David Meet David

  • David McFadden (Author)
    Why Are You So Long and Sweet: Collected Long Poems. Insomniac Press
  • David Donnell
    Watermelon Kindness. ECW Press
Reviewed by Douglas Barbour

I suspect that David Donnell and David McFadden have met; these two books suggest they would get along just fine. In their different ways, they both acknowledge and celebrate the dark and light comedies of life as perceived by highly aware writers who grew up in the second half of the twentieth century.

Edited by Stuart Ross, Why Are You So Long and Sweet collects a bunch of McFadden’s book-length poems, most of them originally published between 1967 and 1984. They are all highly entertaining works of deadpan comic understanding that may appear superficial, but always find a way to dig below the surface of things. It’s hard to know how to define McFadden’s poems: perhaps slightly surreal comedies of poetic manners: “A long poem begins when a poet accepts his ignorance / and moves out into all the magic space he can afford / with longing for the capture of a moment so perfect / all moments will submit forever to his will.” That’s in “I Don’t Know,” the title of which gives his game away. The tone catches something all these poems seek, a kind of wit that is both self-aware and worn too lightly to offend.

Juxtaposition of wildly disparate events, possibilities, perceptions, and figures makes these poems easy to read, difficult to “interpret” (something I suspect McFadden resists). He often creates little scenes from fragmented dramas that never quite resolve, but keep both the writer and the reader on their toes. The trilogy of “Night of Endless Radiance,” “A New Romance,” and “Country of the Open Heart” form a deep core of McFadden’s work in this form. They inquire into the possibilities of writing at length with no plan, yet they also circle around phrases and poetic possibilities, finding in certain repetitions no sense of redundancy. They offer readers with open minds a delightful ride with an imagination teeming with thoughtful love for the various worlds it continually encounters through language.

In “Poems I’ve Thought of Writing,” David Donnell writes, “You can see at a glance how spread out I am between nostalgia / & whole wheat bread & love & secular days”; all of which doesn’t quite sum up the poems in Watermelon Kindness, but it does provide a broad hint. Donnell is a deeply Toronto poet, a kind of warped-tale teller, whose vast knowledge of high and low culture allows him to swerve across many different “scenes.” Highly intellectual in his interests, he understands that philosophy is a form of comedy, so he plays a sly and wacky Socrates to contemporary life, and to his readers, whom he likes to leave bemused but entertained by his questioning tales of urban life near the turn of the century.

He owes something to Frank O’Hara, but he has taken O’Hara’s walking/talking poems and turned them into something very much his own, and very Canadian, even Torontonian. Most of these poems invite us to identify the speaking “I” with the author, but to do so is to accept a false naïveté: like McFadden’s, Donnell’s I is too slippery and sly to be caught that easily. In poems that talk about living in the city, love, and friendship, and the delights of Egon Schiele as well as pop movies, Berg as well as Neil Young, Donnell demonstrates that what entertains can also provoke intellectually and emotionally.

Wonderfully discursive, full of wild and widely ranging asides, Donnell’s and McFadden’s poetry is deeply humanistic at its core, asking the questions philosopher-clowns have always asked while they get us to laugh at ourselves and our foibles.

This review “David Meet David” originally appeared in Canadian Literature 214 (Autumn 2012): 153-54.

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