Karen Donovan.jpg

Poetry from Karen Donovan

followed by Q&A

Taking a Night Kayak Through Bullocks Cove

Three strokes is all a paddler

needs to know to pull this craft


past Lavin’s and the jetty

rocks and reach the green


and red channel nuns,

the sweep, the brace, the draw,


but only mastery of wind

and tide and wave will try


the bay with no bowlight

on a moonless night.


Where bluefish run

and terns circle buoys by day,


a dark mouth laps laps

at the boat. Whatever nears


the surface might be imagined,

so passing over


anything in this thin skin, even

yellow weeds near shore,


lifts the blood above

its temperate habit.


Pilgrim, your wake

is a shadow, now paddle.


Up close, the blade flames



the stars in the sky,

the stars in the sea,


all wonderment between

the firmament and the buoyant


shell which the creature inhabits.

On this palindrome


of light and dark, we would

look the same coming


and going if it weren’t for

the straightness and length


of the body under the sheet,

the mileage on the tongue,


the history swirling off the lost

rudders of the hands.



This Noon

A dove called



as I was reading about doves

real and imaginary,


their tendency to descend

on the wet heads of prophets,


so I went to the window to see

if this one had landed.


The sky was perfectly blue.

A breeze and the sound of a breeze


brushed the oaks, and close up

an hourglass-shaped spider


walked across the outside

of the wire window screen.


Next door my neighbor

was trimming the bittersweet


with her electric saw,

and when I stepped out, the dove


flew over me and over the roof

toward the lagoon. It was noon


and I thought I had captured

my subject, the cooing,


the accidental spider, the breeze

in oak leaves, a dove taking flight


from the roof peak,

my neighbor switching off the machine


and laying aside her work

to greet friends: Come in,


come in, let me make you

some lunch now.


How simply the poem

assembles itself when it wishes,


how all the language ever invented

wells up around the eelgrass


to be spoken, and how impossibly

the tongue darkens


unless the breeze agrees

to stream through oak leaves


hypnotically green

on an ordinary day, offering


such ordinary tasks of decipherment

as the fact of a breeze,


the sound and the fact

of the sound, the lotus blossom


and the murky pool

from which it unfolds


in a move reminiscent of the final

inside-outing of origami


remarkable pink, the last color

anyone expects from a murky pool.


What is it then I am to attend,

and am I to understand


that one thing leads to another,

that this morning one woman


will drown all her children

in a bathtub like kittens


while another calmly trims

the bittersweet?


That simple addition compels

the leaves in their gestures


to estimate the final effect

of a breeze that moves them,


moves through and past

yet never passes?


Shall we ask about—

Is it necessary to—


A dove coos,

a spider wanders


over the grid

of the window screen,


a landscape everywhere

present but never apparent,


everywhere singular but never

unique, the sky in its changing,


a dove out there, cooing,

still calling from somewhere.



Karen Donovan’s first book, Fugitive Red, won the Juniper Prize for Poetry. For 20 years she co-edited Paragraph, a journal of short prose published by Oat City Press. She earned an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and now works in Providence.



Q: What does the paddler have to teach the poet, and vice versa?

A: The momentary opportunities for weightlessness. The laws of resistance and give.


Q: What is your favorite literary spider?

A: Most vividly the one from “Writing Spider” in Dave Smith’s book Cuba Night: “No one sees me outrun the whiskered corn / or spill myself on the grass / or fall amazed under her silken staring,” and so on. Of course, all spiders are literary.


Q:  In these poems, you rely on the lean strength of the couplet. Would you discuss your use of this form?

A: I chose couplets because I wanted to structure the space in each poem without domesticating it. If possible. And to preserve uncertainty in the travel.