Tongue Luck: Jeffery Donaldson’s Slack Action

An adept metaphor for the way poems engage in conversation within the canon, ‘slack action’ is a railroad term that describes the interplay between train cars, where free movement transmits from one linked car to another. It’s the ideal title for Jeffery Donaldson’s fifth book of poems, which marks a departure from the tightly wound dramatic monologues of his earlier collections, and instead is dominated by semantic diversity and a sense of play. This is particularly apparent in “Toy Poems,” the second of three sections in Slack Action, where Donaldson describes toys ranging from yo-yos to kites to marbles. The opening poem, “Jack-in-the-Box,” is an ars poetica where the poet laments “the rote / lessons of form versus content / you keep trying to get a lid on.” In reality, Donaldson is one of Canada’s most accomplished technicians, and the poem reveals his desire for reinvention, the jack-in-the-box’s “lurking presence.” This manifests itself in verse that’s flexible and spacious—poems like “More than Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Listener” and “The Selected Poems” are comic meditations that add variety to Slack Action with meta and self-reflective intent. Then there’s “The Touretter’s Twelve-Tone Sonnet,” a vigorous performance that distills Donaldson’s earlier attempts at documenting his experiences with Tourette’s syndrome in Palilalia (2008) and Guesswork (2011) into a sound poem that celebrates “tongue luck.” The nature of the disease is a linguistic resource in this poem, albeit one that is toned down throughout the rest of the collection. Donaldson is a dynamic poet, and despite the playful tone of Slack Action, several of the longer pieces delve into the physical deterioration of the writer’s parents. The centerpiece of the book is “Inspirit,” an elegy for Donaldson’s mother that takes its name from the retirement home where she died. Written in three parts, “Inspirit” ratchets up in intensity over 137 lines, beginning with Donaldson holding vigil at his mother’s bedside with his sisters “in a world she had not been dying to leave.” It’s with artifice that Donaldson is able to imbue the presence of his mother’s ghost with dread after using the appearance of Hamlet’s father as a philosophical touchstone. That Hamlet watches a “cantankerous old man crash around / in full armour like a drunken pot salesman” makes the poet’s mother’s confusion all the more chilling. Parsing the title, the poet eventually conjures his mother in spirit: “nightgown and furry slippers, shin-pegs white / and waxy as baking paper, hair matted // from another bad night.” It’s an anguished climax in a complex and ultimately compelling collection of poems that’s among the year’s best.

Jim Johnstone’s most recent book is Dog Ear (Vehicule Press, 2014). He is also the editor of The Essential Earle Birney, forthcoming from Porcupine’s Quill.


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