Slack Action by Jeffery Donaldson
‘Slack action’ refers to the free movement experienced by the boxcar of a train, when the car coasts free, neither pushed nor pulled. Jeffery Donaldson’s fifth collection, in which single words, images and even poems coast free, suggests that all life is middle life, and that we live in a present moment that coasts between a beginning we can’t remember and an end we can’t predict.
‘Slack action’ describes the movement of boxcars in the midst of a train that brakes and then accelerates, where ‘reciprocal momentums ... meet and intermingle, the forward push / backing into slows, and the slows pulling off / pulling forward ahead of their kickbacks and jostles ...’ – where certain ‘single cars hidden / in the midst, scudding alone, neither pushed / nor pulled, left gentled into hiatus,’ coast free. This is the space of Jeffery Donaldson’s fifth collection: poems of middle life, of Dante’s forest of half-way, their speakers gliding with pent momentum between children who are on their way in and parents who are on their way out. Yet these are also poems that suggest all life is middle life: we live in a present moment that coasts between a beginning we can’t remember and an end we can’t predict. Few things are more difficult to represent in lyric poems, with their calculated incipits and finales; Donaldson has evolved a poetics of the middle, in which single words and images, whole poems, even, coast free ‘an instant in the long line’s accordion folds’ / uneasy breathing.’
2014—ForeWord IndieFab Book of the Year Award,
2014—Hamilton Arts Council Literary Award for Poetry,
2014—Hamilton Arts Council Kerry Schooley Award,
Table of contents
Eocene Plant Fossil
With a Line from a Dream
More than Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Listener
The Selected Poems
A Touretter’s 12-Tone Sonnet
Jack in the Box
House of Cards
Game of Marbles
House of Cards
An Honest Man
When Things Are Looking Up
Two on Bonnard
At the Garden of Eden Thrift Shop and Exchange
Donaldson’s words flow like they could only ever belong together, thoughtful and witty, entertaining and moving.
Poetry is often characterized as thoughtful or humorous or entertaining, but it’s much less common for it to be marked by all of these descriptions at once. Jeffery Donaldson’s collection Slack Action manages all of these—and more.
The title, Slack Action, refers to the railroading term for the degree of play between the couplings of moving cars. It’s an appropriate title and gives the sense of Donaldson as a master engineer, keeping everything connected tightly enough to make a cohesive whole, but loosely enough to allow a sense of playfulness in his poems.
Slack Action is Donaldson’s fifth collection of poetry. One of his previous volumes, Palilalia, was a finalist for the Canadian Authors Association Award for Poetry. His expertise is always evident, but it is perhaps most notable when his sense of humor combines with imaginative metaphors and a near-perfect ability to summon words that are uncommon yet familiar, that roll delicately in the mouth and arrive gracefully at the ears. From "Marbles":
"I was the king of a dominion’s bright subjects:
globed iridescences in glass, buffed lustres,
and stirrings inside crystal shape in shape,
ribbon and shawl, nebulae and nimbus,
silk scarves and swirls of DNA flung skyward
in their gelled ethers, clear-eyed experiments..."
The book is divided into three sections: "Slack Action," "Toy Poems," and "House of Cards." Each section contains poems related to its title, most directly "Toy Poems," which offers selections like "Jack-in-the-Box," "Yo-yo," "Rocking Horse," and "Ball," among others. In Donaldson’s hands, every poem does seem to be his toy, manipulated for his own entertainment, and there is a palpable sense of the poet’s enjoyment of the process of writing poetry throughout the book.
Even when Donaldson’s poems seem, at first glance, to be nearly random collections of syllables within a given structure, such as the fourteen lines of "A Touretter’s Twelve-Tone Sonnet," there is a method to the madness, and the words flow like they could only ever belong together:
"The glib angle’s soffit gables true.
Chaff saddleback, the aster’s alms.
The woodlot’s whistle and jib."
Slack Action’s sole flaw is a minor one: the table of contents is slightly off, with each poem’s page number off target by two pages. It’s a small but noticeable error, and one that should have been caught before publication. However, once readers find themselves in the grasp of Donaldson’s intoxicating poetry, it’s likely they’ll steam through the book, unhindered by page numbering or anything else.
—Peter Dabbene, Foreword Reviews
‘[Slack Action’s verse] is beautifully measured, not constrained by metre or rhyme, but always conscious of them, working through its chosen forms rather than remaining bound by them. It has a real patience as well, a willingness to let a poem develop, to pause, even to be interrupted, if the weight and gravity of the subject should demand it, and this is how the poems of the collection need to be read, with patience, with an openness to pause and interrupt and reread. They need us to lay our hands on them and find their weight.’
—Jeremy Luke Hill
‘... a complex and ultimately compelling collection of poems that’s among the year’s best.’
‘If "slack action" is a term associated with the ’slack’ left between trains—a peculiar irony in which distance creates harmony—Donaldson is a champion at blending these fundamental disharmonies into a readable display of pure emotion and attachment. Each installment seems like it could be an integer on the same ladder of parentage, childhood, teaching, and existentialism. Better still, this emotionality never comes about as an incidental abstraction ... Instead, its intentionality keeps the language pithy and the vocabulary utterly stunning.
Above all, Donaldson is a master of common sense writing and Slack Action operates in this form on every level. The seasoned reader of Donaldson’s poetry is princely rewarded for recognize the familiar quirks of the experienced poet.... Like a nice pork chop, Slack Action is well-tempered and crusted, but tender at its core.’
—James Puntillo, The Paper St. Journal
Excerpt from book
Jack in the Box
Always the same old tune, the rote
lessons of form versus content
you keep trying to get a lid on.
Inside, a lurking presence. Outside,
a music to rattle it out by the one
handle, the inner expression sprung
in truth from its own trappings.
Your buried clown gathered to itself,
head lowered, scheming, its revelation
a joke. Maybe it has got too easy
these last years. Just crank up
the old Tourettic jangler, and pop!
out with it! a top-heavy doddering
expression’s gangling hysteria, joyful
as all get out. The very idea!
No wonder you’ve always
looked askance at what’s inside.
But why play then? Did you think
your wound-up loping strains kept
the bounder at bay? Why,
it’s the cranking that stirs him!
Or you just thought it would sound
better, and that you wouldn’t flinch
like this every time around.
Jeffery Donaldson is the author of four previous collections of poetry, most recently Guesswork (Goose Lane, 2011). Palilalia (McGill-Queen’s, 2008) was a finalist for the Canadian Author’s Association Award for Poetry. He teaches poetry and American literature at McMaster University.