About Jeweller’s Eye

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.

7 thoughts on “About Jeweller’s Eye

  1. Great idea. The various venues where people have kept the “How Poems Work” alive are on the same track, but I like this for taking up the technology and making this a different kind of experience. I’ll be following.

  2. Dear Jeffery,
    I personally feel followed right to my burrow, and I imagine the other poets feel the same: what a thorough, generous, but most of all insightful reading: both piercing and comprehensive. It makes me think several things.
    Milosz’s Rescue (1945), for me the best book to come out of WWII (well, I haven’t read them all, but I’ve read the ones usually named, Mailer, Hershey, Weisel, Levi, etc.), is powerful is seeing war ultimately as an extreme version of human experience. In this light, the inscription of trauma in the book (the experience of complete isolation and disorientation because the community and standards on which identity depends have been destroyed, have in fact attacked one, have revealed themselves to be mendacious and destructive, and are in fact now gone) is a picture of daily mental life. How does one put the self together? To what purpose?
    This makes me think/feel of its cultural parallel, the modern exaltation of always starting anew, of return to youth and childhood, of each moment as a fresh start, It sounds good, and is good, and to a great extent I buy it. I can remember when I was about 30 the excitement of finding it confirmed in Clement of Alexandria’s one-line encapsulation of the vision of Christianity: “From beginning to beginning through beginnings without end”.
    But on the other hand, isn’t maturity good too? Actually building up something, getting somewhere, leaving something stable? The world, in Hannah Arendt’s sense (in The Human condition, 1958). Isn’t the whole source of trauma the threat to this, the destruction of what had seemed stable and the destruction even of the sense of the possibility of it?
    So the second quarter of my poem is about solitude and participation, certainly, and this exactly what is threatened in trauma, whether it be real trauma as caused by a war or metaphorical trauma as caused by the loss of the sense of continuous unifed self. But the second quarter of the poem is also about this contrast between perpetual youthfulness, which taken to the extreme would mean atomization of the self, and maturity, development through preservation and extension.
    I liked bringing in Hegel and aufhebung: just right. It prompts me to add that when the speaker quotes “Behold, I make all things new”, another thing that happens is that the quotation and its context satirize him. It remains more right and more real, despite all his erasing it, transcending it, and preserving/continuing it. His taking over of the phrase remains true but on the other hand, and equally, the phrase remains after all his efforts just as it was, a perpetual spur to action and understanding, a perpetual point of aspiration: for himself tomorrow, and for others once he’s gone…presuming, that is, that he ever is gone. I associate this kind of uninterpretable irony, perfect balance of postive and negative elements, of course with Blake, and in the context of my remarks above, on renewal and maturity, it links to Blake’s contrast between inspiration and memory, or innocence and memory, in which memory is drubbed, but as it turns out only in the service of a vision in which all is entirely present: a much better memory.
    Another thing I really liked is the emphasis on the form of the page and the book. This is exactly right, exactly what one of the things I hoped to mean in the poem and to have received, and I’m thankful once again for the reading in this regard. The maturity/renewal question is intimately linked to the form of the poem and the form of the book questions, which are always before me when I write. In general, the question is whether to have renewal, the perpetual present, we must have a sort of open field presentation, a la Un coup de des. My view has been no, precisely because of the tension between the two poles. One can and in fact must combine the perpetual rotation of the signs on the sacred space of the page with the narrative of travel and building that shows the journey progressing, if on a winding path nevertheless still on a path, and the city rising. In other words, the analogical and irrational connections must be harmonized and counterpointed with the narrative and logical ones. The modernity of the contemporary poet is precisely not to choose a side but to realize that the task now is to find the vision that shows the unity of dynamism and eternity, that transcends the taking sides for one or the other.

    • Thanks so much Al for this generous response. On the maturity issue, you’ve zeroed in on a weakness in the analysis. It’s funny, I had accidentally deleted the audio for my reading of the second quarter of the poem, but then found that the total run-time was still over my usual limit, so I decided to leave it out, hoping no one would notice. Leave it to the poet himself to intuit that something was amiss there! I must try to recover that audio (only about two minutes worth) and see if I can send it to you. J.

  3. Dear Jeffery,

    Firstly, happy holidays to you and yours, and sorry this has taken me a while to get back to. Secondly, in no way did I discover any weakness in the analysis! You just stimulated me to notice some things, make some connections. This helps me a lot with trying to go forward. I’m working on a new book now and encountering just what the poem, and you, talk about, the question of what a book is: what should be in it, what its form and contour should be, its confine and its openness. It’s always interesting to me to discover that, when I’m feeling and thinking toward something and feel it should start going into the singing, then when I go back to a previous book, and especially when I go back to the recent notebooks and worksheets in which material for the future book is contained, I find this that I should start doing already done. Already there. Not completely. But something was thinking it before thought new it was. And pretty specifically: often even the very key words that I felt I’d just come up with turn out to have been key words for months and years. You brought home to me that “The Book to Come” is not only the preface to the book it’s in but in a way a preface to the current book, which is to say, the book not yet.

  4. I love this piece. My dad was a watchmaker and jeweler. He’s passed away, but his Jeweler’s Loupe is one of the treasures I still have. I remember him wearing it all the time, attached to his glasses. Thank you.

    • Dear Gebodogs, thanks for your kind comment. I’ve been keeping my eye out for just such a jeweller’s loupe but haven’t come across one. You see newer ones on ebay, but I think I’d like an antique. It would make a better image I think for the webpage. Anyway, all best to you, Jeffery

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