Poetry Review by David B. Goldstein

Don Domanski, Bite Down Little Whisper (London: Brick, 2013). Paperbound, 104 pp., $20.Bite Down Little Whisper

Why do we desire to break the world’s silence? What is it about our makeup that brings our little voices out to squeak against the knees of crickets, describing immensities that are doing just fine without us, like the wind in the pines or the dark scrabblings of a mole? Why do we feel the need to speak of and for a world that has no need of us, that bides its time while we overrun our environment and then sink into nonbeing? These questions, though never broached and never answered, form the backbone of Don Domanski’s gorgeous ninth book of poetry, Bite Down Little Whisper. Domanski’s collection speaks—unapologetically—of a world that not only does not need us, but would by most accounts be better off without us. He writes from the vantage point of an observer caught between human damage and the nonhuman resistance to that damage: “here deep in the forest    in the stillness of ecocide / in the quietude between spruce trees.” In line after line, Domanski uses poetry to communicate the world’s austere radiance, while chastising us (and himself) for not noticing that radiance. “[N]o surprise,” he writes in “Foresight by Earth,” “that days and nights remain out / of reach    drained by our mission creep towards extinction    by our / ignorance of givenness.” A human out of touch with the world isn’t fully in the world at all.

Domanski’s approach to the problem of how to describe a nonhuman world without resorting to anthropomorphism is to stare at it as hard as he can. His is a poetry of extreme attentiveness, an attempt to capture “the infinite coincidence of the moment.” Many of the book’s best lines are intimate descriptions of small creatures, like the “bees flying about with bouquets / and hypodermics” or a field of “dandelions off their leashes.” Domanski’s labour is not one of straightforward description, though the book contains many plainspoken moments, such as the image of “a young sparrow circling the plastic red birdfeeder.” Descriptions tend toward the baroque, embracing human analogy—the stinger hypodermics, the floral leashes—rather than eschewing it. Indeed, human knowledge saturates the book, even as its author declares such knowledge insufficient. Artistic and literary references, above all to Dante (another poetic existentialist), abound. Domanski’s forest does not speak in a human voice—after all, “the forest has no words    whatever it had to say was said / in the late Miocene.” But the speaker addresses the forest with what linguistic tools are available, with whatever techniques of clarity human thought may provide. The result is a poetry at once highly wrought and unusually quiet, caught in the act of thinking intently.

Of course the human is an animal too, and Domanski is at his most arresting when considering the existential position of humanity as just another organism. In this, Domanski echoes the findings of contemporary eco-philosophers like Timothy Morton, Bruno Latour, Donna Haraway, and Stacy Alaimo. Humans, it turns out, are just as mysterious as trees, if more voluble. As he writes in the magnificent poem “The Light of Unoccupied Memory”:

like a pond the mind plants its reeds    washes its stones and waits
only we haven’t any idea what it’s waiting for    not a clue
even a parable can’t help us    even the land    even the wind
can’t rouse an answer    wind through the evergreens
                                    like unleavened souls through Purgatorio.

The mind is opaque even to the natural world—the wind can’t “rouse an answer.” The work of waiting in which the mind engages is, Domanski suggests, the work of poetry. His book doesn’t explain anything. Instead it’s a little whisper that “bites down” on reality, holding fast to life’s strangeness in all its glorious nonmeaning. By the end of the stanza, those “unleavened souls” have become more than metaphor—they are a stand-in for ourselves, beings in a twilight state of consciousness, heavy on our feet, surrounded by things we don’t know but loving them nevertheless.

Although written as individual poems, Bite Down Little Whisper often feels like one long poem of many sections. Every poem addresses the same theme: the intricate and ultimately inhuman beauty of the world. Further, most of the poems share the same form, a long verse paragraph devoid of punctuation in which each line is usually divided by one or two caesuras, indicated by spaces. The line works a curious balance between speaking (there are a lot of words in those prose chunks) and silence (a lot of space between those words). The poems establish a flexible, subtle rhythm, by turns incantatory, intellectual, meditative. This rhythm feels a lot like walking, which contributes to the sensation that the whole book is a long walk through the given world. In the hands of a writer with less syntactic precision, the line could easily go limp. But Domanski drives it quietly forward. Every word is necessary. Every word bites at its subject, just breaking the skin.

Bite Down Little Whisper ponders magnificently the roles and limitations of the human as a species or as an individual mind. It has little to say, however, about humans in relationship with one another. Domanski’s passion to lose himself in “a green thought in a green shade,” as Marvell put it, risks misanthropy. In the three-line poem “Lines Written Beneath a Stone,” inspired by classical Chinese poetry, the speaker writes, “I watch the starved aster open its white flower / and know there’s no going back to men.” The “quietude”—one of the book’s most frequent words—of the nonhuman world becomes so much more compelling than the violent ignorance of the human one that even language becomes a struggle, with its “visitational pain of punctuation” and woundable “syntactic skin.” Reading this book I began to feel that Domanski yearns to disappear, or at least frames the poetic desire to disappear, into “a darkness that’s nonlexical / and motherless.” To speak of a world that doesn’t need you is to risk your own vanishing. In another Chinese-inspired lyric, “Night Scroll,” the narrator transports himself (or us) into just such a motherless night: “four steps into the sky    then you’re on your own.” That emptiness is the sublime. Domanski’s poetry, like that of Wordsworth or Shelley, is ultimately concerned with the grand vastness of a world before which humans have no recourse but humility. And yet we speak.

—David B. Goldstein

As in The Malahat Review, 186, Spring 2014, 87-91