• Vellum
  • Vellum


by Matt Donovan

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Vellum, the exquisite debut collection from Matt Donovan, meditates on beauty, art, and the violence that is sometimes inherent in both.
Here, he juxtaposes religious iconography with stories from history, biography, and personal narrative. In the poignant “Saint Catherine in an O,” a knife bears unlikely duality—an object stirring with danger

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Vellum, the exquisite debut collection from Matt Donovan, meditates on beauty, art, and the violence that is sometimes inherent in both.
Here, he juxtaposes religious iconography with stories from history, biography, and personal narrative. In the poignant “Saint Catherine in an O,” a knife bears unlikely duality—an object stirring with danger and grace.
“A man plays slide guitar / with his pocketknife, accompanying the words of his songs—/ one about light, the Lord moving on water . . . / how blood, he knows, will make him whole.” In other poems, he reflects upon master artists, who captured similar themes in their art though in different mediums. Brimming with poems that are quietly powerful, Vellum marks the arrival of a commanding new voice.

Editorial Reviews

James Longenbach
Vellum is more a collection of occasions than a unified performance, but its best poems both describe and embody these paradoxes in richly textured language. While eschewing traditional forms, Donovan's poems are viscerally formal: his lines are echo chambers in which syllables chime and grate against one another, making us constantly aware that we are experiencing something made—not just a recounting of prior experience but an event in language on the page: "A cut, an incision, a gouge." These insistent rhythms give pleasure because they also feel ominous.
—The New York Times

Product Details

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.20(d)

Read an Excerpt

Saint Catherine in an O: A Song About Knives

On a page of vellum—Saint Catherine in an O—within a letter made of vine-sprawl, imbricate bulbs, & the scarlet interlaced whorl of petal cupping calyx cupping stem, a woman

offers her neck. It’s a kind of ready-made scene—the saint kneeling on a cropped wedge of earth, someone with a crown in a tower, & a swordsman who is only a frocked booted boy pulling back

his robe for his work—& seems carelessly done, as if the illuminator chose death to be a kind of afterthought to vermilion. To leaf-curl, areola, awl-shaped stems, his blossoms’ dazzling tangle. As if

this were response enough. O, omphalos. Meaning center & navel, meaning the first time a blade touches flesh. And meaning here a frame of plenitude through which we witness again.

There are no limits to our verbs, our forms: think of the knife that slits an orange or bundled iris stems, the one strapped to the rooster’s varnished spur. The dagger, poniard, dirk.

Edge that snips the line, whittles an owl, juliennes, traces a lip.
A cut, an incision, a gouge. In Sudan, the story goes, when the slogan of reform was The Future’s in Your Hands, men scavenged the streets

waving machetes, hacking off hands above the wrist, asking How will you hold the future now? The stiletto, the skean, the scythe.
The choosing, the mark, the tool. Beneath a concrete bridge,

shirtless & drunk, a boy works his way through the swallows’ nests, slashing until each mud cone-shape drops into the river, dissolves.
Yet to say so is hardly enough. To say pigsticker, bayonet, shiv.

Because in Waco, behind Benny’s Gas & Go, a man plays slide guitar with his pocketknife, accompanying the words of his songs—one about light, the Lord moving on water, about what will be

by & by; how blood, he knows, will make him whole, & blades that changed into doves.
Or because this splendor of color ends on the parchment in a burnished gold resembling a cluster of burrs,

the kind of thing that would have snagged in a cow’s mottled hide as it grazed on grass tufts or slogged its way home. Staring, bewildered in the stillness, it may survive this way for a few days more

before it is bled & flayed & turned, as was always its purpose, into the page of this psalm. Here, near the margin, are traces of it still: patterns of skin, a texture like velvet, follicles, the throat’s scalloped curve.

Swallowed Things (after the collection of Dr. Chevalier Jackson)

Fish bones & seeds. A toothpick, pipe stems. Two legibly inscribed jade rings.

The body must be

recumbent, facing downward, with lowered shoulders & head. A thimble, coal lump,

a pistachio shell,

peach pits, a tin whistle half. Do not, lest it be further pushed into the larynx,

try to reach for it

with your hand. A penny, a jack, kernels of some kind. A key that must have been

fingered, considered,

passed across a pair of lips. Emblems of accident—bullet casings, bottle caps,

that winking doll head—

or erratic compulsion—pottery shards, the spoon. Carefully consider the texture,

each object’s size & shape.

Consider Mary N——, age 23, who could finally return to the stocking factory

once the lead button

was removed. Or Brooks G——, who had lodged for seven years an Audubon badge

in his bronchus.

Monitor weight loss, the fever’s range. A hinge, a tack while laying down

oilcloth, the jeweled

locket of Dorothy K——, somehow the clock’s cogged wheels. As if almost a way

of transforming the ordinary, making sacrament of what’s within reach.

This movement

from, say, a safety pin, to this one, here, this particular thing, you now survived & hold.

Towards the Sound of a Heron Stepping on Ice

February mist, morning thaw just begun, & the heron that is the same color of slate as the pond on which she moves today is nowhere in sight.
Two days ago, my wife & I watched her hunting near the drainage pipe

& heard at first nothing at each supple step. Then, just as her foot touched, a muffled creak of something giving way, her body’s weight pressing at ice. We lost track of how long this lasted: patternless, a few steps

of audible silence, surface giving nothing back, & then—cleanly, sporadically—a tap of pressure on the ice’s crust. She was stalking God knows what, moving on a pond frozen through—slow, determined,

then lingering, affixed on something we couldn’t see. A heron hunting tucks one leg back, lifts its neck, & with a sudden stab thrrough air, allows its body to unfold. This one, though, I’ve only seen take

these tentative steps, lean in, wait implausibly, then begin moving again. What happened

took place weeks after Isadora Duncan’s children drowned & isn’t much of a storyy at all.

This was after the driver turned the stalled car’s crank & the vehiccccle lurched & tumbled down the embankment, broke the river’s surface, & was gone. Somewhere on a beach on Corfu, Duncan imagines

the Seine’s ribboned gray—its surge & gradual calm—& pictures hooks & dragging lines, an anchor snagged on a sun-glazed wheel.
Then, although she’s promised there will be nothing more,

she watches her arm move. Wave froth, sand fl eas, beach grass scruff.
Her hand lowered, raised. It seems, perhaps, like the fi rst gesture she has made as she bends her wrist gradually back & makes what the body does

willed: for a moment, almost, mending, evanescence, her body both forgotten & salve to itself, & then fastened to a way of saying that somehow seems to suffice. For years,

a man born in a stubble field is satisfied documenting his walks. It is, he claims, our fl awless art, just as it’s perfect how dust freckles each lemon tree blossom, or how his horses stir in their decrepit stalls, watching rain pool in the dark palm

of a shovel & in the earth between their hooves. These are moments the man considers, too, as he drifts through the streets & hills, taking endless pictures of himself doing ordinary things, stark naked in each one.

Catching his breath at a barbwire fence, waiting for a passing mule.
Striding past a silo, scattering ravens. Arms outstretched, leaping from a rock.
Sipping walnut brandy in the shade.
A friend once tried to explain this to me,

defining it in terms of dailiness, ritual, the precarious framework of the mundane. Think of Duchamp’s urinal, I was told.
Or Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning, a piece in which absence, fixed

in a gold-leaf frame, becomes an end in itself. In which absence takes the form of a yellow sheet clumped with remnants of ink & crayon. It’s not the same, is it, as that story of Pollock, most likely far from true?

How he once bought a Picasso in order to erase it, to learn how the line might work, the way the body’s dialect finds voice.
Lead on cream paper, c. 1908. Four Studies of the Human Hand.
Then his task filled hours—each fingertip, knuckle,

wrist. In a photo taken somewhere in Russia, a crowd lunges towards a train window, eager for the papers offered by a boy, hardly caring they’re mostly lies.

But now here is the reason we look at it, why it was preserved: in the window next to this boy someone has been painted out.
Airbrushing, cropping, faces ink-smudged or excised with a razor—

it was all common, we know. Except here the work is so poorly done it looks deliberate—how the black of the window barely blends with the space where his body should be & all of his contours

are clear. At his torso, the oval construct of his head, each brushstroke is so thick & obvious, patterned in thumbprint whorls, it resembles proportion lines from some How to Draw book. Symmetries, ratios,

augmented angles, methods to ensure each of the parts is in harmony with the whole. It’s as if whoever removed him from this scene was only beginning to understand just how the body works—

its axis, his shoulder’s traversing lines, that single mark from scalp to ribs.
Polyclitus knew the beautiful comes about little by little, through many numbers, & perhaps with our rules

for rendering ourselves mimesis is nothing but math. Perhaps, too, this work was botched in order that we might notice, might begin to guess. That this man who stared down half asleep from the train

was the same man who once seared his brother’s eyes with a rust-flecked awl then walked from his home without a word. Who, one night, was made to kneel in the woods when his throat was slit

beneath the pines. Done in one take, forty seconds long, the first film ever made—Lunch Hour at the Lumicre Factory—shows only a crowd walking into sunlight, hurrying into a blazing lane.
There’s a rush of wool dresses, hand placed into a pocket, a shrug,

a mastiff’s fevered joy. Behind & above, back in the rafters: the pure geometry of light & wood.
At the climax, a girl plucks at her button & a black horse trots nimbly by, harnessed to a cart covered in canvas

that gives back as it passes the shadowed branches of an oak. By now it’s December, 1895. In a Paris basement salon, a crowd watches the image of a crowd projected on a pinned white sheet. A machine whirs

& rattles along with the same effort of its name—cinématographe, from the Greek, meaning writing the movement. They watch soundless blacksmiths striking at steel, the lift & curve of waves,

& then a passenger train that glides into a station & seems to them, at least in one story, like artifice

for a single breath more. Muybridge, I’ve read, invented moving pictures by making a horse circle a track.

First it galloped & broke each thread laced across its path, which in turn tripped the camera shutters & told us how it moved—how its body curved, lagged, compressed, & how there were moments,

indiscernible, when not a hoof touched the earth.
A few years after he hunted down his wife’s lover playing cribbage at a Calistoga mine & shot him point-blank in the chest, Muybridge made

naked dancers & gymnasts move against a grid of white lines.
Here is A Man Walking and Turning. A Man Heaving a Boulder.
Carrying a Rifl e. Digging with a Spade. A Woman Drying Her Feet. Listen:

there’s no better time to finish one story I began before. It’s about the artist who roamed the village hills & I’m not even sure it’s true: when war came, the man arranged to end his walks & put his camera away. Instead, he began

to choose. He chose which of the dead he would allow to be buried, which rottweiler, woman, which ear. To make some move barefoot towards an idling truck, then bedsprings, truncheons, stones. But listen:

in one series of Muybridge photographs, a woman approaches a chair.
She is naked, in profile, & beginning to move closer to its curved pine back.
She is the same woman who pours a single glass of water, who stands

after sitting on the floor. This time, though, she takes a few steps, kneels at a chair, pauses, then rises again. She has either a look of solemnity or a half-smile latched to her face—because she knows

what she is about to do.
By the fifth frame we can see it, almost in entirety, & she touches it with her knuckle. This is A Woman Kneeling at a Chair, & somewhere within or near the eighth frame—

since this is all she intends—gesture & desire coalesce. She lowers her body, clasps her hands, in one motion bowing her head, & even if this lasts for just a fractured second she seems

to be honestly in prayer. As if not kneeling at but to a chair. Adamant, resolved. As if there were nothing else to kneel to. As if knowing in a moment she will be finished & begin to rise but for now it is still not yet.

Copyright © 2007 by Matt Donovan. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.

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