Matt Donovan
Year of the Rabbit

Unlike the churning shit-show-roar of whatever

that was we just left behind, this year, online

chatter tells me, will be one of contemplation

and hope. Maybe. Right now, I’m holding still

the best I can, having followed once again this

same path to this same hill with its one tree

I can’t name, accompanied by Gloria the pug,

harbinger of nothing, prowl-snorting for any scrap

she can find. I’m trying to hold still, to allow some

of what the world gives back just now to summon

a faith in change—pug pant, wind rummaging

branches, bird fussing with a length of yarn,

Pleasant Street traffic slosh—but truth be told

this half-ass attempt at mindfulness isn’t offering

much. Last week, I wrote to a friend whose

husband’s body has betrayed him again and, as if

I’d forgotten the way words work, was surprised

how weightless each one seemed. Language,

a poet once wrote, is like windchimes catching

the sound of the larger, more essential thing,

meaning the point is not the chimes. Sure, I get it,

although there are days when the wind seems

like nothing more than wind, its pockets long-

emptied of secrets, offering up bits of faltering

melodies as it moves past trees and the metal

tubes we’ve hooked into branches in the hope

of creating song. Once, the wind made something

I could call music whenever it slipped through

the wooden slats of the hutch my father built

for Penelope, the rabbit our dog dragged home

from a den she raided in what must have felt

like glee. I can’t remember why she was called

Penelope—the name, once spoken aloud, became

what she was called—or what part of the story,

if any, it matters now to tell: milk pearling from

an eye-dropper, the way she’d wait, trembling

in summer heat before lunging, teeth-bared,

for my outstretched hand, or how in the end

we gave her away to an amateur magician

named, hand to god, Shrimplin the Mysterious,

after which her life took a turn for the worse.

Don’t worry, Matt, my friend told me when

Gloria first came into our world, there will come

a time when you’ll no longer feel embarrassed

to own a pug. For better or worse, that day arrived

a while back. For better or worse, none of this

has much to do with shame, although it’s always

somewhere in the mix, whenever I’m writing a poem

or standing on a hill on New Year’s Day instead of

offering a friend even the patchy solace I have

to give. In “The Darkling Thrush,” Thomas Hardy

welcomes the new year with the bleakest of tidings

in which there’s no hope beyond one scrappy bird

giving voice to what’s described as joy. Years ago,

I tried to memorize it as a means of killing time while

driving to be in the arms of a woman I thought I knew

how to love. Those were days when I didn’t think

much about the words I chanted aloud while careening

dark Pennsylvania roads in a borrowed minivan,

hauling coffee breath and a belief that abstractions

like hope and love doomed any poem unless,

like Hardy, a virtue was named only to proclaim

its absence. These days, I’m less sure. These days,

I hope I can tell the difference between words we need

and words I choose to keep a poem lurching along.

Windchimes is one. Hutch is another. I don’t know

much about Hardy or birds, but enough to remember

his poem was first leashed to the god-awful title

“By the Century’s Deathbed,” and that there’s not

a thrush alive which understands the idea of hope—

any song the poet heard would have been about

laying claim to breeding territory, meaning fuck-off

would be a closer translation than joy toward

what’s coming next. Whatever’s next, it will be

most likely some version of Penelope’s story—

not my long-gone rabbit, but her Odyssey namesake:

days unmoored with both waiting and making,

followed by a shit-ton of unraveling, sometimes by

the same hands. Or not. Hope, I’m told, doesn’t mean

latching to the idea that everything will be fine, but

admitting the future’s unknown. “Dear lumbering

unreadable world” I wrote in early drafts of this poem,

unsure who else to tell that I too sometimes find

grace only after taking a word like “deathbed”

and, without shame, swapping it out for some

fleeting thing. It took a long time—far longer

than it should have—to remember the world

isn’t listening, which leaves, for now, only me

and you and this goofball pug (that resembles—

let’s be honest—the unholy offspring of a gremlin

and weasel) and, yes, that one bird I glimpsed

across the field, whether or not it ever lets loose

with a fuck you trill or just keeps beak-tugging

at its length of yarn without any hint of song.



Found In Volume 52, No. 05
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  • Donovan
Matt Donovan
About the Author

Matt Donovan is the author most recently of The Dug-Up Gun Museum (BOA Editions, 2022) and the collection of lyric essays, A Cloud of Unusual Size and Shape: Meditations on Ruin and Redemption (Trinity University Press, 2016). He is the recipient of a Whiting Award, a Rome Prize in Literature, a Creative Capital Grant, and an NEA Fellowship in Literature.