition shamanizes language, bringing back to the cognitive process the abandon of nature itself. The wilderness inherent in this new position frees us from the restrictions of habitual thinking, it allows for spontaneous reorderings of intent and meaning.”
The ‘subtle change’ that was evidenced in Parish of the Physic Moon erupts into a radical revision of his style in All Our Wonder Unavenged. Although he had serialized some poems earlier, this becomes a predominant style. And many of those that are not serialized are written in prose poem format. Not only that, but he adopts a much more prosy style in general with the long lines which, in Parish of the Physic Moon, still retained a poetic expression now verging towards the prose end of the continuum. There are also several poems written in modified couplets.
The opening poem ‘Leaning On Silk’ of his opening section ‘Drowning Water’ exhibits all of these new characteristics. There are 5 sections to this poem. The first section is in couplets: “an October morning after another sleepless night / I lift the window to let in the little strengths of the day // all night the house felt like it was underwater / red gills beneath each shingle opening and closing to receive the air //.” The couplet format is modified so that stanza three has 3 lines and stanza five has four, possibly five depending on whether the fragment appearing on the fifth line is a continuation of the fourth or not. The first few lines of the second stanza of the second section demonstrate the new prosyness he has adopted: “I drink coffee while looking out the window / warmth of a star standing with me in the kitchen / the house breathing softly against my ear.”
The first prose poem ‘Untitled with Invisible Ink’ begins “I know a wood where each leaf is the distance between two dark towns, where each branch contains what is granted to kingdoms and I know the wind that carries all of that away.” Prior to this book, much of the spiritual sentiment seemed to be that of a latent Christianity with explorations into other religions — Buddhism, Taoism, Sufism, etc. That exploration seems to have settled into an expression of the spirituality of a secular humanism with a respect and awe for the spirituality to be found in nature.
This same essence is carried into the second section of his book ‘A History of Sunlight’. In ‘A Hummingbird’s Heart Beats 1260 Times A Minute’, another prose poem, we read “This man will sit in his chair till sunrise. It’s been a long day, and now the conversations of the day separate the blades of grass to lie down. Now the pauses between words possess everything. The diligence of emptiness knowing no end that he can see, ecstasy of blank spaces between the stones, and all thoughts out of the stones, allowed to wander till morning.” Here is the end of day, the time to relax, to contemplate both the day and life, to commune with the power of nature, to listen to the story told by the stones.
This same theme is carried over into the final section ‘In the Dream of the Silver Birches.’ I’m assuming this is the correct title for this section although in the table of contents this shows up as ‘Yellow Birches.’ We read in the first poem of this section and the title poem of the book ‘All Our Wonder Unavenged’:
my mother believed God moved the sparrows around day after day
as a teenager I believed the sparrows moved God around
all the inexhaustible crutches He leaned upon
all the underweights of silence to find His way
now the only god I believe are the sparrows themselves
That last line presents a problem. Poets have for a long time disregarded the notion of syntax when it suited their purposes. And so the reader could safely excuse the poet should they decide to engage in flights of fancy where syntax was concerned. However, when the poet is using proper syntax, then they cannot be excused when they commit an error. And in that last line an error has indeed occurred. Domanski must either choose to use the plural ‘gods’ or use the singular ‘is’. He has done neither. Should this have occurred in any other poem in this collection, then the error might have been considered minor. However, this is the title poem — the one which should have been handled with the greatest of care — and wasn’t.
Although the error cannot be excused, it is somewhat salvaged by the beauty of the remaining poems in this section. ‘Black Straw’ opens with the following stanza: “on the other side of the earth stars hive / in the celery pines here the sun / is a liquid deletion of space / a melting of the present moment.” This is an absolutely exquisite stanza with unique metaphor — the sun as a “liquid deletion of space” and as a “melting of the present moment” — and incredible rhythm.
Even with a few errors, All Our Wonder Unavenged still won the Governor General’s award. These sermons disguised as poems have a depth and beauty which raises them above the ordinary. Domanski has learned well from the former Jesuit Tim Lilburn whom Domanski cites as one of his influences. With the launch of these two books, we have been fortunate to watch Domanski’s poetry evolve and he gain in confidence so that he is able to fully express his poetic voice.