BC Poetry 2017: "Thin Air of the Knowable" by Wendy Donawa (Brick Books)

On Looking into David Blackwood’s Seabird Hunters
Wax resist on a copper plate
repels the nitric acid, vinegar-sharp,
but the etching needle seeks that icy void,
presses down to its core; the acid bites and bites
like the iceberg pressing through the skin of the world,
its vaults and pinnacles gleaming in the night;
its trapped starlight refracts sheen and spangle, and

plunges down searoads winding like rope
through upside-down mountains, peaks and chasms
where fish-huddles stream, silver, mouths agape, 
their round sleepless eyes glint into the dark, the dark,
and through it all, leviathans surge, 
the huge bell of their song.

There is no end to their longing.

Above, midget hunters in white sealskin coats, their sliver of boat
threads night water rippling silent
and over the iceberg three seabirds 
wing, the hollow crick crick of their flight
under the resinous moon.


Wendy Donawa, formerly a museum curator and academic in Barbados, now lives on the West Coast and participates in Victoria’s vibrant poetry scene. Her poems have appeared in anthologies, magazines, and online publications across Canada. She was a finalist in The Malahat Review’s 2013 Open Season Competition, and in 2015 she was runner-up in the inaugural Cedric Literary Awards. She has published three chapbooks, Sliding Towards Equinox (Rubicon Press, 2009), Those Astonishments of Sorrow, of Joy (Leaf Press, 2012) and The Gorge: A Cartography of Sorrows (JackPine Press, 2016).


In her first collection, Thin Air of the Knowable, the physical landscapes of Wendy Donawa’s life—West Coast, Caribbean, prairies—ground many of her poems and often reflect the inner geography of her preoccupations. A road-trip poem moves from prairie winter, “an icy scatter of gravel / the moving centre of this unpeopled world,” past a cattle liner on its way to the slaughter house, but it also passes beneath the sky’s “blazing scroll of light,” and magpies “flashing black and teal in the sun.” Landscape also functions metaphorically to suggest how historical settings play out in the exigencies of individual lives.

Other preoccupations include poems that reflect on poesis itself—the strange poem-making compulsion to capture that which is largely inexpressible (hence “the thin air of the knowable”), and the role of dreams, memory, and intuition in shaping a poem’s knowledge.

Donawa is, in many ways, a political poet, yet manages to put flesh and blood into everything she writes. In the end,

Perhaps there is only the demonic journey.
Small beauties by the roadside, and
such love as we can muster.

(from “Pu Ru Paints Zhong Kui the Demon Queller on a Mule”)

“Wendy Donawa’s poetry rests at the very edge of beauty where a wild delicacy resides.” — Patrick Lane

“Like the watchmakers of old, Wendy Donawa puts a spyglass to her eye and fixes her vision to the minute, to all that carries on beneath our imperfect sight—worlds upon worlds brought into the sharpest focus.” — Pamela Porter


Arrives April 2017.


Book Launches: June 9th at Planet Earth Poetry in Victoria.

Purchases: From the Brick Books website or at your local bookstore. $20.


Edge-resting with a wild delicacy.

The copyrights of all poems included in the series remain with their authors, and are reprinted with the permission of the publishers.

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