Reviews

Geoff Page: The Canberra Times

Australian poet, Ross Donlon, has been visiting Norway in recent years rediscovering his Viking roots. This collection of fifty tanka about the town, landscapes and seascapes of Ålvik in the Hardanger region was written during a residency in the town. It has been translated into Norwegian by a local class of Year 6 and 7 students with the guidance of their teacher, Kristin Holst.

Tanka, along with haiku, is an increasingly popular form in the Anglosphere these days and Donlon (though not his translators) has opted to stick to the strict syllabic form of 5/7/5/7/7. Contemporary tanka poets feel no obligation to do this but it has probably given Donlon’s poems a discipline they might not otherwise have had.

Perhaps the most successful tanka here, #40, seems to offer a sequence of images rather than a ‘turn’ at the beginning of the fourth line. It’s short enough to quote in full (one of the advantages of the form for a reviewer): ‘The fjord a path / mazy today with footsteps, / the walk of the wind, / invisible, feather-light, / stepping across the water’.

Many of the poems feature this kind of personification, sometimes risking cuteness, as in #31: ‘A boat trails its child, / dragging along in her wake, / little one teary. / The mother hurries to bob / with friends at the marina.’ The border between playful and cute is a subjective one, of course. Some of the poems are wittily descriptive — as in #27 about bikies who are also to be found in Norway (perhaps reinventing themselves Vikings): ‘A Harley arrives, / silky-black, immaculate, / under a creature / covered in leather and beard./ (Now we know where trolls have gone)’.

More typically the poems are ultra-lyrical evocations of landscape and weather. #49, the book’s penultimate poem, is a good example of the book’s general tone — and perhaps obeys the ‘turn’ rule referred to earlier. ‘I feed on the hills, / drink from the incoming tide, / breathe trees, grass and stone. / Floating above the water, / I cover myself with air.’

Geoff Page, The Canberra Times, March 2016

Judge's Report: MPU International Poetry Competition

‘… With its cool tone and striking imagery, this poem seems to me unostentatiously individual and ambitious — fastidious but also marked by unexpected images and turns. It is a poem that takes no shortcuts; it works always subtly and with its own particular combination of wryness and feeling. Every small part of it shows flair.’

Lisa Gorton: Judge's Report, MPU International Poetry Awards 2011 — First Prize: Midsummer Night

Bruce Dawe: The Weekend Australian

‘…The Blue Dressing Gown [is] exceptionally fine, a moving tribute wonderfully expressive of the relationship of father and son. it is the kind of poem all of us would love to have written.’

Bruce Dawe: The Weekend Australian, December 2011

Grant Caldwell

I meant to email and say how much I enjoyed your Age poem the other week: poems like that revive my faith in poetry. I have had a revelation as to what is missing in most poetry I (try to) read recently: emotional engagement. Yours has it in spades.

Grant Caldwell referring to the poem, Panorama, which was published in The Age in July 2011

Geoff Page: The Canberra Times

‘…Ross Donlon, from Castlemaine, Victoria, is a very different sort of poet. If Eberhard is Wordsworthian, Donlon is a Swiftian. He’s interested in society, in human relationships; even in the often-neglected comic muse. His new book, The Blue Dressing Gown, finishes with a poem called “Bio” — which the unwary might (initially) take seriously. “Ross Donlon”, Donlon writes, “has been highly commended for not entering poetry competitions ...” and has been “forcibly rejected by some of the finest literary magazines / in the country, / including Northerly, Southerly, Easterly, Westerly”. Comprehensive, indeed.

‘Born in 1945, Donlon is something of a late starter but is more than making up for lost time, most recently by winning the UK-based Arvon International Poetry competition and being invited to read at this year’s Wenlock Poetry Festival. The Blue Dressing Gown and Other Poems is his first full poetry collection with national distribution.

‘At its core is the sequence, “Bill”, comprising 23 poems, all of them about the poet’s father, an American serviceman in World War II, who failed to return to his Sydney war bride and died at 34, almost a derelict, in San Francisco in 1951. Although the reasons are never fully understood, either by Donlon or the reader, it is certain that Bill Donlon’s war experience as, at least, a part cause. We also cannot help observing how little help was given this war veteran by the US government.

‘The sequence employs a wide range of modes, from couplets through to free verse and prose poems — plus what might be seen as the “found” poems of some key documents. The pathos of the poet’s fatherless childhood (with only occasional postcards and unfulfilled promises of return) is painstakingly developed; along with the unsolved mystery of why the veteran was unsuccessful in his apparently sincere intentions to return to his wife and son in Sydney. Clearly, alcoholism is a factor but perhaps more of a symptom than its cause.

‘Though the “Bill” sequence is at The Blue Dressing Gown’s emotional centre there is also quite a deal more here. In Part III, “Small Civilisations”, for instance, Donlon continues his concern with family relationships, both successful and otherwise. In Part IV, we are given a sequence of love poems where Donlon focuses as much on vulnerabilities as he does on the erotic. “… nearly sixty / yet we slide beneath the sheet / like children slipping beneath the first wave of summer …” (With Her). Something of the same quality is felt in Shh: “… ours senses scan the past / until we’re here/ curves & angles / resting comfortably / complex lives / a perfect fit”.

‘The book ends with a series of comic or satirical poems called “Frankly Popular”. All of these would be a hit at readings and it’s to Donlon’s credit that he prints them here at the end of a book with so many much more serious poems. A couple do, admittedly, address prostate cancer but even here there’s a light touch. Donlon plainly sees poetry as a serious business (Ars longa vita brevis est) but he knows too that humour and unashamed entertainment are also a key part of its appeal.’

Geoff Page, The Canberra Times, November 2011

Kerryn Goldsworthy: Sydney Morning Herald, Spectrum

‘When it comes to poetry, quality and reader accessibility don't go together as often as they might; many poems are difficult by definition and require a lot of unpacking. But the appeal of Ross Donlon's poems lies in the combination of technical skills with unusual lucidity. Donlon is interested in the many refined techniques of poetry but not at the expense of storytelling or straightforward emotion.

‘The poems are loosely grouped into five sections and all have strong points. The most compelling is the second section, "Bill", an autobiographical suite of poems containing the title poem, which is about an empty garment and tells the tale of Donlon's parents and their trans-Pacific wartime marriage. It's a tragic story in its own right and it brings to mind the many personal tragedies that must have followed in the wake of that war, or any other.’

Kerryn Goldsworthy, Sydney Morning Herald, Spectrum, December 2011

Paul Deaton: launching The Blue Dressing Gown

‘I'm shaping up the overall sense of the poems: your unflinching honesty really makes the book, I think, a little bombshell and, if I might say, quite outside the normal run of current poetry-making and with this I feel a natural accord: to write poems that are not overly knowing and sophisticated, over-intelligent, ironic or sardonic and hidden below a journalistic impersonal mind, but centre on the power of true feelings and try as best as is possible to name them. As Ted Hughes has said, "Maybe the reason we're so affected by this sort of poetry, when it’s genuine, is that we are starved of it, and now we really need it."’

Paul Deaton, October 2011

Lisa Kelly, Torriano Poetry Meeting House, UK

‘I very much enjoyed hearing you read and you held the audience beautifully with a well-chosen range of poems from the book. I lent my copy to a friend afterwards who loved hearing you read and was very impressed with the book. I think you did a wonderful job reading in such a relaxed fashion and it was a special atmosphere… So — a memorable night.’

Lisa Kelly, Convenor, Torrriano Poetry Reading, Torriano Meeting House, Kentish Town, July 2011

Helene Castles, Goulburn Valley Writers' Group

‘Please accept this as a thank you for such a great workshop, morning and afternoon yesterday.

‘Lyn has been coming to the group meetings for many years and has started writing poetry in the last 4 months. She was fascinated with the way you made us work and 'catch poems' as they passed before our eyes and even sometimes from our lips. Eileen, too, said it is the best workshop she has been to, including festival attendances. You left us with many ideas and some searching to do. The efficiency in the way you conducted the workshops meant we didn't waste any time with distractions.

‘I have sent evaluation and acquittal forms to the Victorian Writers Centre stating the above response in detail, in answer to their questions … also sent some photos.’

Helene Castles, Secretary, Goulburn Valley Writers' Group Inc, October 2011