Reviewed by Jenna Butler
We all want to be historyless
if that’s not how we say it to ourselves;
nothing we say can touch the forest pond’s
shining, wet edges, mare’s tails,
water lilies, water hyacinths
building energy, black oozy shore.
The cover image, all brilliant primary colours and gouts of flame, features a dragster doing a fire burnout. The poems within are gorgeous, deceptively simple homages to the natural world. Seemingly contradicting itself at the outset, John Donlan’s Spirit Engine is a nuanced collection of poems that offers up a wealth of layers to the reader willing to return to it over and over again.
It’s too easy to simply write off this collection as praise to nature. It is that, certainly, but it is so much more besides. These poems speak of a need to end pain, to sidestep the shadow of past memories. The body is echoed in the natural world and its rhythms:
Curtains of cold rain brush the rocky slopes.
Hurtin’ music, the body’s sad counter
to all that clever talk, those explanations
falling unheard as snow through yellow leaves.
Who needs to know how much a mountain weighs?
Sometimes the feel, the heaviness, of flesh
is more knowledge than you can bear.
You haul it like a suitcase, mind elsewhere,
so you don’t spend your life saying goodbye,
goodbye, blood hum and aspen tremor singing
the simple, hopeless love of being here.
There is a certain comfort to be found in the patterns of the natural world and the many ways in which it is able to release pain. In poems such as “Soil Building,” the natural world’s inability to hold fast to pain is brought abruptly against humanity’s tendency to be swallowed by past hurt. As Donlan says, “[s]ometimes you withdraw so far from the world / you mistrust even the surf of cherry bloom / crashing overhead – garish, unbelievable / happiness” (14).
Beyond providing comfort, the natural world gifts the quiet observer with instruction. In “Across the Line,” Donlan notes that “[y]ou learn patience,” […] “[y]ou learn anarchy,” [and] “[y]ou learn protection” (16) through watching different elements of the natural world. In the end, you also learn how to let go of that weight you are carrying with you and appreciate what you have in the moment:
Seeing water beyond water,
you learn loss: you might never go there, and even here
there is more than you have time to love
in your brief life – look how deep, how clear!
(“Across the Line” 16)
Although there are occasional poems in the collection that are not as strong, it is because they deviate too far from the wry, quiet observational style of the remainder of the book. For instance, “Bush Blues,” holding fast to certain constraints of blues lyrics, clunks a little; “With My Head on Upside Down” reflects the tumult in its title all too well.
But there are poems such as “Torso” that make the leap from a more mundane start to a rather brilliant ending, mimicking as this poem does the writer’s leap from a profitable but draining day job to that of wordsmith:
Gave up a good situation to survive:
you’d have been shrinking while your pension grew
and you were put to use like a parrot
pulling a little cart. Now you’re employed
watching the tops of trees move as the wind
moves them. Your amateur observations
go unrecorded unless absorbed, transformed:
green lichen dusting a barky crevice
shaped to the cadence of one particular bird’s
call, heard once, on one particular day.
Dozens of robin generations later
someone whistles a phrase, a line they read
somewhere, so love of the world’s remembered.
These poems experience the greatest success when the need to say something is not at the forefront; rather, the natural world is allowed to work on the writer’s intent. When this occurs, when the intent comes to be seen through nature, the poems are at their strongest.
The poems that jar are few, and they do not jar badly. They are vastly outnumbered by the poems like “Written in the Dark,” where Donlan’s wry observation is at its height, and his word choice taut and vibrant:
A sharp-shinned hawk strafes a black squirrel under a car,
is driven off. Starving. Furious.
Wild in the city, egg-stealers
devour variety to feed the mob.
As sparrow fringes, jumpy, map the fan-
shaped killing range of dozing cats, forest
borders shrink from cities, scenting extinction.
Poor Canada. These boots will see me out.
(“Written in the Dark” 39)
This is a collection far richer than a first reading and a dubbing of “nature poetry” allows. Like the driver in flames on the cover, these poems explore a society that consumes the natural world in order to burn bright, but in doing so, consumes itself. At the same time, the poems compare society’s consumption of the wild places with the way in which an individual can be consumed by emotional baggage. Leave that baggage where you stand, Donlan seems to say. Leave the doubt, anger, and the constant need for more at the borders. Take a lesson from the world around you, the one underwriting whatever industry scrabbles across it:
We know what tears are: how about a song
for arctic air spilling over the mountains
down the inlets and valleys to the sea
clearing the sky so holly berries blaze redder
and self-pity shrinks and freezes dry and hard
and crackles satisfactorily underfoot
and even in a day of just eight hours of light
spirit expands to fill the time allotted
and rain is white crystal under the fallen leaves?
(“Solstice Song” 29)
Jenna Butler is an educator and poet who makes her home in Edmonton. Her work has garnered a number of awards, including CBC’s Alberta Anthology, and has been widely published in journals, anthologies and literary magazines in Canada and abroad. She is the founding editor of Rubicon Press.