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Sunday, April 25, 2004

Sometimes a Great Notion


UPDATED AT 12:00 AM EDT Saturday, Apr. 24, 2004

Sometimes a Great Notion

By David Donnell

McClelland & Stewart,

94 pages, $16.99

Hello Serotonin

By Jon Paul Fiorentino

Coach House, 96 pages, $16.95

Throughout much of his work, Toronto writer David Donnell's poems thrive in a slow, contemplative drift, a kind of minimal prose. "I want you because I want you," he writes in the poem Cogito. In Sometimes a Great Notion, his ninth collection, Donnell writes about jazz and theology, philosophy and magazine covers, films and visual art, books, sports and Queen Street West, almost as notes on the physical and spiritual world around him. "And what am I doing/ with my great life/ besides writing, of course, & collecting some cheques?" (The Place of Music in a World of Pain).

Donnell's poems are absolutely lovely. His line breaks are some of the best I've seen, so natural and free, like breathing. "I think of that song/ can't remember who/ sings it I've got a little powder on my nose,/ & I don't care" (Powder).

Donnell has been part of the Toronto literary landscape for decades, and his poems reflect that landscape. A mixture of strange collusions, these are the kinds of poems that, some days, I dream about. Consider this, from Proust was a Master of Sadness:

Proust was a master of sadness,

that is,

he accepted the fact of his own resignation

almost as a fact of history,

a subordinate region in the great land of the world,

he doesn't struggle

acceptance is the large word here

accept the loss of childhood accept

a flirtatious memory of adolescence

Donnell paints the existing world in floating sentences of spontaneous ease. In Kuniyoshi, he writes, "I am amazed that western painters like Manet & Renoir/ created much of a stir at all in Paris. They seem so flat// & bourgeois in comparison to the Japanese work, beautiful,/ for sure/ & full of a strange & almost liquid vitality// but they merely state the beautiful."

A poet of the senses, Donnell gives us numerous references to food, sex and drink, and stepping out of the shower. In Luce, he writes: "those almandine eyes/ I always thought almonds were white & come in chocolate cake/ but hers are dark dark brown with a very faint slant to them."

Winnipeg-Montreal writer Jon Paul Fiorentino's Hello Serotonin is part of a longer poetic work, along the lines of Robert Kroetsch's ongoing Field Notes and William Carlos Williams's Paterson. Fiorentino's third collection about his particular place in the world, after Resume Drowning (2002) and Transcona Fragments (2002), like all of his writing, feels part of a single, extended project, involving pharmaceuticals and the geography of Transcona, a Winnipeg rail suburb, wrapped together in sincere irony.

Referencing place and theme in titles such as This Poem is Andy Kaufman, Let's Burn Down Westmount and Let's Hear it for Hydroxytryptamine!, Fiorentino unabashedly rakes through all his nervous geographic energy, all his neurotic tics. From Tracking:

Tracks in the prairie snow:

here's a regional tic.

Follow them to a fence;

berate the demarcation.

Hello Serotonin exists in what Fiorentino calls "synaptic syntax," poetry that attempts to replicate the body's nervous system. As well, as the place Transcona slowly ceases to exist, it survives only in Fiorentino's text, as a ghost of itself, an equivalent of Williams's Paterson or Charles Olson's Gloucester.

The book is divided into three sections: Neurotransmissions, Hello Serotonin and Homecomings, each a separate step toward creating a myth of Transcona, including kids popping pills, an acute awareness of geography and history, and his own apologetic and unapologetic confessions of a love for the confessional lyric.

In language that feels like a synaptic twitch, Fiorentino treats the realities of Transcona not as romantic, but as something more or less real. "It's a prairie sky after all, with a pristine/ meaning," he writes in The Switching Yard Song, continuing, "The switching yard takes you to all of this/ and if you lived here you might even concede/ that it's almost lovely."

In this, as in so many other pieces, Fiorentino gives us the self-conscious voice, working and then reworking itself, as in This Poem is Andy Kaufman, into what Fiorentino once termed a "poetics of failure." He writes:

I'm sorry. I failed. I think you would have been proud.

. . .

I will

never write another poem. I will write only this one. One day, it

will be on television.

Your fraud,


Through his suggestions of ongoing failure, he is not only aware of his limits, but embraces them. My favourite of his self-referential swipes comes near the end of the collection, the coupling of two poems side by side, how he immediately follows Let's Burn Down Westmount, written from his new home in Montreal, with the short Let's Burn Down the Author: "letting the author's ember/ flicker us to sleep." With a book built of such small moments, Fiorentino is in the midst of something grand.

Rob McLennan's ninth poetry collection, what's left , is part two of a trilogy that began with paper hotel. He lives in Ottawa.