Timothy Donnelly’s recent poems seem freshly torn between a love of those poetic privileges maintained by Wallace Stevens—to transform the world by metaphor, to retreat from the corporate hustle into the mind, to ruminate perpetually on clouds—and a sense that these are mere escapism, or no escape, an inadequate response to the world we can’t forget we have a hand in ruining. This double bind has turned Donnelly from a gifted poet into a truly moving one: joining the ethos of George Oppen to a lush idiom and ironical sensibility, these poems dream that music and imaginative play can keep us awake in the still-redeemable world, authorizing that dream through its interrogation.
The book opens with the fall from Eden as a movement indoors into “a room without theme,” and most of these poems concern the poet’s relation to the world that room unhappily succeeds, or fails, in keeping at a distance. Donnelly’s speakers address “the world” as an absent deity or lover, often posthumously, desperate to stay speaking—as if it would vanish should they stop. They want to describe what they see (polluted environments, imported fruit, “humanity / in the park’s stonework”), but doing so reminds them of their complicity in creating what they find: “Taking shots of the sunbaked fields of putrefaction // visible from the observation deck. Hoping to capture / what I can point to as the way it feels. Sensing my hand / in what I push away.” For Donnelly, acknowledging the presence of this hand is the condition for both an aesthetics and a politics.
Like clouds, these poems share a blank substance that serves as armature for imaginative play: a roughly six-beat, loosely iambic line predominates, clustered most often in blank-verse tercets with wisps of local patterning. Words and phrases from one site tend to recombine elsewhere with new meaning. These recombinations occur most vigorously in “The Cloud Corporation,” a stunning seven-section poem that revises Stevens’s “Sea Surface Full of Clouds.”
Where Stevens’s sea is “perfected in indolence,” heroically aestheticized (or clouded) by sky and mind as if there were no difference between them, Donnelly attends to the human hand in this process—to how we “acquire and retain / control of the formation and movement of clouds,” literally and figuratively manipulating the world with linguistic or corporate capital.
Some of Donnelly’s most powerful recombinations involve conscripting words from a politicized text and remixing them with words from a song or treatise on aesthetics. “The Last Dream of Light Released from Seaports” collages language from the USA PATRIOT Act and Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run,” incorporating hilarious deflation and unabashed lyricism in a single breath: “Wendy, stand in the wake of events, stand resolutely / vibrant in the worship of the possible, the fullest human hands.” Perhaps because this language is explicitly sourced in “the world,” the burden of authorial invention relaxed, these collages are freest to exalt the possibilities of human power without parody: “We can advance the fountain. We can define foundation. / … // Let the end of the battle be astonished birth of person.”
Publisher: Wave Books,; Pages: 153; Partial list of authors and texts cited: Eyewitness Mesopotamia, The Egyptian Book of the Dead, the USA PATRIOT Act, Bruce Springsteen, Arthur Schopenhauer, Osama bin Laden, the theme song to The Beverly Hillbillies, the Rule of Saint Benedict, Gustave Flaubert, Percy Bysshe Shelley, “The 9/11 Commission Report,” Edward Gibbon; Representative lines: “The world tries hard to bore me to death, but not hard enough. / Today it made me sit immobile in the bath- / water upwards of an hour, but the fact is, World— / I was totally into it.”; Author’s favorite Fleetwood Mac song: “Sara”