Click here to read reviewer Br. Benet Exton's take on Vellum: Poems.
Erudite and eloquent poems about art, famous artists, magicians, and the bloody horrors of the war in Sudan highlight Vellum , Matt Donovan’s poetic debut in book form. The poems are collected from various journals they’ve previously appeared in, such as Poetry, Agni, the Gettysburg Review, and the Kenyon Review.
Though some of the references Donovan uses might be obscure, the poems he writes are always lively and intriguing. Whether writing a stirring eulogy for a close friend in “Shapes of Stones & Prayer” or about the ornithologist Audubon’s obsessiveness and how the poet Ovid has the mythological figure Aesacus reincarnated as a bird, “the first merganser,” in the poem “Audubon Diptych,” Vellum makes for a great collection of poetry that should place this author in the ranks of today’s top poets.
Since I’m partial to the art of Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci, Donovan’s poems related to these artists (and others) was a major reason I wanted to read Vellum . The first poem of the collection, “Pulling Down the Sky,” is about how the Permatteo d’Amelia’s painting of a plain sky full of stars that first covered the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling had to be pulled down before Michelangelo could begin his frescoes. Donovan portrays the irony of having to destroy one work of art in order that another can be created:
And when they rested, they saw the ruin they had made & knew what was neededThe poem “Patio Lull with House Guest & View” takes the reader from the flights of imagination of Leonardo Da Vinci’s mind that enabled him to find pictures in “mildew-splotched walls” to an event from the everyday life of the author, playing cards with his father and trying to find “a path through today’s now-ebbing drone of lost euchre tricks.” There’s beauty all around us, Donovan is saying; but, it can sometimes seem to be a challenge to “render” and “salvage” it, when the mundane often is more immediate to our senses:
would be done. To pull down the entire barrel vault blue, each starred width
of heaven. To prepare the space where the sky had been for, yes, a god
& the shapes of god. Of cloth, a mule, a knuckle. An axe, a bowl, some bread.
But howThat excerpt of Donovan’s fine poetry illustrates how he uses references to bridge seeming gaps between the artistic and the mundane. This is a gift that the best poets possess, that of transcending the limits to the imaginations of many, of seeing the wonders and beauty of the everyday and putting it into words.
to render this dimly lit stuff before me--brick, gravel, bird I can’t name,
grill cover rippling in wind--or make it serve some inscrutable need
which anything retrieved must do? What might be salvaged anyway,
within one pause & a half-assed stare, before the mind skids off
from the evergreen at hand & returns to my father, snug
in his lounge chair straps, artichoke dip on his shirt, wanting
nothing more as night & kitchen-clatter grow...
That’s not to say that the sole purpose of poetry is to portray the beauty of the world when others may see only drabness or the commonplace. Donovan also writes poems of poignancy, like previously mentioned eulogy to a friend. Some of his poetry is about famous people, like Houdini and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in “Thumb Trick” and Charlie Chaplin in “Charlie Chaplin Dug Up & Ransomed: A Prayer.” There are also touches of light-hearted humor present in this collection, such as in “Swallowed Things,” about the documented strange things that people have actually swallowed. It’s a fun poem because of its quirkiness and the wide variety of items mentioned, like “A thimble, coal lump,/a pistachio shell,/peach pits, a tin whistle half.”
Vellum is an impressive debut collection that should please the most discriminating poetry lovers. I recommend it highly and look forward to reading more from him in the future.
Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at www.curledup.com. © Douglas R. Cobb, 2007