Category: Allison Donohue

REVIEW: Model of a City in Civil War by Adam Day


by Allison Donohue

Adam Day’s debut collection, Model of City in Civil War, encompasses a large cast of characters. As many as it seems a city can hold. The collection begins with a poem titled “Before the War” and from there proceeds into a war-torn, often winterized scene. The collection oscillates. Many poems are written from the perspective of a speaker in his own civil war; he confronts haunting questions of loss, death, and how time shifts, and how one must learn to shift with it somehow. Interspersed are poems about others: “The Insomniac,” “The Cow,” an eighty-year-old man in “He Speaks of Old Age,” and in “Combine” the following appear: Stalin, Tennessee Williams, God, Goya, Queen Anne. The faces are endless. In his collection, Day constantly turns outward as though to say: here is someone else; someone else, too, is suffering.

In “Water from the Same Source,” the speaker, jarred by a loss, returns to the world: “Going back out…I was reminded / how easy it is to forget the world / is inhabited mostly by others.” The “others” in these poems create the city in which Day’s speakers trudge. By turning outward, Day’s speakers look the other city patrons in the eye. This decision to look unlocks the most mysterious and compelling poems. “Sleeping with Uncle Lester” is a prime example. The speaker, having gone home with a woman the night previously, wakes up next to this woman’s Uncle Lester. The poem continues like so:

                        I woke with her uncle Lester
beside me, slack-chinned and thin, face
and neck a wash of white stubble
and the high turpentine of fetid sweat.
Lester’s wife died when their Chrysler
broke down as she hemorrhaged
from miscarriage. I got up
on my elbows; out the window
was the background of an otherwise
dull family photo…

The speaker goes on to describe the scene of the backyard. However, for just a moment, we are let into Lester’s troubles with no explanation as to how the speaker knows this information. Perhaps sleeping beside him suggests such intimate sharing; perhaps it is the detailed way the speaker has looked at and described Lester’s face. Either way, Lester’s sufferings are brought forth and he becomes one of the men walking Day’s city in civil war.

One of Day’s most compelling poems revolves around Mussolini. In “Diorama—Scarlet and Liver” there is violence, as expected. What interests one more though is the way the poem begins:

There is Mussolini in his tight,
                    rough-wood coffin,
shirtless on pine shavings. One eye opened. Swollen face
pancaked, his mouth a singed, lipless stretch.

To take a man who governed so many, so terribly and place him in the first lines of the poem in a coffin rewards Day’s preoccupation with perspective.

Yet, the ambition of Model of a City in Civil War exists largely in its commentary not on the wars between others but the wars we hold with ourselves. While Day does look outward, he is adept at turning his eye inward. These poems are where some of his most truthful and poignant lines reside. At the core of this collection is a sense of grappling. Day’s speakers confront what a war leaves behind. That is, the war of living life. It is called growing up, losing a parent, losing anyone and everyone who became close to us for a moment. This is fully realized in “Hiding Again in London”:

                    Months like this passed before I left for Stockholm

                    carrying the anonymous thing that we’ve always
known without having learned,
               that we’ll lose, that speaking into silence, our gods,
parent-ghosts, and lovers will not
                    hear us. Still, call after him. Awkwardly call this man

Day’s collection seems to say: there is a war; there has always been a war. Eventual and unavoidable, loss is returned to again and again. Model of a City in Civil War is dangerous; there is often a man “swinging his broom like a scythe,” there is a rusty nail “shocking the snow / with a faint russet pulse” and often there seems to be no hope (“Apprehended at a Distance,” “Snow in a Brick Courtyard”). Yet, at times there is waltzing. At times the speaker parts with a previous life saying: “I feel sure I won’t / find anyone, now. I’ve settled into that a bit. And I find myself / attracted more and more to pregnant women” and a moment later the speaker finishes, “and maybe I think this time I could get it right” (“Time Away”).

Adam Day’s honest debut is written with people in mind. His collection is crowded; people often throw elbows outside of the poems’ pages. It is like every city we’ve been in and in that way it is comforting. We have a guide who walks us through, yet our guide is equally alone and warring, claiming: “None of us is more alone / than another, and still no comfort / in it” (“Now and Forever”).

Buy it from Sarabande Books: $14.95

Allison Donohue grew up in Virginia. She holds an MA in Poetry from Texas Tech University. Currently, she’s an MFA candidate at the University of Oregon. Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in The Cortland Review, The Minnesota Review, Hotel Amerika, and others. Her book reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in The Rumpus, The Collagist, and Connotation Press.

The Gray Notebook by Alexander Vvedensky

Screen shot 2014-05-24 at 6.39.18 PM“Once upon a time I walked poisoned down a road, / and time walked in step by my side,” Alexander Vvedensky writes a mere four pages into The Gray Notebook, a compilation of thoughts written between 1932 and 1933 after his return from exile (4). Yet, had I not told you of the translator’s note of how aged this text is in comparison to us, you might, as I did, imagine this text to have been written much more recently based on the questions it asks and Vvedensky’s uncomfortable degree of honesty.

Vvedensky’s notebook may be separated into three distinct parts: an epigraph like poem on page one, followed by a multi-voiced poetic conversation, culminating in seven prose-like musings broken into titled sections. Its lack of linearity asks a reader to engage through following.

Though there is a sense of order. The first poem, untitled, employs elements of rhyme and repetition; it creates a comfortable footing for a reader to enter the notebook on. Yet, even in this poem, Vvedensky begins to question: “Why shouldn’t man, like death or stone, / watch the sand without a word” (5). And with poem’s end, readers are introduced to the multi-voiced poetic conversation beginning with Kolokolov offering cheers “to the bird in the air, / who flied like a frantic / circling over bushes of excitement…” (7).

Circularity is a common theme in Vvedensky’s notebook. He returns and stutters over numerous ideas: time, zero, the ability to make sense of language. “Before every word,” he states, “I put the question: what does it mean, and over every word I place the mark of its tense” (11). Tense, in relation to time, leads Vvedensky and likewise his reader to consider philosophically the movement of existence: “Our logic and our language skid along the surface of time. / And yet, perhaps one can try…” (13). The most surprising moments of Vvedensky’s notebook exist in moments of hope: “And yet, perhaps one can try and write something, if not about time…then at the very least try to fix those few positions of our superficial experience of time” (13).

The Gray Notebook is highly poetic, modern, and challenging. With such sections as “Time and Death,” and deep delves into language in “Objects” and “Verbs,” Alexander Vvedensky’s notebook acts as a literary field guide in which he tries to identify movements in language that coincide with time. In the section entitled “Verbs,” Vvedensky states, “When we go somewhere we take the verb to go with us” (16). His poetry is statement driven. And yet, his poetry is playful:
Screen shot 2014-05-24 at 6.33.46 PM
It is not very often one meets a writer in this mode of sussing out; nor is it very often one comes across writer as vulnerable and noticeably under pressure. This is the joy of The Gray Notebook. It is honest. It reminds one of the confessional poets, although it is wholly unaware of itself. And more so, it is unfinished: the final word halted, only two letters long, asks his reader to eternally wonder what he meant.

Read The Gray Notebook for free at Ugly Duckling Presse

Allison Donohue is a new and emerging poet. Born in Washington DC, she grew up in Centreville, VA. She received a BA in English, Creative Writing from Virginia Tech in 2012 where she also received the Graduation Award for Poetry. Currently, she is pursuing an MA in English Literature with a focus on Poetics at Texas Tech University.

Gauss PDF: An Introduction

gpdf-cA large part of the Volta 365 Reviews project will consider works published on J Gordon Faylor’s Gauss PDF site. As an introduction to these oftentimes challenging works of contemporary poetry, Allison Donohue has provided the following primer. 

If you’re unfamiliar with Gauss PDF, as I was when given this assignment, let me first introduce you. Reader, meet Gauss PDF, a compilation of various artists’ digital and print works on a single internet site, uploaded through PDF or the occasional ZIP file. While linked to tumblr, you don’t meander through Gauss PDF; you cannonball into it. I opened, “GPDF088: Nicolas Mugavero: Eight Million Copies of Moby-Dick” first, intrigued and comforted by the fact that I knew the subject well, of Herman Melville’s novel. When it loaded, I saw exactly that: eight million copies of Moby Dick aligned as though shelved. There is something incredibly smart happening in much of the work on Gauss PDF. For Mugarvero’s digital work, pictured below, takes a well-known mammoth of a novel and multiplies it, in grey scale, by eight million. The whale appears.

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The intrigue behind Gauss PDF is the acceptance of a wide range of art and the incredible lack of information provided before one opens a document—all that is offered is a single cover photo to entice or explain an often curious and equally as enticing title. There are PDFs of images taken in backyards, along highways, of trash, of people we will never know. There are PDFs of poems, of characters named in single letters going on for pages in wending directions, tangents expected. There are word documents with clipped art from magazines, pictures pulled and shrunk digitally to resemble a distorted sock to show the nature of how we grow. Many of these documents are metacognitive, asking viewers to enter a new internet in which digital and print art challenges them to question how these digital images might fit together to form meaning.

I entered each document like a puzzler without a key, knowing that the artist would not hand me his or her conclusion, that these artists expected some work out of me. Take, for instance, “GPDF082: Carlos Soto-Roman: Chile Project: [Re-Classified],” the highly redacted document displaying more blackouts and slashes than actual words. At 45 pages in length, it is mesmerizing to scroll through this PDF you can’t help but imagine you have no right to view; the word “secret” slashed through on the top of every single page; a government document of Chile in the hands of the United States. And finally, after you’ve been given clues like Chile, Pinochet, read words like excise and unclassified the final pages reward you:

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Or “GPDF016: Stan Apps: This Club Will Have Anyone” in which a single picture appears at the top of the PDF of three men, limb-tangled, all dressed in masks. Following is a poem, 26 pages long, with characters by the name of O and M and B. A poem with honest lines about life embedded in a humorous story about these men dressed and posing in what appears to be a museum. The club will have anyone and

                                              It’s wonderful

to find an excuse to stop and watch.

Watching is so easy,

I think watching is the easiest part of life.

And that is exactly what we are doing on Gauss PDF: watching. And perhaps that is the easiest part; the difficult part is asking the question, why? Something I found myself asking again and again, scrutinizing photos and watching artistic videos. “GPDF049: Lanny Jordan Jackson: Laughing Like The Head As It Imagined Itself Laughing” is an eight minute short in which a man sits in front of a camera reading, rhythmically, a poem seemingly from thought, who looks at the camera a total of three times. This film is tantalizing: what does it mean and why are we listening to this man in front of a camera, in front of a white screen speaking and occasionally sipping from a Corona? If you close your eyes (this is poetry, after all) and listen where the lines break, where his voice hesitates—the words become small moving beasts. I won’t spoil the ending.

Allison Donohue is a new and emerging poet. Born in Washington DC, she grew up in Centreville, VA. She received a BA in English, Creative Writing from Virginia Tech in 2012 where she also received the Graduation Award for Poetry. Currently, she is pursuing an MA in English Literature with a focus on Poetics at Texas Tech University.