Monday, October 1, 2018

Thin Air of the Knowable — Wendy Donawa (Brick Books)

Today's book of poetry:
Thin Air of the Knowable.  Wendy Donawa.  Brick Books.  London, Ontario.  2017.

Oh Thank You, thank you, thank you, Wendy Donawa.  The spirit of St. Earle of Birney is alive and well and kicking in Canadian poetry and Wendy Donawa has made it so.  Listen to this:

          crenellated sawback
          dogtooth, lace—
          pouring scree down cross-hatched gullies,
          sending shale, sandstone, limestone,
          spilling this chert, cousin to flint, to chalcedony.
          And slate—shale's bastard progeny—fine-grained,
          foliated, its fossils' traces
          measuring Earth's time scales.

                                                     from "Stone's Deep Accord, Its Steady Presence"

You'd almost think big Earle was standing behind her dictating magic through a tall angels breath.  And this is not to suggest in any way that Ms. Donawa is anything but original, in a day when it is hard to do so.  And she's not borrowing diddly from Sir Earle, but Thin Air of the Knowable will remind you that giants and their ghosts still roam, we can hear them whisper when we can incant their names.

And then, in her poem "Travelling Light" Donawa invokes the voice of the graceful, subtle and wise  Phyllis Webb's "Wilson's Bowl."  Turn the page, put your foot on the gas and all of a sudden you are neck deep in "Coming Down Through Rockfall" and you realize you could be under the pen of Patrick Lane, maybe even a gentler Peter Trower, Lorna Crozier too.

On My Bedroom Window, Frost Flowers

Chunter and clunk from the basement
where my father stoked the morning furnace
by the concrete laundry tub, the coal bin.
The old house coughed up lukewarm air
through baseboard's metal grates,
I dressed fast,
             cold toes clenched on colder lino.
             On my bedroom window, frost flowers.

After school that day
chrysanthemums tapped frozen heads
against the fence
where I leaned my bike.

I let myself in, groped
in the darkening kitchen, blowing
on red knuckles, when,
just perceptibly, the house groaned,
gathered and puckered the air like
skin on scalded milk, like
hair prickling my neck.

Only my father, home early still
overcoated in the desolate front room,
moaning.  My brother dead these six weeks, I 
slammed the cocoa tin down
hard as anything and 
lit the fire.

Odd to find the old place still there.
It stands quiet in the dusk; it seems smaller,
its sensible brown shingles now a heritage palette
of caramel, cobalt, plum,
liquefying through a scrim of mist,
and the first lights coming on.


Why is Today's book of poetry seeing all these great Canadian poets?  Because Wendy Donawa evokes memories of the poems we love best, there is an old time elegant wisdom inside this musical voice.  It's that we've heard songs like these from voices we looked up to, learned from.

Today's book of poetry wants to draw attention to every line on Donawa's "Time is Enough."  Donawa draws these poems right out of the earth beneath her feet.

Time is Enough

                   Time is enough, more than enough, and matter multiple and given.
                                     — Annie Dillard, "Newborn and Salted"

Time arrested, the nutty kernel secret in its shell.
And prairie burrow, either trap or haven.
Perhaps the marrow, soft and fatty in its boney cavities?
Or should I say, the spikey peach pit of the stalled heart?
Stasis, something diminished, but still
                                     time is enough, more than enough.

The coiled fiddlehead unfurls, glaciers melt and
hurtle down riverbeds, a child's soft weight
turns to bone and sinew and denial, and we transport
the day's gleamings into night:
those astonishments of sorrow, of joy.

In the brown shallows at the lake's edge,
three ancient pickerel—as long as my arm!—
scraped their bellies on smooth stones.
Slow arching backs, fins signalling out of water,
a lolling pod of miniature breaching whales.
Their languid progress through bright air,
dappled water, lattice of branch and root,
                                    and matter multiple and given.


This morning's reading was a quieter affair than the norm for two reasons; half our usual gang were at large and Wendy Donawa's poems are quietly insistent.  Maggie, our newest intern, has been strangely absent for the past few days.  Kathryn and Milo, our Jr. Editor and Senior Tech, apparently have foot and mouth disease but it could also be foot in mouth.  I called their doctor, Dr. Vinnie Boombauts, and he denied knowing both of them, by name.

Today's book of poetry cannot adequately cover all the ground Donawa's Thin Air of the Knowable tracks over.  Cancer raises its villainous head in Thin Air of the Knowable, so does treaty rights, feeding pots and Schrodinger's cat and all the while Daedalus is watching as Icarus shrugs himself into the sea.  David Blackwood and Rip van Winkle conspire.  All the while Wendy Donawa comports herself with class, finds the story, rips out the poem, and shares the landscape.

Consider the Heart and its Breaking

A hollow fist-sized muscle, an incessant
knock on the door of our lives—
whether in love or terror,
ennui or tranquility.
Its receiving galleries set the beat of our breath,
our passion's pulse and cling,
and the long sleep after.

Buddhists have one word for heart-mind.

Mammals, we have fully divided hearts, two pumps.
Fully divided. We know this well:
The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked,
says the Book. But with heartbreak our two-ness splits, falls apart,

our woe bypasses reason, hijacks self-respect,
leaks through Vivaldi's adagios and the radio's hurtin' songs,
sobs abjectly.

Heartbreak, intransitive, parses the body,
puts on old clothes I thought had gone to Oxfam.

Longing's soundscape is ecstasy's simulacrum;
its cadence moaning oh, oh, oh,
and stretching vowels: alienate, ache, crave.

Consider whales' hearts, car-sized.
You could somersault in them.
How to imagine their unfathomable longing;
the massive adagio of their briny lust
must roll down ocean trenches,

cross latitudes,
fill the abyss.

Envy the hummingbird the tiny berry of its savage heart.


Today's book of poetry was entirely enthralled by Wendy Donawa's excellent Thin Air of the Knowable.  We suggest reading these poems out loud with the person you love most.

Image result for wendy donawa photo

Wendy Donawa

Wendy Donawa, formerly a museum curator and academic in Barbados, now lives on the West Coast and participates in Victoria’s vibrant poetry scene. Her poems have appeared in anthologies, magazines, and online publications across Canada. She was a finalist in The Malahat Review’s 2013 Open Season Competition, and in 2015 she was runner-up in the inaugural Cedric Literary Awards. She has published three chapbooks, Sliding Towards Equinox (Rubicon Press, 2009), Those Astonishments of Sorrow, of Joy (Leaf Press, 2012) and The Gorge: A Cartography of Sorrows (JackPine Press, 2016). Thin Air of the Knowable is her first collection.

“Wendy Donawa’s poetry rests at the very edge of beauty where a wild delicacy resides.” 
     —Patrick Lane

“Like the watchmakers of old, Wendy Donawa puts a spyglass to her eye and fixes her vision to the minute, to all that carries on beneath our imperfect sight—worlds upon worlds brought into the sharpest focus.” 
     —Pamela Porter

Wendy Donawa
Reads from Thin Air of the Knowable
Video:  Brick Books

Poems cited here are assumed to be under copyright by the poet and/or publisher.  They are shown here for publicity and review purposes.  For any other kind of re-use of these poems, please contact the listed publishers for permission.

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