Review | Vellum, by Matt Donovan

Ireland’s most prized relic, The Book of Kells, can be viewed in the muted light of a glass display at Trinity College’s library in Dublin. Transcribed by Celtic monks in the 9th century, the book, a collection of the four gospels, is a stunning example of “insular” illumination, calligraphic writing decorated with lavish designs of transmogrified beasts, plants, and other grotesqueries. Many of these figures weave right into the text itself, so that a reader can instantly travel from the literal to the symbolic and back again.

The pages of the Kells manuscript are made of vellum. (Vellum is made from the skin of pre-born calves, which was stripped from the animal, depilated in lime, and dried on a wooden frame before it was cut into page-sized pieces and delivered to monks working as copyists and illuminators in monasteries throughout Europe.) Artists wrote on the vellum with inks derived from soot or pulverized apples, and the vivid paints they used came from ingredients shipped from around the world: red from crushed Mediterranean beetles, blue from lapis lazuli mined in Afghanistan.

If you can imagine sitting down to a clean white page of vellum, imagine copying a gospel by candlelight, and once your ink has dried, decorating the margins and spaces between the text with animals and labyrinthine vines, then you’ll have insight into the position from which Matt Donovan approaches poem-making. In his first book, titled Vellum, every poem is carefully wrought, with balanced attention given to materials and process, image and music. Look at these effects in the opening lines of his poem “St. Catherine in an O: A Song about Knives”:

On a page of vellum—Saint Catherine in an O—within
a letter made of vine-sprawl, imbricate bulbs, & the scarlet
interlaced whorl of petal cupping calyx cupping stem, a woman

offers her neck. It’s a kind of ready-made scene—the saint kneeling
on a cropped wedge of earth, someone with a crown in a tower,
& a swordsman who is only a frocked booted boy pulling back

his robe for his work—& seems carelessly done, as if the illuminator
chose death to be a kind of afterthought to vermilion. To leaf-curl,
areola, awl-shaped stems, his blossoms’ dazzling tangle. As if

this were response enough. O, omphalos. Meaning center & navel,
meaning the first time a blade touches flesh. And meaning here
a frame of plenitude through which we witness again.

This “frame of plenitude” is a condensed description of the medieval illuminator’s aesthetic, an aesthetic that Donovan clearly shares. Like the illuminator, he packs figurations and color into a very small space. He does not fear adjectives or syntactical extensions and subordinations, and his long, image-dense lines almost overwhelm. It takes more than one look, or reading, to see what needs to be seen. Donovan wants to make every bit of space in his poems, and also in the worlds they represent, count. Every poem feels like a conscious ars poetica, a process of seeing and constructing that “seems carelessly done” but is in fact the opposite. His achievement is to make “vine-sprawl, imbricate bulbs, & the scarlet / interlaced whorl of petal cupping calyx cupping stem” appear like a “ready-made scene,” when in fact it is the result of a labored devotion.

We have observed how Donovan can pull a vast number of images into a fixed point, a tiny “O, omphalos.” Much of the energy from “St. Catherine in an O” derives from quick visual movements from image to image. This technique points toward his broadest theme, that witnessing isn’t so much a passive activity as an active one. Now watch what happens when Donovan turns his insular, meditative attention to something abstract. Here is his sonnet titled “Line”:

Surface engraved with a narrow stroke, path

between two points. Of singular thickness, a glib remark,

fragment, an unfinished phrase. Any one edge of a shape

& its contours in entirety. Melody arranged, a recitation,

the way horizons are formed. Think of leveling, snaring,

the body’s disposition (in both movement & repose).

It has to do with palms & creases, with rope wound tight

on a hand, things resembling drawn marks: a suture

or a mountain ridge, an incision, this width of light.

A razor blade at a mirror, tapping out a dose, or the churn

of conveyor belts, the scoured, idling machines. A conduit,

a boundary, an exacting course of thought. And here,

hammered-in tent stakes, shoveled earth, a trench.

In this passage we can still recognize Donovan’s skill at correlating ideas with images, but the success of this poem depends on auditory rather than visual rhythms. Here there is no fixed point for the reader.

In fact, the visual effects are deliberately jarring. Donovan warps scale (“suture” to “mountain ridge,” for example). Also, some of the images trail off before they can be mined by the eye, as in the sly obscurations, “It has to do with palms & creases,” and “things resembling drawn marks.” Instead, his monkish attention pours into a textured music of slant rhymes, internal rhymes, and assonance (“wound,” “hand,” “drawn,” “mountain,” “churn”). These effects feel more organic, more freely styled, perhaps driven by the same kind of energy manifested in the labyrinthine details of an illuminated page. Donovan both paints and plays jazz with the American language, and his visual and musical talents often seem to enhance each other.

In his introduction to Vellum, Mark Doty stresses that Donovan’s true subject is the process of making art, and later notes that the speaker in Donovan’s poems is somewhat hidden, a “recorder, questioner, meditator, aesthetic philosopher, wondering citizen.” I agree, but Doty’s role, to offer a summarized view, does not allow him to explore the connection between these two observations. For the medieval illuminator cloistered in a monastery, art-making subsumed personal authority. In contemporary America, we expect authorial presence from the work of our artists and writers, but to Donovan’s credit, he almost exclusively expends his effort on the visual and musical aspects of his art: stark, beautiful images and knotted syntax that captures our attention so that we forget the person speaking to us. Here’s one example of his manner, from a long, ambitious poem titled “An East Toledo Map of Ash”:

         What about simply these sun-warmed stones, backlit leaves, two jays

gobbling apricots within reach? But you’re picturing an oil drum brimming
         with flames, the way trash braids into smoke: pastel plastic hangers,

cans, a punctured hose, a framed sketch of orchids streaming from black grass,

          black bags cinched with twine, & how ash drifts off to the gutters & oaks,
the curbstones, fences & vines. How even if the wind were suddenly to shift,

          or these ash-flakes became more sustainable things, you couldn’t watch them

hover for a bit, fluttering, adrift, or float now two blocks away, where
          they might settle on the shoulders of a pimpled boy who today believes,

after making the Creeper, One-Handed Velvet Rolls, a flawless Slippery Eel,

          that he can become, with a single Twist the Atom Behind the Back,
Toledo’s East Side Yo-yo Champ. And here you are now, doing this again,

           guessing at lives & aftermath, tracing ash to take you where?

What sheer energy moving horizontally across each line and down the page! Donovan’s lines never buckle or break, never slip into prose. They carry us down long corridors of sensory details, and a confident music persists. Like long rows of dominoes tactically curving out in many directions clack clack clack clack clack, his lines make it almost impossible to divert our attention to the maker behind the scheme.

If we try to hunt for him, the second-person point of view thwarts us. We gather a few hints, such as his inquisitiveness

What about these sun-warmed stones . . .

and his playfulness in the description of the boy, but the voice is disembodied. It is also difficult to locate, as the poem wavers between placement

And here you are now . . .

and displacement

. . . if the wind were suddenly to shift,


. . . tracing ash to take you where?

Even when Donovan uses the narrative “I,” which is rare, he stands at the periphery rather than the center. In the poem “A Damaged Fresco of The Massacre of the Innocents” (in which the painter is never mentioned), the speaker appears, late in the poem, and says, “I want to forget what is likely for now, // I want to linger in only what seems: the pattern here, this flawlessness, / the places of meticulous transparency, its hued & refining sheen,” a move that underscores his discomfort with authorial presence. He suggests that “to seem” is better than “to know,” and viewing from the periphery allows him to maintain that state of seeming.

Why does this effaced speaker matter so much? Because he evokes a certain kind of humility that is rarely found in contemporary American poetry. Donovan’s poems suggest that we can only guess at the speaker’s identity anyway, just as we can only guess at the lives of the writers and artists of the distant past. The monks who copied and illuminated medieval books, for example, are nameless now, but they were also nameless then. They served the cause of craftsmanship, the highest art. Donovan knows, as they knew, that beauty really matters, especially the kind of beauty that sings loudly for the life of the artist who creates it.  

Matt Donovan is an assistant professor of creative writing at the College of Santa Fe. His first collection, Vellum, was selected by Mark Doty for the Bakeless Prize in Poetry. His poems have been published in AGNI, Poetry, The Kenyon Review, The Gettysburg Review, The Threepenny Review, and The Virginia Quarterly Review. He is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize (2008) and a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts (2004).