On the question of Joe

Joseph Donahue, 2014 (photo by Star Black).

Joseph Donahue is one of my teachers, though I never took a class with him; one of my influences, though I write nothing like him. I count myself lucky to have crossed paths with Joe and his work at a time in my development — as a poet and scholar of poetics — when I was most consciously and openly trying to figure out what to value, what to attempt, and how to grow. He arrived at Duke while I was there as a graduate student and began, in his characteristically unassuming way, to expand the conversation about poetry and poetics within the English department. Memorably for me, Joe invited Nathaniel Mackey (still on faculty at UC Santa Cruz then) to give a reading on campus. His introduction of Nate’s “Song of the Andoumboulou” and the Dogon cosmology, jazz aesthetic, and liberatory politics that undergird the ongoing serial poem not only prepared us to take in that brilliant and beautiful work but also revealed Joe to be a deeply curious, highly sensitive reader and critic of poetry. 

A few months later, when I first heard Joe read his own poetry, I was able to see the kind of linkage between the spiritual and the lyrical that must have drawn him to Nate’s work. It was quite a blessing to be exposed in these ways to poetry that privileged spiritual inquiry, carried out in a gnostic vein and without losing sight of the world in which the seeker (poets, readers) must live. In this same period, I was reading Brenda Hillman’s Bright Existence and Toni Morrison’s Paradise and learning from all of them the vital importance of questions and questioning, noun and verb. From Terra Lucida, Joe’s own gorgeous serial poem:

What first flames
do you move among?

What ignorance
will you win?

Devoted, as you are,
night & day to dreaming,

what allegories blow to mist
within your bruised skull,

your pain without

What closed over you
once the day tore a hole,

once thought was all, and
gone: the whole hell of here?

What memories
bleach like shadows?

What biography dissolved
like a dream in the depth of day?

It is no small thing to be able to formulate the questions that haunt us, in images that can give shape to the ineffable. To do so in language this full of music, this rhythmic and melodic at once, is a powerful gift. 

A related quality of Joe’s poetry that he also encouraged me (by his example) to value is a kind of complexity in which one discerns the poet’s struggle to do justice to the intellectual and ethical intricacy, the affective charge, the sublime (in the sense of awful) unresolvability of certain problems and ideas, by searching for aesthetic strategies that are appropriate for and up to the task. Our conversations about poets like Alice Notley and Ed Roberson, whether over lunch or in a conference panel, have always been illuminating for me because of a kind of openness in his approach to reading that allows unusual, unforeseen elements and patterns in such work to rise to the surface. Importantly, his openness extends in other directions as well, which is to say that he also reinforced in me a willingness to be generous as a reader and a critic: to look for what I value in poetry that might not seem likely to incorporate it (and not to be surprised when I find it there), and to look for the value of that which I did not already find valuable (and to acknowledge it freely when I discover it). Joe knows what his own aesthetics are and, beyond that, what other aesthetics speak most directly to him, but he is not, in my experience, a subscriber to fenced-off camps or closed-door schools.

Joe was one of the earliest of my friends to encourage me to believe that I could forge a career in which my poetry and my scholarship played an equal role. The only irony in this fact is that he is so little career-oriented himself. He brings all of his gifts as a writer and his training as a scholar to the classes he teaches, taking his students seriously as thinkers and artists who are able to rise to the level of the work and ideas under discussion if they so choose. His essays and editorial work (with Ed Foster on the magisterial anthology The World in Time and Space) are wonderful contributions to the field of poetics. Yet he has pursued the life of the mind without the regimented hoops and sometimes punishing incentives that come with a more careerist approach to academe. And, more frustratingly for those of us who admire his poetry, he has declined to carry on almost any of the business that falls under the heading of “promoting one’s poetry.” His work is published by editors who cherish and pursue it; it circulates among readers who are “in the know.” If his center stage appearance in the circle of writings of which this piece is a part serves to bring Joe Donahue’s work a new wave of readers, they can thank us later. I am grateful for this opportunity to thank him, publicly, now.

Mythography in 'Before Creation'

Joseph Donahue, 2014 (photo by Star Black).

Let’s begin by making a distinction between “myth” and “mythology,” in which the latter term refers to a big coffee table book that espouses a belief in systems while claiming to catalogue all sorts of mythic material as it arose from some particular zone of the planet. Let’s say that the term “myth” is one that escapes mythology, because it is still in process, or at least that some myths have a chance of escaping the logos because they are still in process, and that these are the important ones for a live poetry. In this sense, myth ends where mythology begins, and a myth-in-process would not be a story in a traditional sense, since it is incomplete: not those myths that are achievements and emblems of fame and hence conservative compensations for mortality, but the myths that are still being unfolded in the deep structures of perception, thought, and desire, and thus harbingers of natality, of things to come. To talk about the poetry of Joseph Donahue we need a third term, too — “mythography,” in which the myth is still in process by way of writing, as opposed to, say, as part of an active oral tradition. Moreover, we need to think about a mythography as diverse as a great city, as infinite as a grain of sand, as jostled as the mind in the age of the media blitz upon the possibilities of language, perception, and desire, and as cutting-edge as American poetry has been able to muster since Black Mountain and the New York School, if we want to do justice to the textures of Donahue’s writing.

For my micropurpose, I want to look at a single text of Donahue’s from his first, great book, Before Creation. That text is the page-and-a-half-long “Posthaste and Romage,” in which many of the latter motifs of Terra Lucida and Donahue’s other later, larger works can already be found. Published in 1989, the poem foregrounds sky and skyscraper:

broken into zones.
Half ecstatic transfiguration
and half resembling an agony without hope. […]
Blue cup: each twist of steam
a naked outline. Branches wet, torn.
World Trade lost in the silver ball of a stormcloud.
You look up from your desk. You spiral free from
a recurrent daydream about an incident of self-blinding. 

Retrospectively, I am struck here by the image of the Twin Towers (“World Trade”), lost twelve years after Before Creation’s publication to hijacked planes, intense fire, cataclysmic fall, and mass death. In the poem it is momentarily lost in the ball of a silver stormcloud. This occurs just as the subjectivity in the poem spirals away from a self-destructive reverie, perhaps Oedipal in nature, as in Sophocles, when Oedipus atones for the polluted city by putting out his eyes, one-upping the gods in the process, in a turn of the plot that did not exist in any prior version of the myth of Oedipus but rather is Sophocles’ mark on that myth. The sky is here in zones, one of “ecstatic transfiguration,” the other of hopelessness, as if fractured or torn down the middle. In one way, this is a sky as empty and pleasant as a late summer day. But it also must be autumn, perhaps latest autumn, with that particular chill in the air, and the smell of burning leaves or other mysteries that the nostrils pick up for months on end. Certainly Donahue always posits the tiny against the huge as here a coffee cup releases a cloud of steam (one of those blue, Greek-mythology-illustrated cups omnipresent in New York during that period?). I don’t think I’m wrong to think to of Pound’s “Station in the Metro”:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

On the basis of Donahue’s

Branches wet, torn.

How does Donahue succeed in making each image in his composition so suggestive, so saturated? How do we move from the sky gods to the underground of the subway and the crowds of the dead? And how does Donahue move us from the world in tatters to rebirth in the poem?

The text of “Posthaste and Romage” continues:

The islands rising are drops of blood
Scattered by a god’s sword.
This, and other myths of pure origin.
And later:
Blue fog. A bridge
The color of mountains upriver.
A friend calls the rain adoration.
River, white.  Gold sky flaking into black …
But you are older and have begun to bathe
in the streams of light in which all things are named.

If one of the powers of myth is to make a landscape inhabitable, then a passage like this operates on the built landscape, in a mode of composition only a wisp away from description, and yet far more than mere description. Light, moisture, and mist are light, moisture, and mist, but now they are animate, especially moisture. Color is light made present and rain is a gift. “Fire escape,” a few lines later, is indeed “fire escape,” but also a possible escape from fire. Mist lifts to reveal a mountain, a skyscraper, or the lashes of an eye whose form makes one forget everything but the female. It is Donahue’s attention to the particular that allows the divinity at play in the particular to be felt on the page, and then to vanish just as quickly, “like a goddess in Cocteau,” as “Posthaste and Romage” reminds us a few lines later.

Then, in italics:

I can’t explain where this joy is coming from.

And finally:

Red robe lost in smoke and choruses,
a woman standing in a circle of fire.
A garden scratched in stone.
A flayed satyr cradling a child
as each cradles a fresh sentiment.
At midnight you rearrange the letters.
The alphabet of rapture rises.

Myth is a narrative that is not quite narrative because it remains incomplete; mythography is the writing of the incomplete, in the awareness of our complete immersion in a language in which each question contains a quest, because the word “question” insists, and in which the responses to the question become part of the myth. If one is the mythographer, “At midnight you rearrange the letters.” Myth mutters “mother” but also mutters the impossibility of knowing the point of origin. Composition is natality, not mortality, to borrow and reconfigure a distinction Hannah Arendt offers to distinguish the philosophy we have known heretofore from the philosophy she wants us to know. Spiraling amidst the sprites and goddesses of a condemned cityscape that will only reveal themselves in moments of heightened intensity, myth is on the verge of a new articulation when “The alphabet of rapture rises.” Myth is premonition is transcendence. In Before Creation, Donahue’s body of work is already on its way, resisting the fate of the mythological in favor of the birth of twenty-first-century myths of violence, destruction, and rebirth.

'Desire' and time

Joseph Donahue, 2014 (photo by Star Black).

To live with a poet’s work for a long time is to change and find that the work opens itself to future selves. One hopes but never knows whether the work will continue to disclose its layers over time, that it will continue to unfold. I’ve lived with Joseph Donahue’s poems for years, each time coming back to them a slightly different person, each time apprehending different layers of their baroque density, their teeming referentiality. But what astounds me as much now as the first time I read Donahue’s poem “Desire” is how completely cinematic the work is, enjambing little fragments of story, myth, and image into a flowing continuity, a weirdly seamless, sinuous musical surface that points back to the pleasure of embodiment, the sensation of these words sliding on the tongue. And simultaneously: to the pleasure of the mind itself constituting movement. Because “Desire” immediately emerged for me as a text to aspire to, it raised and continues to raise the question “how is a poem like a movie?” But each time the question repeats, it changes a little until it becomes “how does a poem’s form make image and thought move?” And then, “What is pleasurable about the constitution of movement?” I can only offer preliminary notes towards an answer here, but a beginning is Gilles Deleuze’s assertion that film is a “thinking form,” that its medium-specific power is its capacity for movement, because thought itself is movement. Donahue’s poems, likewise, bring us to the movement of thought inscribed in language’s temporality.

Over the years, I’ve developed the habit of periodically revisiting the poem, which begins “Desire’s green / and gold corona / in the wavering branch // and the shuttle of syllables through white light / and the pleasure of the mind of God permeating all accident.” Immediately here in the first two stanzas are crystallized the themes that expand and crisscross through Donahue’s work: desire, the image, the sacred, and contingency as time/history. Reading “Desire” is like looking at a photograph of obscure but tremendous sentimental value — it marks the passage of time, a document of what I’ve always thought vital and pleasurable, but also a text which casts its own images into the cauldron of its retrospective gaze, one thoroughly inflected by the technologically mediated image: “The kodachrome bits blow through the world / and incidents take on the color of that former time / though far from where you are.” These kodachrome bits are the prisms through which you consider the nature of time, as internally divided and fraught as the self. The image as Gongorine diffraction, splitting space-times.

Joseph Donahue’s poems unfold in two ways: across the time of the page, akin to the mechanical standardized time of a film. The stanza breaks are cuts, presenting and displacing the many images that the poems are made of. The stanza here takes on its literal definition, a room for words containing thought, each room a scene whose door opens onto the next scene, the mysteries of the universe posed in the restless movement from room to room. There is an eerie feeling of entering the suite of rooms at the end of Kubrick’s A Space Odyssey: 2001 — are we at the very quiet and still dawn of the universe or at its end? In the 2009 installment of Donahue’s long poem Terra Lucida, the final section of the collection begins:

Hermes said: The soul
the soul is a burning circle

And, Earth, a black room
wired for sound, not a stall

A garage, a root cellar,
not a tabernacle, a grave site

A honeymoon suite. A dig site
where, on a glowing scroll

buried in a wall, Hermes
whispers: Let all be black

room inside the sun,
full of sounds and souls.

Let all become intervals.
Let numbers flood the air of

the earth, notes no one
hears, that will be bodies …

A couple in a room.
A burning circle.

Mist on our skin turns
back to air. While outside,

a sound like the sun at night
a breeze through a forest

where bodies are only
where sound will be.

This poem, Donahue’s collaboration with composer Scott Lindroth, makes the ground of the collaboration itself — the black room wired for sound — into the metaphorical space of Hermes’ transmutation of sound into flesh. We meet Hermes, god of travel and thresholds, at the beginning of creation, this beginning which reoccurs in so many different iterations throughout Donahue’s work, as evidenced from his first book, the stunning post-New York School Before Creation, to his mature work in Terra Lucida which can be understood as a series of world creations and destructions. There can be no unitary origin myth in Donahue’s poems because for him, genesis is the birth of multiplicity and heterogeneity.

And yet, the poems aren’t all exaltation and cosmogony; there’s a movement in Joe’s work between the cosmic and the daily, a sudden and surprising tendency to track into the minutia of daily life and back out again. In the aforementioned poem “Desire,” we see this movement in the lines, “the way a sudden turn / towards intimacy in a conversation can resemble // a cycle of fire purifying your past.” Which brings me to the second way in which Donahue’s poems unfold: across the larger, more fragmented and more tenuous time of history and the personal — as history and the personal continuously overlap.

I was eighteen and taking my first creative writing workshop in college when I read “Desire” in Primary Trouble, a 1996 anthology edited by Donahue and my then-teacher Leonard Schwartz (which articulates a lucid vision of experimental poetry in the mid-to late-nineties outside of a Language paradigm). I knew very little about contemporary American poetry and was sort of annoyed by the mannered experimentalism of a lot of the stuff we were reading, while also feeling bored to death by what was in that moment mainstream poetry (the division between these two traditions being at that time much more sharp than it is now). Leonard was good at dealing with my eye-rolling, recently post-teenage self and asked me to look through the anthology and tell him who I did like. The poems that grabbed me were by Eileen Myles (whose name I sort of knew from the feminist punk rock circles I moved in as a teenager) and Joseph Donahue.

At times, these two poets seem worlds apart, except for both being from Massachusetts and having written great poems about the mythology of the Kennedy clan (Eileen’s “American Poem” and Joe’s “With Lulu at the Beach”). But I’ll go out on a limb here and claim a larger similarity: there’s a tremendous generosity towards lived experience in these two poets, towards their own and towards that of others. In Myles’s work it manifests itself in a direct use of biographical material, a concentration of performative verve and observational acuity. In Donahue’s work, this relationship to experience is oblique. He rarely even uses the personal pronoun, instead often addressing the poems to “you,” a curious pronoun that simultaneously figures the author and the reader as the protagonist of the poem. Donahue’s investment in experience manifests in his poem’s tendency to look back retrospectively, to think sensation in terms of what has been known and what is now known by the body, a constant cutting between the purely contingent states of “was,” “were,” and “will be.”

Retrospectively, I recognize an intuition that I had in my early love of Joe and Eileen’s work, one that has changed and developed over time but still holds true for me: that what animates great art is experience circulated through form, modifying a given set of forms, even sometimes to the point of breaking the form. This is an intuition confirmed by Walter Benjamin in that old saw about great storytellers being able to move up and down the rungs of their experience like a ladder. Except I’m talking here about poetry, an art concerned with the fragmentation and dispersion of stories across images, feeling, and thought — not an art overly concerned with storytelling. But what remains when the scaffolding of narrative has faded into the distance, anyway? Images, feeling, and thought: the material of experience. It’s not the story that we’re looking for; it’s the sensations that the story calls up. Donahue reconstitutes these shattered bits of experience, setting them into the artificial movement of the poem.

There’s a small part of this aforementioned intuition which is profoundly adolescent, an adolescence which I wish to preserve for life, which reads in the poem “Desire” a description of a longing with no true object, only the world itself with its urban architectures and its attendant injustices, the violence that flickers at the edge of consciousness in the form of the nightly news but which also constitutes this world, as in the lines, “words freshly tilted drift askew. / The aura of recent racial beatings touches the airy realm of the / fire escape where she talks about her diffidence.” To desire is to fully inhabit that world and its energies before taking the requisite distance that defines adulthood.

And then there’s something I am moving towards as I get older in the poem “Desire” which I cannot fully understand yet, and is not belief proper, but the growing conviction that the invisible exists as particularly as the visible, that the material always contains something of the immaterial, as in the lines:

Day’s ferocity meanders
Through lack of significant feeling
(each watching

the face of the other fading,
each a ghost in the other’s dream but only one is still alive)
and your thoughts turn back to Juan de la Cruz

The gnosticism of Donahue’s work has lead some to question the modernity of his poetry, because it’s easy to assume that modernity is simply secularization, rather than the fragmentation and displacement of belief. Donahue’s work is thoroughly modern in this latter sense; the mystical is another hermeneutic for reading reality. The poem’s thoughts turn back to Saint John of the Cross, the Catholic martyr who wrote the Spiritual Canticle, a poem which allegorizes a wife seeking her husband as a soul seeking Christ. Historically, this poem’s language has been exemplary in demonstrating the surprising erotics of Christian martyrdom — God referred to as “Beloved” throughout. In Donahue’s “Desire,” the search and longing of Spiritual Canticle transform into someone searching for his other, “each a ghost in the other’s dream,” who we know cannot, will never be able to complete the speaking subject.

What Joseph Donahue’s “Desire” continues to show me is thought’s movement articulating the experience of lived time — our desires so thoroughly created and bounded by time. I’ve felt unease at the term desire before, equating it with the instant satisfaction of my culture, American culture, but in Donahue’s poems, desire is something else: a homesickness for something not yet known but sensed, a desire for knowledge both manifest and occult. Desire is the will to think at the juncture where thought meets emotion. To read the world as it unfolds in its bright and troubled light as Terra Lucida, the title of Donahue’s long poem, reminds us.

from 'From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate'

Joseph Donahue, 2014 (photo by Star Black).

[From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate is an ongoing series of letters written by composer/multi-instrumentalist N., founding member of a band known as the Molimo m’Atet based in Los Angeles.]


Dear Angel of Dust,

I’m enclosing a tape of a new piece we just added to our book. It’s called “Other Lives, Their Jostle” and it’s written by Drennette, a rare foray into composition for her. The title comes from a poem she came upon recently, a poem called “Transfigurations” by a poet named Joseph Donahue, of whom, she explained when she introduced the piece to us at rehearsal, she’d never heard before. She was browsing in Chatterton’s Bookstore the other day and came upon it in a little magazine she picked up and began to thumb thru, an obscure literary journal of which, she says, she’d also never heard but ended up buying a copy, unable to put the poem down. She brought copies of the poem to rehearsal and, as we could see, it begins with those four words: “Other lives, their jostle.”

Something about it got to her. Something took hold and wouldn’t let go, she says. It tugged at her, not letting her be, so much so that rather than going directly home when she left Chatterton’s, as had been her plan, she went around the corner to the teahouse on Melbourne, went in, ordered tea, and sat down to reread the poem, unable to wait to get home to do so, rereading it again and again. Maybe it had to do with having lived in New York, she explained, for she saw in the contributors’ notes at the back of the journal that Joseph Donahue lives in New York. “Jostle in the sense of impingement, yes, being put upon by others, the fact of so many others,” she said, “shoulder to shoulder on a subway or a bus the least of it. But there’s something else to it, more to it.” She paused as we hung on her words. “It’s that necropolitan aspect I often sensed when I lived there,” she went on, “a necropolitan aura, a necropolitan umbra, as though so many people packed into so compressed a space going so busily about their business put pressure on being to the point of rubbing it out, erasing it, a reduction to pure machination, living dead.” She paused again, gathering her thoughts. “I got that sense often when I lived there,” she said when she spoke again. “Maybe it’s that he got that sense into the poem.”

But it wasn’t only that, she went on to insist. It wasn’t only, if I heard her correctly, an apprehension of living dead, it wasn’t that preemption alone. It wasn’t only a sense of the living dead but of the dead living, age and wear, which are also, she pointed out, a sign of endurance, having as much to do with it as the monumentality bearing down on you wherever you look. “We don’t get that here,” she summed up this part of what she had to say by saying, “at least not in so strong a dose. Here it’s too spread out to accrue in that relentless way.” Having said that, she continued to specify the “something else” she meant to get to or to give a sense of, the “more to it” she insisted was there and that we see was there. She wanted us to understand jostle as also something inward, proliferation within, perturbation within, a stir the word “soul” might carry, transmigratory the farther in one went.

The upshot was that the poem had, as she put it, held her captive. She had sat in the teahouse for a couple of hours mulling over it, reading it over and over, sipping tea. She was struck by so much in the poem she could barely, she told us, begin to touch on its details and its particulars, driven to compose by that very fact, the persistence of “something else” not yet gone into or gotten to no matter how much was gone into or gotten to. She put it this way: “I remembered having read Shepp say somewhere that Trane’s music proposes an infinite horizon. I remembered that Something Else!!!! is the title of Ornette’s first album. Grachan Moncur III’s Some Other Stuff came to mind as well, as did Jimmy Lyons’s Other Afternoons and Gary Bartz’s Another Earth, not to mention the plea for ‘another chance’ in so much blues, R&B, and pop, all of it suggesting a sense of alternative or a call for alternative. I wanted “Other Lives, Their Jostle,” which I then and there named and began to imagine, to be a vehicle for, a sense or a call nowhere more outright than in Sun Ra’s “I Am the Alter-Destiny,” a sense of elseness or a call for elseness.”

There was, though, one thing she would go into, one such particular, something, she went on to say, related and in some ways catalytic to the sense of alternative her piece would be an exponent of. This was the poem’s preference for sentence fragments over grammatically complete sentences, a tendency she called its “phrasal bent,” sometimes its “clausal bent,” a predilection so pronounced she resorted to counting the relative occurrence of the two. While at the teahouse, that is, she went thru the poem and counted the number of sentence fragments ending with periods and the number of grammatically complete sentences, finding around eighty of the former and around thirty of the latter, a ratio tending toward three to one. Consistent with and probably an effect of the jostle and the impingement present in the poem, as though events and apprehensions crowded it, came in too fast to be noted other than telegraphically, sketchily, breathlessly almost, too fast and too abundant for grammatical completeness, this feature, Drennette noted, is conducive to and conveys a certain wariness of predication, maintaining a trepidatious tone. That tone or that tack, we could see, is there right away:

Other lives, their jostle. The engineer
crumples error into a paper ball, hurls it
as I enter. Man in the locker room,
skeleton visible beneath pale ripples
of fleshless skin. At the corner phone,
the acting vice president, her son
beaten with a pipe in a drug transaction.

“It’s as though,” Drennette pointed out, “nothing good could come of predication, as though the declarative sentence were to be avoided or, if not avoided, put off as long as possible, as though the sentence most often, if not always, carries, eponymously, a juridical, punitive sense: ‘Orestes is condemned to scrub the blood / from his parent’s house.’”

Yes, we could see, grammatically fulfilled sentences often, if not always, report unfulfilling outcomes (“No Summa survives the saint who writes it”) and the poem seems to be countering a dystopian closure that sentences carry, shying away from that sort of completion. “Other Lives, Their Jostle,” Drennette explained, ups the ante on this. She distributed two copies of the poem to each of us, on one of which all the complete sentences were blacked out with a felt marker. The piece opens with Drennette soloing, reminiscent of Max Roach’s “The Dream / It’s Time” on the Chattahoochee Red album, the one where he interlaces the concluding passages of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech with his drum solo. Here the spoken part is the rest of the band reciting lines from the copy of the poem on which the sentences have been blacked out, reciting lines made up only of sentence fragments — an all the more phrasal bent, all the more clausal bent, plied in pursuit of a utopic horizon.

As you can hear, the recitation is neither a straightforward reading of the poem nor anywhere near a setting of it as in lieder. Drennette left each of us free to choose which passages to recite, and we all recited at the same time, so that different passages are heard simultaneously, each up against the others, paratactic jostle. Nor is there any attempt to get it all in. The complete sentences, of course, are already excluded, in addition to which we made no effort to recite each and every sentence fragment in the poem. In the course of the four spoken “breaks” woven in with and punctuating Drennette’s solo I don’t think the five of us covered more than a third of the available lines. This was yet another nod to incompletion, one that Drennette took even farther in the writing of the piece and in the guidelines for our improvisations. The piece is written in such a way that none of its musical thoughts is completed, in terms of harmonic accord and resolution, melodic or motivic sustainment, rhythmic predictability, cadential arrival and such. We were instructed to take the same approach in our solos, to introduce ideas, thoughts, phrases, riffs, motifs and what have you, only not to finish them. 

It turned out well I think. It was an exercise in derailing habit, among other things, with all the challenges that come with that. It took some work, more than a few run-throughs, but I think we eventually rose to the occasion. And it was in fact that, an occasion, Drennette not being much given to composition nor inclined to as much talk as the poem drew out of her. It’s a testament to the power of the poem that it did, especially that a work so dark had her talking about utopic horizons, alter-destiny, elseness and such (though maybe it’s only natural, in some respect, that it did, a dialectic of release or relief). Never had we heard her go on so. I think that led us to put a little more into it, even at the risk of trying too hard, which I think we were guilty of the first few times thru. Her being so worked up got us worked up. But it all did eventually come together.

You can and will listen for yourself of course, but I’m particularly taken with the arpeggiated G-flat pedal the piece’s head, insofar as it can be said to have one, plays around with. I hesitate at “head,” thinking “throat song” might better apply, given the deep devotional stutter bordering on deep devotional hiccup the opening ensemble statement hits one with. Drennette instructed us to each pick a passage from the poem other than those we recited during her drum solo and to let it influence and, so to speak, preside over our solo, at the very least be kept in mind as we soloed. We were not to recite it outright or, worse, try to act it out on the axe, charadelike, but simply let it be there, not bearing down too hard, not conflicting with the dictates of incompletion. Here are the passages that Djamilaa, Aunt Nancy, Lambert, and Penguin chose: (a) “Her entrance, nine years back. Asked by police / if a car was involved.” (b) “Colonial attitude of the mind / toward its residence.” (c) “New York rinsed by rain.” (d) “On the laundromat floor / the towel that Pilate used. Golgotha. Sinai. Tabor.” Try, as you listen, to figure out who chose which. (I’m enclosing a copy of the poem.)

As for me, I chose “Not that, but not uninformed of that.” As you’ll hear, it inspired something of a grittiness in my trumpet, an off-the-cuff grace I don’t know would have been there otherwise. I was nothing if not turned on but also nothing if not turned around by it, a mix only quick extension held at bay. I’d have shinnied up the world’s tallest tree, had my arms and legs been strong enough, and shouted it from the top: “Not that, but not uninformed of that.”

                                                                                                As ever,

Dissertation songs

Joseph Donahue, 2014 (photo by Star Black).

Reading Joseph Donahue’s Before Creation in reverse order, the short biographical statement at the back of the book serves as a kind of accidental preface for the poet’s first collection. Not only does it tell of his birth in Texas, his adolescence in Massachusetts, and his current life in New York City, it also sets the tone for the text that is to come. With its references to Donahue’s many hometowns, the short, no-frills note keys us into the poet’s love of populated landscapes, his fondness for luxuriating in the minutia of Cold War cul-de-sacs and Reagan-era rooftops. In providing the poet’s year of birth (1954), the bio resonates with Donahue’s characteristic desire to calibrate personal experiences with larger generational trends. The poems in the early collection forward a handful of autobiographical details but all serve to establish a representative speaker, an all but anonymous baby boomer, hurdling through the late-capital carousel of post-modernity. As much as the book can be said to be about anything, it takes its subject from those ideas expressed in the bio. And it is with this in mind that I want to pause for a moment to consider one specific tidbit from the ersatz introduction.

In giving us a glimpse into the primordial chowder out of which the poet emerged, the bio announces Donahue was “educated at Dartmouth and Columbia.” Surely this could be read as a thoughtless credentialing gesture, meant to establish the poet’s intellectual mettle. But it seems important that the list of alma maters features the ambiguous verb “educated,” which does not necessarily mean graduated. In 1988, when Central Park Editions went to press with the volume, Donahue was still pursuing said education as a graduate student, overburdened with secondary sources and slogging through a dissertation while cobbling together piecemeal academic work. The bio then poses Donahue’s poetry in tandem with his scholarly labors. It tacitly portrays the dissertation as an opportunity for the poet to find his voice in the verse of another, to hone a poetics out of persistent study.

Looking back over the beautiful tributes collected here, we see Donahue’s poetry compared to the work of writers such as Emily Dickinson, James Joyce, Hart Crane, Alice Notley, Ed Roberson, Nathaniel Mackey, Wallace Stevens, Eileen Myles, the Black Mountain Poets, the New York School, and Henry Corbin. One cannot say enough about a talent that touches upon so many strands of literary tradition while retaining a deeply distinctive vision. Nevertheless, there is one name missing from the impressive list of influences and interlocutors. It is the poet Donahue sought to understand more intensely than any other, as the subject of his single-author dissertation, entitled “The Poem’s Force: Culture and Poetics in the work of John Berryman.” For those well acquainted with Donahue’s poetry, Berryman will seem an unlikely fit. Formally, Berryman’s work represents a conservative aesthetic, one based upon a notion of lapidary precision and metrical cohesion, whereas Donahue’s early work exhibits a looser style that brings together vatic digressions and unfettered circumlocution. Even in terms of content, Berryman’s long-suffering narcissism seems a direct contrast to Donahue’s wry dispersal of self. However, in mapping Berryman’s trajectory in the dissertation, Donahue finds more than a one-dimensional ego caught in the feedback loop of carnal confession. He finds a subject worthy of Pound’s claim that the study of literature is hero worship, which is to say he finds in Berryman the poetic pulse for his first collection.

In drawing attention to Berryman’s reverence for popular mythos, Donahue registers an interpretation that sets the stage for his own embrace of bygone icons. Referring to Berryman as “the poet who most cannily registers American anxieties in the postwar era,” Donahue sees in him a scribe sensitive to the drama of identity unfolding in consumer products (1). For evidence of Berryman’s casual mythologies, he quotes from Dream Song 273.

Saudi Arabia is mah favorite place.
‘conditioned Cadillacs, like bigoty Texas
of our own mindless oil.
Come closer, Sambo. I plant your face
ilex. Your face. You jus like a flex
where the bulb failed. Flail (292)

Expounding upon the passage, Donahue points to the Cadillac — unrivalled token of postwar American prosperity — which sets in motion a network of associations connecting the black gold of Texas and Saudi Arabia with the burnt cork of American racial fantasies.

Following Berryman’s example, Donahue makes his first book into a crowded collage, thick with midcentury material. In the tableau of found images, we see “Sputnik over the lake bed,” with “Goebbels himself [showing] signs of strain” (59, 62). Lenny Bruce is there, and so is the “swastika etched in the pupil” (18, 7). In one corner of the assemblage, “the Beethoven of bebop steps to the mike” and belts out “Swing low / Sweet Cadillac,” and in another an expatriate wistfully recalls her life in “Russia, circa 1961” (36, 38, 69). And everything in between burns with the vintage hue of “kodachrome bits [blown] through the world” (76). Inviting the readers to see “the echo of similitude across great distance,” the atomic bricolage highlights those cultural parallels that link the years that bookend the Berlin Wall (78). It also reveals Donahue’s fascination with brand names and billboards, a sentiment he makes evident in the poem “Here and There”:

Every product has
an inherent drama,
said Leo Burnett. The            
Marlboro Man. Hell,
Tony the Tiger. These
are masterpieces. (42)

In half-ironically referring to the advertisements as masterpieces, Donahue follows Berryman’s example and opens himself up to the human story hidden away in the detritus of consumerism.

According to Donahue, Berryman’s interest in mass culture leads him to structure The Dream Songs around the tropes of blackface-minstrelsy. On this he writes, “Berryman’s minstrel show historicizes the relation between media and the imagination of selfhood, presenting minstrelsy as the origin of mass media” (19). Foregrounding the racial subtext of the American dream in his own poetry, Donahue composes “Crania Americana,” a poem that meditates on the invisible role African slaves and African American laborers play in the construction of American ideology. In making the speaker of his poem “the first slave [to set] foot in the New World,” Donahue tells the story of empire from “beneath [the] unruly bundle” of structural inequality, where the “dreams are sad because they [are] true” (54, 53, 52). And like Berryman, who sees in blackface an unstable dialectic, Donahue imagines the slave in terms of a mythic complex, an epistemological double, as he announces, “the dead slave / and the living slave are one” (53).

However it is not until “Purple Ritual,” the centerpiece of Donahue’s first collection, that we see his most apparent application of Berryman’s poetics. In the dissertation, Donahue writes, “Berryman presents himself as a rhetorical figure in his own poetry, an interlocutor” (3). Here Donahue calls attention to the dialogical dimension of Berryman’s Dream Songs, specifically the poet’s construction of a literary alter ego, Huffy Henry. Through the mouthpiece that is Henry, Berryman is able to confess all sorts of vulgar impulses without collapsing the work into self-centered memoir. In providing the reader with “a voice that hears voices,” Berryman uses his rhetorical presence in the poem to assert his identity, while also expanding the boundaries of the self. Similarly, Donahue claims that his purpose for writing “Purple Ritual” is to erect a myth of surrogate selfhood, stating, “My lack of legend the drama’s first cause” (23).

In gathering the lore of corporate selfhood, the poem brings together three different perspectives: the biography of John F. Kennedy, the childhood memories of the poet himself, and the ancient exploits of Orestes. In the beginning of “Purple Ritual,” Donahue treats the three contexts as different realities, consigning each to its own series of sections. By the end, Kennedy becomes an extended member of the poet’s family, Orestes substitutes both for the President and the speaker of the poem, and the perspectival triad comes to stand as a cipher for the casual brutality of ecstatic nationalism. In searching for some significant event to orient his narration of the past, the poet lights upon his numerous personal connections to the assassinated President. He admits, “I was in Dallas when Kennedy was shot” and goes on to frame the statement as a confession: “I tend to confess when talking about my past,” a disclosure meant to muster the “fantasy of […] self-consciousness” (23). While the poet draws attention to the historical convergences between his life and Kennedy’s, it is not Kennedy but Orestes that reigns as the poet’s generative double.

Where Berryman dons the mask of Huffy Henry, Donahue finds a revelatory guise in the myth of Orestes. And like Henry, Orestes, in Donahue’s vision, leads a life of limited inner resources. “He [reads] idealist history. He [thinks] about hanging himself” (22). Departing from the myth of the matricidal madman, Donahue creates a version of Orestes consistent with the poet’s own daily grind, which allows for meta-textual commentary about his current project: “Orestes weighed his absence of childhood legend against his tabloid fascination: national families.” And like Donahue, Orestes associates memory with a kind of writing that surfaces between the cracks of other intellectual engagements, as he states, “the subtle raptures of purposeful work brought him an image of his early past, the gift of a world in a book, of a world as a book” (28).

In compiling Before Creation, Donahue does not limit his interest in Berryman to issues of content and form; he also engages the latter at the level of poetic theory. One of the central claims in Donahue’s dissertation is that Berryman’s poetics center around the belief that “a poem’s force may be pivoted upon a missing or misrepresented element in an agreed-on or imposed design.” Here the pivot has less to do with the form of the poem, as it relates to the “turning or rebounding” of the Petrarchan sonnet and more to do with the action of poetic thought. The pivot for Berryman, according to Donahue, resembles the “turning of the soul in conversion narratives.” Like any good spiritual autobiography, the Dream Songs understand one act of confession begets another, as each admission intends to capture some absented truth. In order to build a sense of mystery and rouse interest, the poet keeps some secret from the reader. For Donahue, then, the defining characteristic of Berryman’s poetry is that it “derives its force, ultimately, from that notion that information can be crucially withheld from the reader” (12).

Instances of critical concealment abound in Donahue’s first collection, though nowhere as apparent as in “Purple Ritual.” In terms of form, Donahue uses the strategies of selective obscurity to blur the line separating his personal experiences from those communal narratives of the nation-state. The connection that Donahue draws between his family and the Kennedys is not simply a result of what the poet tells us — that his uncle, “a veteran of the JFK senate campaigns, joined the White House as a liaison to Congress” (26). Rather, the connection depends as much upon what he does not tell us: all those intimate details about his family that do not relate to the myth of the Kennedys. Even when the poet recalls personal memories that separate his family from every other family including the Kennedys, he handles the material in ways that call his family’s distinctiveness into question.

A case in point occurs at the level of content. In a section entitled “First Communion,” Donahue delivers an account of his initiation into the Catholic church. In the passage, a botched photograph of the proceedings leaves his mother “terribly upset.” The evidence of her son’s participation in the religious rite has been compromised, leaving her with nothing to show the relatives back east, nothing to fix the image of her idiosyncratic family. Identifying himself with the “gray blur” at the middle of sacramental snapshot, Donahue becomes the physical embodiment of Berryman’s withholding principle, an “absence” through which his mother’s “disappointment illumines the dark” (28).

Berryman’s withholding principle also appears in the subject matter of “Purple Ritual.” Titled after Ed Paschke’s painting of Lee Harvey Oswald, the poem broods over the poetic possibility of Oswald’s brutal act. In the closing section, entitled “Oswald at the Window,” Donahue theorizes the scenario in detail:

Oswald breaks the President’s literal power and announces the tyranny of the figurative. The perversity of this logic does not diminish the assertion that Oswald’s was the central act of the imagination. The assassin creating the void in which the images shine. The negation preceding the first flash of light. Oswald at the window. Inarticulate and errant. (31)

Here Oswald ascends, or rather descends, to the status of anti-sovereign and becomes the inarticulate author of an imaginary order called forth by physical negation. In assassinating the president, Oswald punctures the seamless shroud of American hegemony, making the absent presence of JFK’s body an aperture through which the light of the postwar world streams into the poet’s thinking.

Of all these parallels, this last one carries the most significance for Donahue’s corpus at large, since it falls directly within the poet’s Gnostic wheelhouse. In offering up a quintessentially Donahovian definition of the Gnostic problem, the poet opens his essay “Salvation under the Sign of Reagan: Poetry, Gnosis, and New York” with an infectious piece of mass culture, taken from the chorus of the Talking Heads’ 1980 classic “Once in a Lifetime.” For Donahue, the question posed by David Byrne — “Well, how did I get here?” — represents the essential Gnostic quandary. It points to the same uncertainty that led a group of second-century Christians to shun the material world and search out their spiritual bearings on a more transcendent plane. And couldn’t we say that Byrne’s question — “Well, how did I get here?” — plays by the rules of Berryman’s withholding principle? It situates the audience in an unfamiliar and broken world and instructs them to follow each ensuing lyric, as if what follows the question might hold an answer to set right the soul’s quest for a self.

Likewise, the Gnosticism Donahue associates with the Talking Heads, and their choral search for undivided daylight, finds its roots in the poet’s deep admiration for the opening line of Berryman’s The Dream Songs. For pages on end, Donahue interrogates the line, “Huffy Henry       hid the day,” emphasizing its typographical irregularity, its positioning of a rhetorical double, and its suggestion of a nuclear apocalypse. However, the poet, so consumed with the possibilities of a Gnostic postmodernism, fails to notice Berryman’s gesture to occult concealment. After all, the epic begins with an act of withholding. In hiding the day, Henry conceals the diurnal light of divine presence, making our search for such truths possible. Or perhaps Donahue does not miss this reference, but instead decides that such awareness can only be assessed outside the dissertation, in the songs the dissertation inspires. In this way, it becomes the insight that dispatches the poet to his privileged long form, where the task, after all, is the same one that led Berryman to take up the unappeasable epic in the first place, “the construction of a world” (23).