Poets can take great pains in making their poems and yet there isn’t often much time or space for reviewers to take similar pains in offering a fit response to their achievements. So many books, so little time. The poems come and go. “Here, read ten, they’re small.” This is nothing against reviews. I’ve written a few myself. They give you the gist, the talking points, the upshot. They take up whole volumes and they say yes, or no, or maybe. A few lines get quoted. And then there is the sheer volume of work to sort through, twenty-five to thirty books a season in Canada, God help us. Poems inexorably marching off to the remainder table, under cover.
The irony is that any poem that actually comes to mean something in your life is bound to move in the opposite direction. What five or ten poems have stayed with you? Think of one of them. In spite of everything, it insisted on itself. There it was on the page. It didn’t know that there were other things you could have been reading just then. After all, there you were, looking at it. It assumed it was all the world. It imagined—for that is what poems do—that you had all the time in the world … or rather, that it was all the time in the world you needed to enjoy properly what it offered. It asked for time, but it seemed to give time in return. There was a mutual deepening.
I’ve begun thinking that it might be time in our review culture for a change of pace. Not always of course, but sometimes. Rather than cover more poems we might magnify a few of the poems that pass before us. The jeweller’s eye is that small eyepiece into which a watchmaker will squint in order to see more closely into the “time piece” in front of him. A lot of watches come across his counter. He looks at the face; he listens. But in certain cases he will want to take the back off, fix the monocle into his eye, and peer into the fragile intrication of tiny pins, springs, and gears—each one nearly too small to handle on its own. He sees how they work together. Perhaps he’ll be able to tell you its vintage. He could show you this or that, but needn’t always, because in the end he understands what the workings are for. He hands the watch back to you. He knows that, when you next stare in its face, it will tell a particular hour of your experience, a moment in your life.
Jeffery Donaldson teaches in the English department at McMaster University. He is author of five volumes of poetry, most recently Slack Action, published by Porcupine’s Quill in 2013. A collection of essays entitled Echo Soundings: Essays on Poetry and Poetics appeared with Palimpsest Press in October 2014. His book on metaphor in the sciences, Missing Link: the Evolution of Metaphor and the Metaphor of Evolution, was published with McGill-Queen’s University Press in April 2015. He lives on the Niagara Escarpment near Grimsby.