Poetry Review by Niall McArdle

John Donlan, Out All Day (Vancouver: Ronsdale, 2018). Paperbound, 83 pp., $15.95.

Out All DayJohn Donlan’s Out All Day is concerned with how we have become cut off from Nature in spite of ourselves. In the collection’s title poem, while “Finger-combing deer-fly carcasses / out of what’s left of [his] hair / [he] puzzle[s] over [his] most minute machinery,” and in “The Idiocy of Rural Life” he reminds us, “Soon we’re back to atoms, no nature, never mind.” In “Shadetree Mechanic” he writes: “you’re not so important: / just one living / witness of the hour.” Out All Day has environmental themes without ever feeling preachy, and Donlan wonders, “How many trees / do you kill with your stupid poetry?”

The opening poem, “Frontenac,” lays out Donlan’s theme clearly:

South Frontenac’s muggy nights in June are thick
with sex and death: on Highway 38
teenagers race the black future
beyond their cars’ twin antennae of light
where frog-dotted asphalt slices the marsh
and the dark pulses with ephemerae
whose day this is to fly and mate and die

There is much death in Out All Day. Donlan remembers a childhood school friend: “shy, lovely Nellie Lunnen’s dead, / suffering and brave under her mother’s hand-me-down / Mother Hubbards, who captured my hand / for our class photo.” In “Religion,” he wonders how it feels “to lie on the pond / bottom, muck soft under your back, / pale stalks rising all around in the gloom / while you drown?” Because death is inevitable, Donlan—much like his almost namesake John Donne—encourages us to embrace life, like the insects in “Dance”: “no breeze / fall evening / gnats’ last dance,” while in “Earthquake” he notes that

Everywhere you are kindly reminded
of death and return, not to be grim
or broody about it but to remember
not to waste time and to have serious fun
like otters ice-sliding when winter comes.

Donlan is burdened by grief and sorrow in spite of his best efforts. In “Sorrow,” he declares, “I refuse to wallow / especially after what—let’s face it—has / been a lucky life: I never thought / I’d make thirty, coming from where / I come from. And I’m sick, frankly, of sorrow’s weight, its drag, its melodrama.” He wonders if he “clung to it too long / but it was familiar / and a comfort.” It is the same with grief, which outstays its welcome as it shows him “faded photographs of the dead / who will never hear my apologies; / your private viewings of women I loved / and lost, somehow; / even my cats and dogs, their tiny bones / mouldering in old towels and blankets under back gardens / across Canada” (“Thank You, Grief”).

The Canadian landscape features strongly in Donlan’s imagination, from the Canadian Shield to the Western Plains. A glance at the poems reveals beautiful imagery: “The breeze slows, the pond mirrors / a bruise-blue cloudwall rising,” “acres of white-water lilies,” and “cherry petals / swirl in pink drifts / on some lucky streets.” Out All Day is more than a rhapsodic ode to scenery, however. Donlan’s focus is on how the land has been shaped by natural forces and, more recently, by the destructive forces of humanity, too often oblivious to what Nature offers: “The book that tells us how to be / lies always open: yellow elm leaves sweep / past in prairie breeze” (“Almighty Voice”). In “Shadetree Mechanic,” Donlan assures us, “You can read the Rockies like a book; / lifting their heavy pages / you help them crumble, fossil letters fracturing at a look.” In “North of Seven,” “weedy streams invite you / to paddle off into prehistory,” even as “the wind blows / over the sawmill at Vennachar / taking the tall trees into its mouth / for all of us.” In “Four Otters,” “nebulaes of algae breathe for us” and in “Weed Trees,” “Ocean and mountain / can’t see us / and don’t care if they do. / They’re far too busy / making the air / making a home for the world / to live in—the hardworking / chickadee, the idling / poet sitting and staring / beyond death.”

Panic, low-level but there, lies underneath much of Donlan’s work, whether it be a mole fleeing the light, the sound of trees in the wind, a voice calling out “Despair!” or an earth tremor that “trips you panicked and woozy / surfing lava currents miles down.” In “Grackle,” the poet realizes “Something’s not right. Late summer / still screaming at the parent to be fed?” Another poem mentions frogs that “don’t know the panic of property, / the folded sheets, the bank account, the loaded gun” (“Property”). Donlan’s philosophical concerns overwhelm him. In “Not Screaming” he “indulges in a warm bath of regret / at summer ending; thus wanders / from the Way Things Are; briefly awakes / not screaming, spinning at one thousand miles an hour.” Elsewhere, he writes, “On an outflung arm of the Milky Way / we wonder what to do and what to say.”

Although we are just like every other living thing, mere atoms and molecules, part of the natural cycle of life and death—that modern culture usually makes “undramatic, my body / at some expense tidied away” (“Testament”)—we intrude on and destroy the natural order. The author finds consolation, though, in that same order:

Earth’s gifts remain: sun, rain,
The clear air that flows on forever
Through blue grama grass and wolf willow
Over the cliff edge, the empty river. (“Wanuskein”)


—Niall McArdle

As in The Malahat Review, 207, Summer 2019