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CHINA BLUES

Donnell, David
Toronto, McClelland & Stewart, 1992. 124pp, paper, $12.99, ISBN 0-7710-2843-1. CIP


Grades 11 and up/Ages 16 and up

Reviewed by lan Dempsey

Volume 20 Number 4
1992 September


This book has echoes of Henry Miller's work, without the energy. Perhaps that lack of a driving force is what makes it Canadian. Both Miller and Donnell are creations of the city, but where Miller prowled and roared, Donnell floats, slightly detached. They both share an amoral or, to be less judgmental, an anti-bourgeois attitude. Miller mocked poets; Donnell writes poetry. More than half of this book is set up in the form of poems; the rest is prose short stories, reflections.

"Reflections" seems apt for much of the material, because the persona delivering the vision is like one of the trendy glass-walled buildings praised in this book; life around is passed on in a tinted and tilted fashion, waving and winking as you pass. The pretty city with its urbane, bland inhabitants is like Woody Alien's New York, carefully arranged to make us believe that this is all there is. The whole book is a "surface" haiku, a gentle, out-of-focus joke. Haiku, though, has a hidden dimension; break through the surface and aha! enlightenment. I do not think that the moment of clarity arrives.

The descriptions are in focus, all right there are fine details of rooms, of clothing, of food, of friends' faces and body parts: "She kneels over me and massages my neck/the thick red curls of her sex brushing against my back." But one aches for more, for a breakthrough, a breakout. "Announcing Baghdad" is one chance, but in his notes, Donnell waves us away from reality: "'Announcing Baghdad' is not a poem about war in the Persian Gulf, it's a poem about some of the media we watched during that period of about 3 months." In the same note, he presents his moral view: "... the war was mismanaged" because "women and children, in one of the oldest cultures in the world, were killed in some of the air strikes over Baghdad. What more can I say?" Trouble is, he doesn't say even that. In the poem itself, only glassy reflections from a TV screen, a glossy reflection on video personalities.

Evil, as one philosopher said, results from not sitting quietly in a room by oneself. This book is one big room. No evil here. But why do I feel uneasy sitting here surrounded by the lines in this book? Is the room too bare? Is it too confining? Perhaps senior students will be able to furnish us with some enlightenment.


lan Dempsey is a teacher-librarian at Gait Collegiate Institute and Vocational School in Cambridge, Ontario.

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