Sunday, May 31, 2020

David Donnell (October 13, 1938-May 23, 2020)

It was sad to hear, through Toronto poet Heather Cadsby’s Facebook feed yesterday, that Toronto poet and fiction writer David Donnell has died. I found an obituary online, here and here:

Hugh David Alexander Donnell Master poet and dedicated teacher, lived and wrote most of his life in the Annex area of Toronto. He was born in St. Mary's, Ontario in 1939, but after a few years in Galt (now part of Cambridge), where his family had century-old roots, he and his parents moved to Toronto, where his literary career began. David's early years in Toronto saw him involved with the League for Socialist Action, working along with the NDP. He worked for the City of Toronto Department of Roads and Traffic, wrote reviews for Canadian Art, and by 1970 his poetry and writings were widely anthologized in Canada and the USA. All through his life, David played an active role in important Toronto cultural events and gatherings. The year he published his first book, Poems, 1961, David also managed Thursday evening readings at the Old Bohemian Embassy, a gathering place for poets such as Gwendolyn MacEwen, Margaret Atwood and Joe Rosenblatt, some of David's friends and peers. The Idler Pub on Davenport Road was another popular venue where David often read his poetry, and his songs were performed at Toronto bars and at the Music Gallery. For many years David was an active member of the Canadian League of Poets; he published both poems and reviews in journals such as Tamarack Review, Exile, Toronto Life, CVII, English Quarterly, The Montreal Gazette, Maclean's, The Windsor Star, and Books In Canada. Among his awards were the Governor General's Award for Poetry in 1983, for Settlements; the Today Canadian Comic Poem Award in 1981 (In Praise of Rutabagas) and the City of Toronto Book Award with China Blues, 1992. As an instructor at the University of Toronto School for Continuing Studies, York University, Bishop's University, Humber College and Ryerson University, David taught, encouraged, and supported his students to write and publish to their best abilities. In 2010, he donated many of those papers to the U of T's Thomas Fisher Rare Books Library. He also took poetry on tour as poet-in-residence, giving readings and workshops across Canada at universities, colleges, high schools, libraries, and art galleries. In his last years, David struggled with debilitating illness, yet remained positive in outlook and always passionate about Canadian poets and poetry. His poetry is accessible, pulsing with the realities of home, street and working life. And although David was, par excellence, an urban poet, he also immortalized the characters of his small-town boyhood. Finally, David makes us laugh when we might least expect to! His last book, Watermelon Kindness, contains the poem 'Jaffa Oranges Are Sweet', in which David weaves together his own family memories with a bucket list, references to contemporary sexual politics, and cultural commentary-all tinged with the gnawing sense of self-doubt we feel at times. It ends with a poignant picture of the 'city boy' against a backdrop of urban development: "…The cranes are flying & I'm eating strawberry cheesecake/at a little diner called Billy's and I think confidence is just/ a question of what you've had for breakfast." Chapeaux bas, David Donnell! A million thanks for your legacy of loving works! David is survived by his great friend Michelle Jennings, his sister, Nancy Kennedy of Cleveland, OH; three nieces and nephews: Sarah Gyorki of Cleveland, Matthew Kennedy of Vallejo, CA and Simon Kennedy of Boston, MA, and by two great-nephews and two great-nieces, one of whom is also a poet. Please send any donations in memoriam to The Canadian Writers' Foundation at: Online condolences can be made at

Donnell’s poems were “accessible,” sure, but that wouldn’t be how I would describe them. There was always something of the breath, and the line, and the rhythm I really admired about his work, something I could never entirely put my finger on. I loved his line breaks, and his endings. I was introduced to his work in the mid-1990s thanks to Nicky Drumbolis publishing the seven poem chapbook crab cakes w/ blueberries (1995), produced for what ended up being the last Toronto small press fair that Drumbolis exhibited at (or even made an appearance at). The colophon for the title, produced through Drumbolis’ letters bookshop, wrote “293 copies produced for the occasions of the Toronto smallpress & Antiquarian bookfairs 27 May 1995” (numbered, mine is #136). I directly attribute this small collection of poems—specifically “a big yellow moon coming up over michigan”—with teaching my twentysomething self how poems didn’t need overt beginnings or endings; poems could simply begin, and they could simply end. Donnell’s poems suggest that if you want a different kind of narrative, you might just be missing the point. Yes, these poems are accessible in that they are made of familiar words and tell stories through a sequence of sentences, but don’t tell a straightforward story; instead, they float and flow like a river or a long silk scarf.

In Donnell’s poems, it was the meandering that attracted me, the story casually told and not told, and just as casually interrupted. A story that isn’t really a story, disguised to keep you from the fact that it’s a poem, and this is not where stories are necessarily to be found. It falls, to some, on the fence of the argument about telling stories in poems, with some poems made out of broken prose. To me, Donnell’s piece (and much of his other work) sidesteps it entirely, using the loosely-connected story as a clever disguise over the poem. There is a looseness to these poems, akin to jazz, but one that also blends a strong storytelling component, holding the through-line from falling apart completely, but moving in such a way that connections were made out of just as many disconnections. Oh, and his wonderful rhythms and line-breaks, of which I could not praise enough.

            a big yellow moon coming up over michigan

                        ‘Every woman needs a man
                                                                        sometimes,’ she says
            as she slips around the dark blue suit who has tried to pat her
            on the ass
                            & extends one arm black sweater sleeve rolled up
            under white waitress uniform
                                                            a plate with a wide porkchop, tinned
            green peas,
                               & mashed potatoes. The potatoes aren’t home mash,
            she points out good humoredly,
                                                                she doesn’t own this place
            a Greek guy does. She has a daughter, Louise, 4½ years old.
            I say,              ‘but not always.’       ‘Sometimes,’ she says,
            & she goes on to explain – that being linked is too complicated
            a relationship     unless you’re perfectly matched & even Donald &
            Ivana Trump aren’t perfectly matched. She’s young,

                   a very good looking woman with dark hair & just a splash
            of entrancing early grey across one side of her forehead.
                                                                                                        I look
            back at that city, Ann Arbour, & I think of her, & think I should have
            asked her out, we could have gone to a film, maybe A Fish
            Called Wanda,
                                     & she would have been great in bed, I guess, or dancing.
            But you know me,
                                           I’m the kind of guy who always like relationships
            which end happily
                                           with both people feeling
            that there have been no misunderstandings
                                                                                  no distortions
            of the kind you find in amateur photography
            where sometimes it looks as if Jack is trying to pick
            up Carolyn in his arms
                                                  but it’s a blurred image
            with a child in the background
            & actually he was just leaning over with a hand on her
            shoulder to say something to her about the photographer
            who used to be his roommate in college.

Only two of the poems in this chapbook appeared in Donnell’s subsequent full-length collection Sometimes A Great Notion (McClelland & Stewart, 2004), but this wasn’t one of them. My copy of the collection is signed, which must have happened the day of that particular Toronto Small Press Book Fair, twenty-five years ago this month. Donnell wasn’t anyone I really interacted with in person, although I would see him in Toronto from time to time. Apparently he would sit in the back corner during most nights of Stan Rogal’s weekly Idler Pub Reading Series and heckle, and have a few drinks. I never did quite make it over to talk to him.

Watermelon Kindness (Toronto ON: ECW Press, 2010) would be his final collection published during his lifetime, and the collection wrote that he was “a master of the conversational intellectual poem.” This was certainly true, from the Governor General’s Award-winning Settlements (Toronto ON: McClelland & Stewart, 1983) to the breathtaking Dancing in the Dark (Toronto ON: McClelland & Stewart, 1996) to Sometimes A Great Notion (Toronto ON: McClelland & Stewart, 2004). I managed to be in Toronto during the launch of this collection, a small event which included an opening reading by fiction writer André Alexis. Well after the launch had ended, and everyone else had gone home, Donnell and Alexis argued well into the night about concrete and visual poetry, something Donnell didn’t think “was poetry”; Alexis and I attempted to point out how he didn’t get to arbitrarily decide a poetic form didn’t exist, simply because he didn’t care for it. I didn’t understand his insistence on visual work as not being poetry; it was as though his thoughts on poetry might have existed as a fixed point, instead of something broader, fluid or ongoing. I would have been interested to continue that conversation, but never knew how to actually get into contact with him.

As well, I always wondered what had happened to the writer of prose, author of the folio Hemingway in Toronto: A Post-Modern Tribute (Windsor ON: Black Moss Press, 1982) or The Blue Ontario Hemingway Boat Race: A Great Lakes Fiction (Toronto ON: Coach House Press, 1985). Where did he go? At what point and why did he move away from prose and exclusively into poetry, appearing every few years out of nowhere with a newly-published collection? There was always a part of Donnell that seemed to hold strong onto a part of the previous century, with repeated references to and commentaries on jazz, Jackson Pollock, American film, St. Mary’s, Ontario, John Coltrane, blue and moons and oranges and Lake Ontario and Ernest Hemingway. Blended with these, he was still fully aware of his immediate contemporary, composing poems on the war in Iraq, Scarlett Johannson and even a suite for the then-new American President Barack Obama. As a poet, Donnell was a commentarian, presenting information reworked and reformed, providing his readers an ease and a pause for essential breath, on just what the world was doing.

Drunken Horses

I still haven’t seen Drunken Horses, and now it’s gone.
Naturally. Everything passes, even as we walk down Yonge
to get in on the opening night of this little Waldorf Café on Charles,
something is always passing, something is being lost,
but the seared scallops with a mustard mayo were good, some
satisfaction. Did Otis Redding write “Satisfaction”? I think
Mick & horse-faced Keith Richards wrote it way back in the late ‘60s sitting
out on the front steps of the American Hotel in Barcelona
waiting for the roadies & the gear & the equipment van.
The desire to keep up with everything
I fall in love with everything, I bounce,
I’ve got india rubber balls, I don’t look like Fred Astaire,
not really, not this morning, but it’s summer & you’re ready to go.
We need some chicken Café Brussel & a bottle of cheap Georges Duboeuf.
This sounds totally doable. Baby, I can get my head around you.
Baby, sweet potato, I can get my head around you.

Donnell had poems such as “Did Blavatsky Even Meet Edward VII” and “North of 60,” and multiple poems for the then-newly elected American president, composing “Obama’s iPod,” and his “Obama Poems” quintet. Would someone, years from now, be aware of North of 60? Might his Barack Obama poems appear dated, placing him back in that previous time, or was this an ongoing part of his strength, after Gertrude Stein warned artists of all stripes to write of the times of which they lived? I am sad to hear that he has died, and just hope that someone takes it upon themselves to put together a worthy selected, or even collected, of his work, with a hefty critical introduction. He deserved that much, at least.

Some Shocks Are Delicious

When you meet someone & you feel immediate love
a delicious shock of recognition
you look into their face & say, I love your eyes
& your mouth, whatever you’ve got under those clothes
I want it.