Book Review

Is there a way to say it?

Maybe every act of writing begins here, with the already-exhausted question. Each poem in Matt Donovan’s The Dug-Up Gun Museum contains and documents one of these beginnings. The title of the collection suggests a singular focus on America’s guns—gun violence, gun reverence, gun hate, gun mania, maybe even just the fact of guns here, their incredible, unending number. But the book is really a mathematical inquiry into guns and. Guns and whiteness. Guns and laws and law enforcement. Guns and play. Guns and innocence, affluence, atonement, insanity, the occult. Guns and sculpture, guns and song. Guns and the speaker of the poem. To explore these relationships, Donovan sits with survivors, speaks with artists and activists, and observes collectors and enthusiasts. He visits the Winchester Mystery House, NRA headquarters, and the actual Dug Up Gun Museum in Cody, Wyoming. He also documents moments where intimations of guns and violence intruded into his own life, whether in the shape of a child’s pointed index finger, a school bus demo derby, or news of a shooting broadcast into a Planet Fitness.

In “Green Means Literally a Thousand Things or More,” what may be the emotional heart of the collection, Donovan’s speaker reflects on the pique of a student’s essay on the Dylan Thomas poem “Fern Hill,” ticking through the many “meanings” of green. While grading the paper, the speaker’s eyes drift to the news, landing on a familiar picture of two men stunned after a shooting and wearing a trauma blanket that is, the speaker notices, green. The image, in the context of the student’s formal frustration, prompts an urgent question:

                                                                              Is there a way to say it—
There’s been a shooting—that will allow it to be heard, remembered

& heard, without the easy glide of our past tense? That will stop us
from wanting to turn to anything under the wide starry sky that is not
the green fire burning in the minds of those men or the green

of a blanket America provides & provides without change?

Something happens in the rolling prosody here. The last line’s anapests rise and fall like hills, trauma blankets turning Nick Carraway’s “fresh green breast of the new world” into the manicured green of an unending cemetery. Is there a way, the poem asks, to arrest the gaze that would sweep across this charnel landscape from tragedy to tragedy, to fix it for more than a moment?

For Donovan, asking this question requires development upon ideas Carolyn Forché first advanced in her introduction to Against Forgetting. Writing in 1993, Forché recalled how her own poetry changed following years of humanitarian activism around the world. Forché sought “the solace of poetic camaraderie,” among poets such as Anna Akhmatova, Paul Celan, Federico García Lorca. Their poetry—”the poetry of witness”— drove between the categories of “personal” and “political” toward a third realm, the “social”; and crucially, she explained, each bore within it “traces of extremity.” What do we make of the poetry of witness today, in an age of constant, ubiquitous, mediated, memed, decentralized, and desensitized witnessing? “Monstrous acts have come to seem almost normal,” Forché wrote of the twentieth century. “It becomes easier to forget than to remember . . . ” But the massacres of the twentieth century were not planned on 8chan and streamed on Twitch. And Against Forgetting entirely passed over the acts of everyday violence, like American law enforcement’s casual disregard of life, that smartphones, body cams, and social media have broadcast to the world. Is there a way to say it—to resist forgetfulness—when the it is not a world war or a holocaust, an atrocity that historians will assign a beginning and an end, but the relative comfort of unending, everyday inhumanity? The Dug-Up Gun Museum doesn’t promise the answer to this or any other question. Instead, Donovan chooses to excavate those rolling greens—to dig up from the American landscape, again and again, the object of the gun itself, that easy-gliding machine we can’t put down.

At The Dug-Up Gun Museum’s launch on November 1 at Smith College, where Donovan is a professor and director of the Boutelle-Day Poetry Center, he recalled that his project “began from feelings of grief and anger”—not just about violence, but about America’s political impasse on gun policy and the normalization of massacre. This was an investigative project; at one point, Donovan thought he was writing a book of essays. The result is both lyric and deeply reported, wide-eyed poems of noticing that refuse to press-gang what they touch into the service of conclusions.

“The Etymology of Gazebo” exemplifies the approach. It begins with the word “gazebo” and its uncertain origins, which Donovan represents as an absence, “a hole . . . filed with guesswork / year after year.” It moves from the abstraction of etymology to a specific gazebo: the gazebo originally in Cleveland’s Cudell Recreation Center where police shot and killed the twelve-year-old Tamir Rice. The etymology of gazebo—suggesting I shall see or I will look—prompts a meditation on white gazing, on its potential to manifest violence. Acknowledging this, Donovan deftly turns his speaker’s own gaze back upon itself:

                        Our words continue

to fail & yet here I sit, peering into
the name of some meagre thing,

unable to stop pulling it apart,

as if that offered a kind of prayer
instead of a means to avert my gaze

from another child dead too soon.

Here Donovan returns to the question he posed in “Green Means Literally a Thousand things or More.” Is there a way to say it? Is there a way for any poet, but especially a white poet far removed from the murder of Tamir Rice, to say anything of value about Rice, his murder, or the culture that permitted it? Or, Donovan asks, is the attempt to respond to these events and to this life in a poem not an act of witnessing, but another cunning method of turning away?

Introducing Donovan at the book launch, Melissa Parrish, a scholar both of American poetics and American violence, noted the poet’s determination to “question his own positionality in relation to his poems and reportage.” In response, Donovan pointed to this poem. “To talk about the etymology of gazebo in this context is by definition privileged. Even if there is some academic insight, so what? And to what end?” There is risk in writing a poem that presents and leaves unresolved a question about its own value—especially when a white poet writes about the murder of a Black child. Yes, we ask with Donovan—so what? And to what end?

The answer comes not from Donovan’s speaker, but from Theaster Gates, a visual artist who learned that the city of Cleveland had decided to destroy the gazebo in the Cudell Recreation Center. He worked with the Rebuild Foundation and Samaria Rice, Tamir’s mother, to acquire and move the gazebo to Chicago’s Stony Island Arts Bank. The poem paraphrases Gates’s remarks at the opening of the transported gazebo:

                              —the man who preserved it
wanted to remind us that words

like memorial & honor so often slip
through our hands like water . . .

The poem has already noted that gazebo may trace its roots to “words no one now speaks that mean / honor & heed . . . ” So, when Gates, in the poem, mentions “memorial & honor,” the unresolved etymology comes echoing back.

Nathan McClain, poet and Poetry Editor at the Massachusetts Review, addressed this at the book launch. Every poem must finish without implying a final word, he said. A risk in a poetics that relies on research and reporting is the inadvertent suggestion that a poem “concludes,” obscuring the real lives and their freight of grief or rage or joy that endure behind, at the point where observation lifted off into lyricism. Be vigilant against the final word, Donovan’s poem seems to say. Resist the finality of sense-making, the dying fall of elegy. Abide in confusion, if necessary. Just don’t turn away. The alternative to memorializing, to etymology, is simply to preserve a space, as Gates said and Donovan repeated, “to reflect & remember.” That space can be a gazebo. Or it can be a poem.

In the eponymous poem, the speaker points out that the O of gun’s barrel, like O in O say can you see, is an apostrophe, which in its original Greek use meant “turning away,” when a speaker literally turns to address a new party. By now—this poem is second-to-last in the collection—it is clear that apostrophe marks one half of the paradox of the American relationship with guns. We tend to treat the machine itself with obsession, the collector’s unblinking gaze. But gun violence and gun victims we apprehend briefly, if it all—the gaze interrupted by apostrophe, a dizzy pivoting to the next thing and the next thing and the next thing. The poem ends in an attempt “to imagine for a moment whatever else / we could beyond the gun & what next O”—an act of imagination terminating in yet another flat apostrophe.

In the final poem, “Portrait of America as a Philadelphia Derringer Abraham Lincoln Assassination Box Set Replica,” Donovan draws on our nation’s most famous original punchline: “Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?” It is, he says, “a joke about dying that will never die, as yet another / aftermath’s other-than-that, other-than-that refrain.”

Here Donovan makes his stand. His poems attempt to arrest the apostrophe, to turn our gaze away from gun and its endless O, a mouth nothing like a poem, signifying nothing in itself, and instead toward the particulars of lives lost and still enduring. Is there a way to say it? The question, Donovan might argue, must remain unresolved precisely so that we can ask it of ourselves again—again—again. This is the role of the poetry of witness in a time of tragedy as a background hum. The Dug-Up Gun Museum is not an attempt to answer a question, to stay confusion, or even to bear witness, which means to attest to the truth of something. It merely aims to stun our conditioned apostrophe—an exercise in durational resistance to turning away.

About the Reviewer

Aidan Ryan is a writer from Buffalo, New York living in Western Massachusetts. His work has appeared in Humanities, The Millions, the White Review, and CNN, and has been anthologized in Best New Poets (2019) and Conversations with George Saunders (2022). He is a senior editor and longtime contributor at Traffic East and is a cofounder and publisher of Foundlings Press.