Matt Donovan’s new collection

Decimation, apocalypse and cherry blossoms are only a few of the themes and images explored in Creative Writing and Literature Department faculty member Matt Donovan’s new lyric essay collection, A Cloud of Unusual Size and Shape. The collection is Donovan’s second publication after his 2007 poetry collection, Vellum; however, A Cloud of Unusual Size and Shape is breaking out of the poetry genre and is Donovan’s first collection of prose writing.

Matt Donovan. Photo by Jason Stilgebouer

Matt Donovan. Photo by Jason Stilgebouer

“I see it as a kind of essay sequence,” says Donovan, “so, the opening essays are about Pompeii, and they’re all linked in some way to the history and the archaeology and the sort of tourist travel-log of being there and accessing the homes there.” These sketches of the post-apocalyptic Pompeii are prefaced by an introduction depict the Trinity Site in New Mexico, the location of the first atomic bomb test, and are then later juxtaposed in this section by the Pantheon building in Rome. Donovan plays on the tension of destruction and survival with the two ancient sites, as they emerged around the same time as sites of historical relevance, either by their destruction or construction, and are relatively close to one another as the crow flies.

“These are absolutely linked, in terms of geography, in terms of engagement in the world of antiquity,” says Donovan, “the Pompeii sequence, I mean that’s an investigation of a site of apocalypse, and I’m interested in that response to catastrophe that was the decimation of the town…yet the Pantheon is a place that is also close to 2,000 old, but it is not a ruin against all odds, and that seemed to be a little closer to our world—we’ve avoided becoming a ruin against all odds.”

The following central section of the book explores a range of topics, “some of which are more overtly personal” about topics like the cherry blossoms in Washington D.C., responses to Haikus and old home video footage of Donovan’s grandparents dancing. Each one of these essays, though lyric in nature, stays true to the relatively traditional form of the braided essay.

“I haven’t done much exploring with the form of the essay as I might moving forward,” says Donovan. “Starting out as a poet, I thought I would only write poetry for many years. It was when I travelled down to the Trinity Site and I had written a poem about it and wrote what was really a failure of a poem. I never felt like it really settled. Then, because we live only a few hours from the site, I went to one of the open houses where they actually allow the public to visit ground zero where they detonated the bomb, and I found that I had so much more to talk about than what had gone into that poem because I wasn’t able to write all of that history, questions and meditations that I had wanted to address and articulate in the poetry form. So that’s what thrust me down the road of writing essays. I just needed a wider field of play to get it all in…so for these essays I didn’t want to worry as much about form as the content.”

Though Donovan’s essays are well researched and have an academic bent, he doesn’t want them read as such.  

“For me, what I’m most interested in in many of the pieces are the ways in which I’m finding connections between public and private history.” Donovan says, “For instance, in the Pompeii pieces I wanted to incorporate all, or as much of the history as was relevant and meaningful for the pieces, but was equally as interested in finding juxtapositions in my own life and my own meditations and making connections that would transcend centuries.”   


Matt Donovan reads from A Cloud of Unusual Size and Shape at a double release evening with CWL Chairman James Reich and his new book, Mistah Kurtz at 7 p.m., Tuesday April 12 in the Forum.