Aard-vark to Axolotl: prose poems, lyric essays, a postmodern bestiary? Who cares? Some works of literature, through the wonderful and unexpected collision of the imagination and the intellect, end up defying classification and establishing a landscape where many different genres playfully mingle to create a new genre. Karen Donovan’s book is one of these collections. Intelligent, witty, and sometimes even lyrically moving, these pieces make us believe the unbelievable, and assure us, as the narrator of this book at one point says, “Whatever happens next is going to be good.” Actually, very, very good.
I’ll save you some time. Just flip to the “index of proper nouns and terms” in the back of this here book. If you don’t want to read about, in alphabetical order, campfires, carbon-12, catastrophe, charades, The Chicago Manual of Style, and chicken fingers, then what are you doing with your life? This blurb won’t help save you, but Aard-vark to Axolotl just might.
Karen Donovan’s anti-abecedarian epic, Aard-Vark to Axolotl, defamiliarizes definition while it defines it—a hieroglyphic reality, a Rosetta stone of acrobatic apocalyptic ellipses, an asemic semantics. These ancient and illustrious thumbnails strobe, groove out chasms of synaptic leaps. Each entry is an intaglio philatelic cornucopia from a Borgesian post-post office office, staffed by geometrically distorted Bletchley Park code-breakers and die cut Daedalus maze-builders staring at the event horizons of an encyclopedia full of collapsing suns.
For lovers of language, dictionaries, and magic, Karen Donovan is a balm to the soul. Her collection, Aard-vark to Axolotl, plays off of the images found in her grandfather’s 1925 dictionary, and is reminiscent of Charles Simic’s Dime Store Alchemy and Frances Ponge’s The Nature of Things. Donovan is at once clever and witty, insightful and surprising, sophisticated and plain spoken. But be forewarned: she is wickedly addictive. Once I picked up this book, I could not put it down.
Karen Donovan’s ekphrastic commonplace book is a heartfelt, tricky collection of riffs on illustrations from an antique Webster’s. Off these images Donovan bounces nostalgia and science, lust and learning, the domestic and the galactic, and then charts the resulting zigzags in lucid and lyrical near-essays, prose poems, lists, Oulipo games, and very short fictions. With a painter’s eye, a comedian’s sharp tongue, and a scientist’s skepticism, she’s rewritten the dictionary. “Words, words were what I needed,” she tells us. Little did we know how much we needed hers.
This collection reads like a genre of its own encompassing the autobiographical, the speculative, the scientific and the mythological. Spare and astringent in tone and rich in associative intelligence, each of these pieces turns out to be larger on the inside than the space it occupies on the page. There’s considerable range here, much compacted surprise and delight, much “power and thrift.” You’ll encounter mermaids and tequila, pterodactyls and Spirographs, equations and schemata, all in the context of the extraordinary ordinary. “Go to it. The book is open. There will be a test.”
As internal as they are universal, these poems are paratactic explorations into the connectivity of all things: the images and narrative fragments evoked by Old Irish runes; the false vacuum of quantum field theory; the color charts of Gerhard Richter; the caddisworm hiding until its wings have formed. . . . This is an extraordinarily rich and linguistically playful concoction.
H. L. Hix:
In the middle of Karen Donovan’s new book, the speaker in one poem notes ‘How I desired a torch and you gave me / a candle saying this is all you need.’ That moment hints at the mystery and marvel of this work: it is not a torch, overwhelming the organs and the intended objects of sight, but a candle, perfecting sight by highlighting its objects and honing its organs. Your Enzymes Are Calling the Ancients is all you need to see more clearly than before.
Fugitive Red (1999)
Winner of the Juniper Prize for Poetry
University of Massachusetts Press
Rain Taxi Review of Books:
Borrowing from the vernacular of science, but distilling her language into cadences and shapes familiar to a quotidian tongue, Donovan’s poems are accessible yet deftly layered inklings into the peculiar narrative of exile.
Visual discoveries abound in these poems. Objects of interest come into focus, blur, vanish, and bloom back into clarity or transform into other resonant objects. Endowed with the curiosity of a child, Donovan marvels at found coins and lost stars, scraps of conversation, even a jar of pickled eggs at the grocery store. Her restlessness and curiosity make travel a necessity rather than an indulgence, and she never treks to the same place twice.
The Hollins Critic:
Poet Karen Donovan is an explorer of a strange new land, most remarkably, one which lies in our own backyard. She is a scientist-navigator of words, searching both distant ports and crumbling main streets, furiously scribbling the most intimate details of the world through which she sails.