MAKE BELIEVE by Thom Donovan
(Wheelhouse Press, 2009)
Thom Donovan’s Make Believe is the sort of poetry that is thought-provoking and striking in its brevity and length, focus and scope. The poetics are also arresting in the intelligence, beauty and thoughtfulness infusing this work. Make Believe is comprised of long poems, groups of compact pieces, movements in a music of soulfulness, sadness, isolation and unity. These pieces are loaded with symbolism, awareness, allusion and agile wordplay. Donovan’s work leaves one with a feeling that something moving and magnificent has just been uncovered, even if it the reader doesn’t know what it all means. Make Believe was an enchanting and engaging read, even before several Google searches to sort it all out.
The best example of this is the first part of the collection, “Berkeley Island.” While sharing a name with a New Jersey park, this piece was written after a video by film-maker Guy Ben-Ner. The video itself seems to speak to the isolation and refuge that the home environment offers, but it was suggested to me that the video could also be metaphoric of Israeli politics. Donovan’s poetic response is a surreal work full of cleverly-used, oft-repeated language. “Berkeley Island” also incorporates the sort of abstract speech not thought of as a mark of “good” poetry in such a way that it manages to create a layer of mystery, cultivating the desire to learn and discover more. The third piece of this poem is an excellent example of this:
The despair of nations
Singing out to be real
To be not merely
For what we are
And what we mark
These islands only
Not will be saved
Not in this time of the nations
This particular excerpt from “Berkeley Island” seems to be speaking directly to a desire for legitimacy while acknowledging some sort of isolation. After further research, it seems that the piece could be quite political as In The Time of Nations is the title of a collection of philosophical essays by Emmanuel Levinas; the essays in question deal mostly with the relationship between Judaism and European culture since the time of the Enlightenment. The “time of the nations” could also quite possibly refer Ezekiel 30:3, a passage addressing a day of doom or of reckoning.
The idea of the island creating a sort of sanctuary while imposing seclusion is confounded even further with the quotation Donovan uses to begin this piece: “An island / Has a public quality.” The quote comes from objectivist poet, George Oppen. This quote re-envisions the notion of the island that one gets from Ben-Ner’s film or from the content of Donovan’s poetics as it suggests that an island is not a place for sanctuary or separation, but a place that is open and accessible. This could also be a red herring, as the piece is dedicated to another poet, Gregg Biglieri, who is known for a masterful use of puns.
This piece takes the lead for the rest of the collection, interspersing the political and the personal while examining themes like isolation, violence, war and how we see things, the vision and revision of lives and events. Even without the additional research, Thom Donovan’s Make Believe is astonishingly smart and a true pleasure to read. If it wasn’t so well-crafted and moving on its own accord, it wouldn’t inspire the reader to learn more and dig even deeper into the collage of real and implied meaning, the references and allusions that Donovan masterfully weaves into his work. “Berkeley Island” is only one of several pieces in this chapbook, but the depth and craftsmanship it displays is exemplary of the quality poetics Thom Donovan offers up in Make Believe.
Julie T. Ewald is a writer, teacher and blogger in a constant state of transition (which you can read about at julieschatterbox.blogspot.com). Her work has appeared in journals and magazines like Apparatus Magazine, The HazMat Review and The Pitkin Review. Julie publishes a writing blog found at www.thepencilsharpener.com.