Being one of my “Most Wanted” books of 2011, Guesswork has the distinction of being the first book of the 2011 publishing year that I have read. Jeffrey Donaldson’s fourth collection looks at a variety of topics in a variety of different styles. Although this is a short collection, 78 pages, it really packs a punch. The tone ranges from innocent to bitter to apprehensive to elegiac. Stylistically, the poems in Guesswork are fairly traditional, using, for the most part, a time-tested lyrical fashion. This is unique among contemporary poetry; with more and more poets pushing the envelope with varying degrees of experimentation, it is nice to see a poet return to old-school technique. Guesswork is masterful example of poetic execution.
The poem that will likely be remembered by most readers is “Enter, PUCK”, a poetic examination of hockey. Donaldson breaks down the elements of a hockey game into a romantic ode. We enter the souls of the participants as each and every nuance and word leaps off the ice. My favorite poems are the “Book” poems. Throughout the collection there are seven short lyrics, named sequentially Book I to Book VII, examining the mystique and magic of a book. These poems force the reader to appreciate the ink on the pages, the paper the pages are made of, the space they take up and their arrangement on the bookshelf, and the metaphysical properties of the unread book: “An unread book/is like a tree/falling/in an empty forest”. The best way to describe these seven poems is self-reflective post-modern literary philosophy wrapped in the form of a tradition lyric.
The poem “Fetal” really stuck out for me as well. This piece tells the life of a would-be twin that seems to have died in utero. The imagery of this poem is haunting and beautiful:
You had your whole life behind you,
laid aside a heart Mother kept listening for,
on whom it never dawned that a red womb
was all of evening skies that you would know,
a-swim in atmospheres pinked on shut eyes.
It’s hard to write a short review on a book like Guesswork that really captures the magic it contains. This collection is such a mixed bag of wonderful writing that you could literally write pages on each poem. The longer poems are thematically complex and emotional and the short lyrics are subtle and effecting. When you reach the end of this book you can tell that the author put a lot of work into each stanza and line. Every word is deliberately chosen to induce a very specific feeling in the reader; in short, you can easily tell Jeffery Donaldson put his heart and soul in this collection. This is the kind of book that prize juries tend to like. I would not be surprised, and in fact would be quite pleased, to see this on the shortlists of the Governor-General’s Award or the Griffin Prize in 2011.
Guesswork will available from Goose Lane Editions on February 25th and can be pre-ordered here.