Jeffery Donaldson is exactly how I picture a poet should be. Not one of those tortured, angsty types, unchecked in their spontaneous overflow of powerful emotion and morbidity (you can find some of them skulking about on tumblr), but one who balances piercing intelligence, extensive cultural knowledge, lyricism and emotional depth into his work expertly. If you have an excess of any one of these elements, the poetry can become cold and inaccessible or can overwhelm the reader with unchecked affect or even become plain boring. However, Donaldson performs the balancing act well. In other words, he makes me think thoughts and feel feelings. One of my favourite of his poems is from his latest poetry collection, Slack Action (The Porcupine’s Quill, 2013) about a dollhouse:
The small woman upstairs in the dollhouse
fears that she was only made for fun,
a modern parable from the Book of Job.
She sits rigid as the day she was made
by the low-gabled window in the attic,
her vanity nearby with its slanting mirror,
a tiny comb jammed stiffly in her hand.
Never once has she looked out the window.
The roof is gone. Always the same weather.
She lives alone, except on rare days when
out of nowhere someone arrives below
making a noise around the kitchen stove
(where red flames hang motionless as paint),
or appearing later, stood up in the hall,
those times she isn’t moved to join him.
She says: ‘If only someone nice would come.
Look at me. I’m a perfect doll. I have a mirror
and a comb. I feel certain I was put here.’
She remembers one time it seemed in a dream
she felt the entire house-front swing open
and a light shine, and there was whispering,
and she looked as she imagined into the face
of innocence. Most nights, however,
the evening lamp is turned down and the house
grows still and the stucco stars pay out their fading
incandescent green and below the stairs
the unextinguished fire blackens in the stove,
and the night comes on and before the hour
for bed she recites once more to herself
the mantra she has known from the beginning:
When I was a child, I spoke as a child,
I felt as a child, I thought as a child: now
I am grown, I must put away childish things.
The reason this poem resonates with me is the loneliness and doubts of the doll. Who has not felt like a prisoner in solitary, wondering why you are here or if anyone really sees you (or if that even matters at all)? The doll spends her time in front of the mirror, cycling between feelings of self-assurance that she is meant to be here and doubt that anyone appreciates her perfect presence. Sometimes within the course of a day, or even several times within a day, I oscillate between feelings that I have something to offer the world and other feelings that human consciousness is all some tragic accident and it doesn’t matter what I do anyway. “Figurine” grapples with this sense of purpose as well, offering a potential answer at its conclusion that argues against excessive naval-gazing, suggesting that one of the ways we can find purpose is through not being so self-absorbed.
Through the Biblical allusions of the poem, we can see that “Figurine” muses on our greater place and purpose in the world. The poem begins with an Old Testament reference of the Book of Job (my favourite book), as the doll worries
that there might be no significant meaning to her life, or worse, she was put here for the sick amusement of a malicious higher power. By the poem’s conclusion the mantra she utters comes from the New Testament and provides an answer to what she has “known from the beginning” (30), yet sometimes forgets because of her fears. The final lines of the poem are from the First Epistle of the Corinthians, chapter thirteen (you know, where the phrase “through a glass, darkly” comes from). The doll has experienced a revelation through seeing the “face/of innocence” (25-26) (a stand-in for God?) from outside the narrow world of her dollhouse and is reminded that a sense of purpose can be gained through not always thinking of oneself, but by reflecting on the bigger picture and reaching out to others.
The Bible offers contradicting advice on how child-like you are supposed to be, sometimes saying, “become as little children” and sometimes, as in First Corinthians, urging you to “put away childish things”. When Paul advises Christians to not act as children, he is warning them against speaking foolishly, behaving selfishly, and thinking shallowly[i]. The doll in “Figurine” acts self-centredly throughout the poem and the suggestion is that is a cause of her unhappiness. Consider within the first few lines the choice to use the word “vanity” (6), both a piece of furniture and one of the gravest of the seven deadly sins. She spends her time focused on her mirror and her comb, and “never once” (8) has she looked out the window to see something more interesting than her reflection. The doll craves contact with “someone nice” (16), yet does not reach out to the other male doll who sometimes appears downstairs in the kitchen, thus perpetuating her loneliness.
I don’t blame the doll for this; I find her to be a sympathetic character, mainly because I see many aspects of myself in her doubts. Put me in front of a mirror and I will waste inordinate amounts of time fussing, to the point where I have rendered my own face strange from staring at it too long (something something the Freudian uncanny, something something). I worry about my pores, if my hair looks weird parted that way, if anyone else has noticed I look like an alien and they’re too polite to say anything, the list goes on. This fussing applies on a metaphoric level to my life as well: I scrutinize things to the point of stripping them of purpose or happiness. “Figurine” reminds us though that as much as looking inside yourself can be a useful exercise for self-actualization, living without regard for others puts you in a self-imposed solitary confinement.
There is something disheartening about the ending. Although the doll recites this mantra, which offers a means to escaping that feeling that she is merely a plaything with no higher calling, nothing has truly changed. She still sits in her room, with her mirror and comb, leaves the flames in the kitchen to its own devices, and broods. My tentative reading is that the desire to fixate on the narrow scope of one’s dollhouse is intoxicating and one needs gentle reminders sometimes to consider that there is a whole world of wonder, potential for love and…(dare we to hope?) meaning outside of the house. This is just one reading though; I welcome additional interpretation.
I’d like to end this reflection on a funny note. As I was thinking about “Figurine”, this song from the musical Avenue Q popped into my head, so I’d like to play you out to the sweet sound of Muppet singing:
Jeffery Donaldson has multiple poetry collections and is a professor at McMaster University. I encourage you to check out some of his other work (creative or academic) if you liked “Figurine”!