Online Edition: Fall 2004

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Dog Island and Other Florida Poems

Laurence Donovan

Pineapple Press ($12.95)

by Robert Zaller

For most people, the connection between Florida and poetry begins and ends with Wallace Stevens's "The Idea of Order at Key West." Yet several impressive Cuban-American poets have emerged from Florida in the past generation, and an older generation, dating back to the 1940s, laid the foundation of a distinctively regional literature. One member of this generation, Donald Justice, went on to make an international reputation, but several of his contemporaries deserve acknowledgment, chief among them Laurence Donovan.

Donovan, who died three years ago at the age of seventy-four, published no book of verse during his lifetime; the present volume, with an introduction by Justice, is his first. Partly this was due to Donovan's own modesty, for though he knew his own value, he was not one to trumpet it. Partly it was due to the fact that he pursued a parallel, and ultimately primary career as a printmaker. When he died, he left some 2,500 works of art; the poems were far fewer. Yet they evoke the unique natural environment of Florida as no others I know.

"Dog Island" was Donovan's most sustained meditation. He twice visited and sketched the island, which lies off the Florida Panhandle, and the poem—which partly describes the printmaker at work—is illustrated by the suite of superb etchings. The discipline of line, evident in both the poetry and the art, is itself taken up as a metaphor of place; thus, the feeding of grackles is described in terms of "fluttery incisive / Stabs from the air, / Scratching swift glyphs," while elsewhere, Donovan speaks of "the waves' erasures. / Dimmer white against white, / Their pale negative's / An old sketch of creation." The waves' recurring, "redundant" creation, which exists in an eternal leisure, contrasts with the poet/artist's patient accretions, the pressure of time behind each stroke and line. Many things can spoil the latter, the haste of ambition among them. "Dog Island" is in this sense a manual of piety. Like prayer, artistic observation takes attention, concentration, and humility. Like prayer, its conclusions are provisional. And although landscape is apparent whereas divinity is not, it is no less jealous of its secrets, and no less parsimonious in revealing them.

As Justice suggests, "Dog Island" may be viewed as an earthly paradise, anchored by the poet and his unnamed companion (the painter Dee Clark), the dune pine that emerges as a central symbol (the tree of life?), and the water moccasin that makes its startling appearance in a crabtrap. If so, however, it is a decidedly postlapsarian paradise, in which the serpent is far more at home than the human visitors, and, indeed, "Where the human presence / Looms like a ghost."

In the companion poems of the volume—each with its accompanying print—Donovan focuses closely on the rich life of the tidal margin, pine and mangrove, "Palmetto thickets [and] snake- / Whispering brush." In "Etching the Sea Grape Tree" he again describes one kind of artistic creation by means of another, at the end of which the "ghost-tree" emerges from its acid bath, at once a simulacrum and an "original" creation in its own right. In "The Mangroves," the human presence enters the picture directly as the "stormy walker" who "brings to swamp disorder, / Yet order too, for possibilities / Cannot be had among the mangrove selves, / However they twist by sea in thickest beauty." One hears in this passage, as elsewhere in Donovan, the pressure of Stevens's "Blessed rage for order," the act of reciprocal completion between the human and the natural that human need simultaneously satisfies and creates. Here, too, however, the kind of humility we call innocence is required (a bow not in Stevens's quiver), and in "The Pine" and "The Sandflats" Donovan revisits childhood to capture a sense of the world's emergence in human consciousness. But we are already on the other side of Eden; his children stage a mock-death and crush a scorpion under a rock.

Donovan's Florida is still, but for the human footprint, primeval; it takes no account of the urban sprawl and tourist blight that has defaced so much of the peninsula. What he refuses to observe, or at least to record, is the macadamization of a landscape he has so deeply loved and inhabited. His gaze is turned resolutely outward, and what it wins is not subject to time:

Standing at this last portal,
Turned from where I'll return to—
The long channel, the drumming
Roads south—I watch the sea
Spread to its own horizon,
Lending grey washes of color
To hollow, white arches of sky
And in its empty vastness,
Through attenuations of light,
Draw me into that vastness.
Perhaps all I'll ever know
Remains at last in this light
Borne on the incoming waves
Into the beach's deep silence.

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Fall 2004 Table of Contents