Matt Donovan is poetry’s time traveler. His vast reservoir of artistic, literary and historical knowledge is matched by a profound sensitivity to his own surroundings, allowing him to artfully crisscross centuries of human existence. These syntheses create a powerful collage of memory in its many forms: expansive, dexterous and sometimes bizarre. “Donovan’s mind moves like a Tesla coil,” writes the poet Dana Levin, “riding the energetic frequencies between polarities and points of experience.”
Donovan received an MA from Lancaster University before earning his MFA as a New York Times fellow at NYU. His first collection Vellum won the 2006 Bakeless Prize in Poetry, followed by the 2008 Larry Levis Reading Prize from Virginia Commonwealth University. While studying medieval manuscripts, Donovan became captivated by vellum, a parchment made from animal skin. He realized that following the slaughter of the animal, “you move from that gesture of violence to a page of absolute beauty… and often what is rendered on that page is the martyrdom of a saint, and you are returned to another image of violence.” The poems in Vellum follow this movement between violence and beauty, making stops at the Sistine Chapel, a friend’s memorial service and the Congo Free State where a soldier guards his collection of human hands. His recent chapbook Rapture & The Big Bam, winner of the 2015 Snowbound Chapbook Award, continues his work as a poetic excavator. Here he brings centuries of painters, philosophers, writers, musicians, and inventors in conversation with the particulars of a speaker’s life: Benjamin Franklin’s glass harmonica is placed beside the Popeye theme played from a car stereo, damaged motel wallpaper beside the compositions of Dvořák. These equations transcend time and ask us to question what we hold sacred. As he writes in the titular poem, “Why pretend the wondrous & the useless weren’t the same / all along? The meaningless, the miraculous—who are we to say?”
In addition to poetry, Donovan also lends his gift for revealing and relating the past to other genres. His collection of fifteen essays, A Cloud of Unusual Size and Shape, was published by Trinity University Press in 2015. Poet David Wojahn describes them as “haunted, searching, lyrical, and above all dogged in their ability to conjoin personal history with public history.” The collection connects ruins—from the volcanic aftermath in Pompeii to sites associated with the atomic bomb—with the relics of autobiography, remains left behind in the here and now. Currently he is collaborating with the artist Ligia Bouton, composer Lei Liang, and soprano Susan Narucki on the chamber opera Inheritance, based on the life of Sarah Winchester, the heir to the Winchester Repeating Arms company. After her husband’s death, she built an odd labyrinthine mansion—the Winchester Mystery House—that is purportedly haunted by the victims of Winchester Rifles. An inventive metaphor for America’s complex and consequential relationship to gun culture, Inheritance debuts in San Diego in October 2018.
Among other accolades, Matt Donovan has received a Rome Prize in Literature, a Literature Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and a Lannan Writing Residency Fellowship for his work. He recently relocated from Santa Fe, and serves as the new director of the Poetry Center.
Transported by trifles these soupy days – bright-blooming
paprika yarrow, that bagpiped out-of-tune Auld Lang Syne
tumbling over bone-dry hills, my son trembling with bliss
& dread as he plummets down the frog-slide’s tongue –
I grow wary of my own whirligig bouts of delight
when I find myself sideswiped by a ball of electrical tape
made, the plaque claims, by Babe Ruth at St. Mary’s School for Boys.
Needless to say, who cares? Why pause for even a moment
before this misshapen chotchka on a Plexiglas shelf? Relic-like,
under a hard light’s glare, beside Cobb’s sharpened cleats
& Clemente’s jersey from such & such a game, it was a wad
of nothing, really, a lopsided sphere most likely never used
for a game or even shagging flies & is only one more piece
of the past’s lumpish fruit turned artifact behind alarmed glass.
And still, why pretend the wondrous & the useless weren’t the same
all along? The meaningless, the miraculous – who are we to say?
Picture this tight bundle sailing past each backpedaling boy
history swallowed whole, long past the orphanage wall-notch
marking Brother Mathias’s furthest shot, past that rusted boiler
& the harbor’s rotting hulls, & past now even what legend will allow
as it soars beyond his Pigtown two-room shack with its avalanche
of bottles & chairs & his sauced-up father prowling again, back
from a day of door-to-door lies about his worthless lightning rods,
flames, guarantees, God’s wrath. Or at least this is how
it might have seemed. Rapture, raptura: to carry away
with joy; earlier: to kidnap, rape, although for better or worse
in this simmer of pleasure no one’s talking etymology here.
In the last year Ruth played for the Sox, he pummeled
a slider off Columbia George for the longest homerun ever hit.
With ease. Without much of anything but a body-thrashing stroke
during spring training when, as if it were possible, all of this
means even less. Billy Sunday, ex-right-fielder-turned-preacher-ablaze,
taking a break from bellowing about the Devil’s spitballs
& ways to head-butt sin, watched that ball beeline for even more
empty sky & for as long as this fast-winging shape remains
aloft, & even for a bit longer still, it’s the only grace
Sunday or anyone could feel, buoying them beyond the far wall
& revival tent pitched across the field, the bay’s abandoned shipyards,
all the dead that year from flu. Or is that too much to presume?
Even if perfection here means a split-second thwack & all
the countless ways to be held in thrall are both our shame & luck,
it matters little just now. I tell you no one could help their joy.
From RAPTURE & THE BIG BAM (Tupelo Press, 2017)
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 vermillion. 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.
There are no limits to our verbs, our forms:
think of the knife
that slits an orange or bundled iris stems, the one strapped
to the rooster’s varnished spur. The dagger, poniard, dirk.
Edge that snips the line, whittles an owl, juliennes, traces a lip.
A cut, an incision, a gouge. In Sudan, the story goes, when the slogan
of reform was The Future’s In Your Hands, men scavenged the streets
waving machetes, hacking off hands above the wrists, asking
How will you hold the future now? The stiletto, the skean, the scythe.
The choosing, the mark, the tool. Beneath a concrete bridge,
shirtless & drunk, a boy works his way through the swallows’ nests,
slashing until each mud cone-shape drops into the river, dissolves.
Yet to say so is hardly enough. To say pigsticker, bayonet, shiv.
Because in Waco, behind Benny’s Gas & Go, a man plays slide guitar
with his pocketknife, accompanying the words of his songs—
one about light, the Lord moving on water, about what will be
by-&-by; how blood, he knows, will make him whole, & blades
that changed into doves.
Or because this splendor of color ends
on the parchment in a burnished gold resembling a cluster of burrs,
the kind of thing that would have snagged in a cow’s mottled hide
as it grazed on grass tufts or slogged its way home. Staring, bewildered,
in the stillness, it may survive this way for a few days more
before it is bled & flayed & turned, as was always its purpose,
into the page of this psalm. Here, near the margin, are traces of it still:
patterns of skin, a texture like velvet, follicles, the throat’s scalloped curve.
From VELLUM (Houghton Mifflin/ Mariner, 2007)
That my body, Lord, might rise too, resurrected reluctantly from earth,
given the rainwater, the dawn begun, grave walls pitched into ooze,
given that the scheme to bury me deeper in my own grave’s dirt will fail
because of schnapps & mud & Lord, let the breath of those who deliver me
that night be sweetened by cherry-tipped cigars. Allow what will lift me
fumbling the first March of my death to be not only a shovel, the grace of rope,
a mechanic’s coat trussed to brass handles, but also the plan for a paid-for garage,
paved cement floors, a procession of wrenches in a drawer. Grant me
morning light in a pickup bed, lying within earshot of Bulgarian songs that rhyme
thigh with smoke & permit me, Lord, once hangovers wane, to be stashed
at the far edge of a field, close to the rocks of a fishing spot where a thief will always—
or for more than a week—watch me, conceal me, keep me in spring heat, devour
a plum & suck its pit clean, dream of cash he half knows won’t come. Let my reward,
Lord, be crow wings, furrows, bits of last year’s stalks, three threadbare burlap sacks.
From VELLUM (Houghton Mifflin/ Mariner, 2007)