Palilalia

February 21, 2009

donaldson_palilaliaJeffery Donaldson
McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2008

“Palilalia is disordered speech. According to the Oxford English dictionary, this lesser known vocal tic is ‘an involuntary repetition of words, phrases, or sentences.’”

Defined on the back cover, Palilalia sets the tone for a particular type of wordplay, one where the reader is dragged into a repetitious patterning of language and imagery. If you expect Donaldson’s poetry to skip like a broken record, however, you’ll soon discover how wrong you are. Donaldson works inside the grooves of sound, and manages to avoid redundancy while letting the beats catch just enough to create layers of meaning.

Crafting his poems with utmost care, Donaldson puts down words with a sophisticated precision, creating complex patterns that must be explicated with equal care. Repetition does, in fact, play an important role in his work; the astute reader will notice words, images, and concepts reappear ever so subtly throughout the collection. These repetitions are anything but involuntary, as we learn from the poet himself.

In Museum the poet is visited by the ghost of – is that Northrop Frye? – while waiting for a subway in a darkened tunnel. The apparition comes to shed some light on the poetic process, urging the perfectionist to loosen his necktie and let the “metaphoric roughage” loosen his output. Here we learn of his Touretter’s tics, creating mental hiccups the poet struggles to withhold, lest they disturb the precision of his stanzas. Instead the tics manifest themselves in the obsessive distribution of sounds and words, all the anguish worked out in the brain rather than on the page. One wonders what the effect of such loosening would be on the final product: would Donaldson’s verse take on the effusive rambling of Whitman’s were he to mimic his barbaric yawp?

In Palilalia, the title poem, Donaldson weaves a pattern of repetition into the structure, reusing language from the second and last lines of a preceding stanza in the first and third of the next. The effect is a braided inversion that picks up the inheritance of the Touretter’s son, and echoes the obsessions of the father:

“those unruly tongue-clucks, snorts, and growls.
The unfinished poem you circle towards
is the obsessive’s curse: revise, revise
always until the listening stills. Let your mind rest.”

Palilalia is more than an exploration of sound. Divided into four sections, the book breathes new life into familiar topics such as death, sexuality, and memory. Despite this, the poet’s strength lies in his ability to examine less explored material with sensitivity, as he does beautifully in Ultra Sound, Life-Guard and Four Echoes, and Cashew. And while the writing has a tendency towards density, his stylistic control over the page lessons this effect. Overall, this is a book to be enjoyed, and a success hopefully to be repeated. Reviewed by Marianne Perron, 2009. Purchase

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