Watershed by Laura Donnelly
Cider Press Review, 2014; 69 pp
Reviewed by Michael Levan


“The thing that wants to be born / is turned sideways and stiffening.” So opens “Foal,” from Laura Donnelly’s 2013 CPR Editors Prize-winning Watershed. This poem and all the others in the collection are not hoping the world will welcome them; no, they are actively pursuing their place because they know how much they have to offer us. Immediately, we’re on notice to expect a new order, challenged to see and experience everything again with fresh eyes and hearts. 

Many of Donnelly’s poems focus on speakers’ responses to art and music, from Kasimir Malevich and Winslow Homer to Schumann and Glenn Gould. She translates the beauty of other art forms into language, an impressive task given its difficulty and a sentiment that’s captured in the Donald Justice-penned epigraph at the start of “The Piano”: “I can hear the music better where I sit than at the keyboard.” Lucky for us, Donnelly is able to hear wherever she is. Watershed’s early poems are carefully paced, their rhythms and sounds unquestionably precise and musical. Take, for instance, the second section of “The Dove House”:

Aged fifteen, they claimed, a shilling a day
for her straight back, straight chin. Maggie on break
from mending the nets. Not more
than thirteen, but already those steel-pinned eyes
gone to market, steel voice hawking herring.

Bright sun against slate, barrel shimmered
with scales. She wears the woven basket
like a third hip tilted wide.

Donnelly can also let her poems run when they need to. “Once, in the door of,” “Knife-grinder: Principle of Flickering (1913),” and the prose poem “You walk into a room” are prime examples of counterpoints to the more meticulously measured poems in the collection, variation that allows us to appreciate just how diverse Donnelly’s skills are.

Reading Watershed, we often get caught up in how impeccably she sees, telling ourselves, Of course that’s how it is. And more frustratingly, we ask, Why didn’t I think of that? Laura Donnelly’s debut is something to be jealous of, yes, but even more, it is something to be grateful for.