Saturday, December 14, 2013

Slack Action - Jeffery Donaldson

Todays' book of poetry:  Slack Action.  Jeffery Donaldson.  Porcupine's Quill.  Erin, Ontario.  2013

Slack Action is the title poem of this collection  — and it's a hell of a poem to hang your hat on.

I have family who work on trains and I hear how they talk about that world.  I have always had a deep fondness for trains.  

Jeffery Donaldson says more about trains and fathers and fear and love in this one poem than you thought possible.  It's remarkable stuff.

Slack Action

It goes through my mind like a train at night,
the train my father rode in the night, his mind
a train of thought far from where he rode.

When I pull into the seniors' home I like to feel
the car drift in abeyance round the last corner,
another touch to come nearer, the braking slide

into parking easements and an end. Forty-two
years he leapt among the tracks, nights, to cobble
things together, shuffling boxcars and flat cars,

dealing their lengths part way into sidings–join
and hinge, muster and release–climbing the ladders
free of his uncouplings.  It took some sorting out.

He listened hard for the word come down
from the Dispatcher. Too heavy now for the staff,
he has to wait for the machine that will hoist him,

strapped, over to his chair or back to bed again.
A sandbag, his sullen mass slumps into the lift
and rises sloppy and unresisting.  He goes with it

staring in disbelief. I am borne here. For us,
mother and wife are let go, the love-ties
grappled loose in unbroken entanglements,

our new solitudes gathering and fanning out.
When the sliding door whispers open for me
–in hand his double-double and an apple fritter,

unlooked-forward-to, like a pill that you take–
I enter with purpose but am halfway off again.
Our family is convergence and divergence both.

I have a photograph of him in mind, a man
in his prime leaning out from the boxcar's ladder,
signalling ahead the slow recessions, the gaps

and clearances, the thrown switches and coupler
knuckles ... ten feet and closing, five feet, good.
His grief looks poor on him. Plan was he'd be

the first to go–with drinks and smokes, half by
his own wishing–and Mum's years would ease
ahead of him by whole decades. But after

Alzheimer's and a kidney ache, her body still shining
with something fifty about it went off and left him
cajoling his clogged arteries past eighty and beyond.

We never spoke of this, but I always imagined
those seemingly endless trains he assembled
in the night, a hundred cars and counting,

how, when the engine pulls up a little
and the cars buckle forward in succession
but have not yet stopped before the hogger guns it,

it must be that all the fastenings along
let up in turn and spread fresh gaps throughout.
Cars and clusters of cars at once go

clutching and unclutching down their length.
And I try to picture how, the jolting instress
unravelling, their reciprocal momentums

would meet and intermingle, the forward push
backing into slows, and the slows pulling off
pulling forward ahead of their kickbacks and jostles,

and you would hear the whole thing down the line
at once parting and gathering, the entire train
getting on, undecided. But how too, if you really

listened for it, there would be single cars hidden
in the midst, scudding alone, neither pushed
nor pulled, let gentled in hiatus, coasting free

an instant in the long line's accordion folds'
uneasy breathing. A hovering out of waiting,
the glide getting on in the inertia, itself still moving.

He comes to with a jolt. I take in my stride
his pantomimed 'Look who it is!' and we embrace,
our private journeys sallying up behind us

in opposite directions, gently coupling.  Not
a greeting or farewell, but a staying that is
neither between us. He keeps me close, and not

to come undone, I tell him what I've been
thinking about the train. 'Slack action, it's called,'
he says, and lets his arms fall open around me.


That's certainly one of the poems I've enjoyed most in the last year.  Wow.

You might be inclined to think the formal, technical rigidity displayed by Donaldson would make for formal, technical and rigid poetry – but nothing could be further from the reality of these verses.

Although these poems are as precise as train tracks they read like rambling free flowing, free verse.

With a Line from a Dream

A page of poetry on the table.
It is like a child bending down
and placing a hand on the earth
to find out what it weights.


I'm not a big fan of formal construction – but this is faultless stuff.  It meets all my requirements in story telling, surpasses all expectations in fact.  Jeffery Donaldson is an anachronism, a splendid one.

Anachronism - a thing belonging to a period other than that in which it exists, especially a thing that is conspicuously old fashioned.

Well, all of that is true, these are old fashioned poems – thoroughly contemporary and vividly alive old fashioned poems.

                          –– Charles Baudelaire

Nature is a monument to itself, an open book.
Its leaves are aflutter with all it would say,
but it keeps to itself, spies you on your way
in forests of dark totems, with a knowing look.

It echoes its likeness, distant and near
in the fallen dark, at one with themselves
and big as the night. You sense rising clear
the sounding-within of all colours and smells.

The almond incense of a newborn's fleece,
a meadow's green breath, woodwinds at dusk,
contend with rank spoilage, rich, in your face,

until the drift of it all, the whole, opens wide,
and the balm of amber and the gist of musk
gets carried away in your dumbfounded head.


Jeffery Donaldson's Slack Action was such a delightful surprise and a stern lesson.  Good poetry can come in any form where there is a good poet at the helm.

Loved this book.

Garden Variation:  An Epithalamium for Glen and Beth

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