The art of the unanswerable question

Joseph Donahue, 2014 (photo by Star Black).

As near as I can see — and this is just in riffling through one of Joe Donahue’s books, not even attempting to dig far down but just gathering from what is scattered so availably on the various emerging surfaces — we have here, at one point or another, letter, memoir, history, philosophical dialogue, mantra, aria, imagist snapshot, news flash, plot line, art critique, joke, memorandum, oracle, marginalia, tourist guide, surveillance tape, weather report, playlist, glossary … and none of those in isolation, none that is not so spun together with the rest as to be inextricable without risking rips and warps.

Yet interwoven as the elements are, there is no turn that does not yield bare statement. “Ralph Albert Blakelock / paints black trees”: this is information of the most straightforward kind, a guide to the identification of work, yet also the creation of an eternal present in which Blakelock is never done painting, and yet again, maybe, a whisper of astonishment at what is going on — did you hear? — in an asylum, as we have just previously been informed, an asylum where the sun is present at night (“At night the sun is in an asylum”). All of this is only the continuation of a stream of painterly evocations, Frederick Church followed by Thomas Cole. Art history, except that nothing can remain history. A present in which all of history is contained, and in which all its elements leak into each other, continuously imposes itself: “For the first time, we feel / what it means to live on a planet. … the water in the lake / has turned to a white mist. … Mist is spilling from the hollows. … The sun is the light of revelation.” It is that sun of revelation that leads in the most natural fashion into the mad blackness of Blakelock’s trees, “black trees without leaves / on a starless night.” The poem (“Hudson River School” in Terra Lucida) does not end there — it trails off into silence or perhaps into a different sound range inaudible at this time. I call it a poem, but it is a section of a larger section of a book which is part of a longer ongoing threadlike work.

As the thread spirals, different points along its curve signal to each other in echo or contradiction or commentary. A unity is being made, but the elements out of which it is being made are apt to protest and argue. Delight and terror are engaged in intimate dialogue all along the way. Bits of catastrophic wreckage turn up in the oddest places, burnished like gems sometimes. Prophecy might be twisted rumor, delirium might be prayer. Corkscrewing movements, intimations of dread, pirouette gracefully into wide unencumbered spaces. “Lies” (falsehoods) give way to what “lies ready for / the end of / secrets” — not just that, but “the secret of / the end / of secrets” — all of this is part of an unfolding unanswerable question: “Until / whatever is, / is a lie?” The unanswerable question, that ancient form, is another of the genres that insists on making its presence known. “Ask: why is / this not all sky?”

A sort of vaulting archery shoots for the beyond, the vacant, the inexplicable dazzle — not on a rare bet but as ongoing practice, continuing exercises in the act of aiming — until the eye can scan the pages and see a string of stratospheric haiku, a seascape of luminous distances. Dissolves represents the most intensely compressed phase of this practice thus far. Yet it all takes place somewhere — there is a geography and city map and family tree and neighborhood watch and glittery public square whose details are lit up as they come into the poem. The most abstract reaches (and they aspire toward an abstraction that is realized over and over in the most finely calibrated music) are never cut loose from the dark and earthly heaviness that is the other pole: the world of stories and all the inherited encyclopedia of violence and sacrificial terror, which carries with it a thickly mixed-up argot of taunts and confessions and emergency reports bouncing around in a past that remains defiantly unburied. The way stations of a populous and talkative underworld are other points on the grid, perhaps even the same points but viewed through a different prism: “right now, / amid all the others / en route, at a late hour, / beneath the / starlight / of this way / station.” That is how Dissolves dissolves.

This poetry is not a description but an extension of life.

'Red Flash on a Black Field'

What there is in it

Joseph Donahue, 2014 (photo by Star Black).

There is an abiding sense of emergence: The red burst upon the field is one color that flashes out from among the many hues that constitute black. Or perhaps the red has shot down from the sky to spark across the dark expanse. In any case, the title poem of Joseph Donahue’s most recent collection, Red Flash on a Black Field, carries forward the theme of coming into being that has marked the poet’s work since his debut collection, Before Creation, whose title announced this preoccupation. In its demonstratively terse first line, “Trees flower,” Red Flash establishes the familiar nature trope of rebirth, one that is immediately brought into a grosser realm of materiality with the next: “The air has the reek / of semen in a steam bath.” Donahue complicates the image by calling up not only reproductive biology’s physical details, but his conjuring of sex (masturbatory? homosexual?) at the gym subverts reproduction itself. In these opening lines, we have the coupling of incarnation and mortality, of celebration and elegy, that forms the expressive chords between which the poet pivots in every book, in nearly every poem.

There is a disquieting insistence of the improbable: We are told that the “chemicals of / the dream remake the body of the dreamer,” that the monkey king “orders the other monkeys / to dive into the well, to save the moon.” While among Donahue’s influences we can count the visionary tradition of Donne, Duncan, and Herbert, as well as the Surrealist energies of Desnos, Peret, Lamantia, his own renderings of these extravagant impulses is one both plainspoken and measured. That monkey king, he “sees, deep in the well, the moon” and then sends his simian subjects into the dark pit. The scene we might imagine is clamorous with squeals and chaos, yet the poet refrains from high-octane adjectives, choosing instead to report this implausible (impossible) drama with the straightforward language and syntax of a newspaper account. The calmness, of course, accentuates the oneiric quality of the image. Donahue presents the dream as if commonplace, thereby solidifying the dream’s tactility. His grace note — delivered in the deadpan tone of a local TV reporter broadcasting live from the scene of the monkey sacrifice — confirms the improbability: “The tale does not end happily.”

There is the purposefully absurd: “On TV, it’s the Branch Davidian // “Reunion Special.” This observation is followed by the image of a child’s drawing (one of those that died in the Waco conflagration?) of a ladder that “rises to heaven.” Then: “Cut to: smoke across a dry field.” In these rapid-fire lines, Donahue sparks pathos, leavened by media critique (“Cut to” — such is the nature of contemporary screen-made consciousness, we are always about to “cut to”), and then envelops both in the absurd. His quick strokes allow us to conjure a possible voice-over: Welcome to a special hour in which we’ll meet and reminisce with some of America’s most famous martyrs. The latent spiritual dimension of pop culture’s incongruities (the authentically awful entwined with the awfully authentic) percolates to the surface of this poem to sow our happy viewing hours with discontent. Donahue is Christopher Smart in possession of a mega-channel cable package.

There is, much appreciated amidst the darker notes, some sex: “Arms around each other, kissing, / but they have no skin. There are waves of tendons, / and veins, and sparkling nerves.” Okay, maybe that isn’t quite the frisson we craved — a pair of skinless lovers, their exposed nerves wet and shimmering. But the image isn’t quite as macabre as it seems; Donahue is imagining a “man and woman, as they might be seen in / a middle school biology class wall chart.” So this encounter is mere simulacrum — a depiction of a depiction. No actual humans were harmed in the production of this coupling. The passage segues into a description of a phone sex worker who slips “his hand on and off / the receiver, so that / the illusion of passion is maintained.” The illusion. Of passion. This is better than no illusion at all. And maybe, given Donahue’s neutral, if not forgiving, tone, the illusion’s better than actual passion. 

There is adventure: “I cross a volcanic crater // in a rainstorm, warm steam rising / from openings in the earth. Cross a strafe of gray through black, / crystalline flecks of ruby in the / whiteness of a beach pebble / from when the world was molten.” The poem handily balances hallucination, introspection, and a sense of the epic. Donahue smoothly moves from one tonality to another, all of his voices unified by the shortness of his lines, their telegraphic directness. We detect the changes in scene and vocal register only after they’ve occurred. These lines — and those that immediately follow — lean into a brooding, biblical stateliness. “I now know the / origin of the earth,” the poet pronounces upon completing the perilous journey across the crater. Yet there comes a deft, barely perceptible turn to a colloquial precocity — the smart aleck in the back row needling the teacher: “but / could you explain to me // the continuity of the / generations?” Adventure is found among geologies, genealogies, and in how Donahue do these different voices.

There is the past that isn’t even past: “The VC pull the smoking bones / of the pilot from the treetop wreckage // and sell them back. / That bravura in the bamboo / could be the sun.” The poem moves through time with the light step of a vaudevillian’s soft shoe. Bombs fall over Baghdad. Cleopatra’s lovelorn slave. A destroyer in the Pacific. Fascists in the ’30s. Elton John sings at Diana’s funeral and Nietzsche rebukes the reader. And, of course, for a poet who was draft age in 1972, Vietnam. Disaster, eros, and longing play out on a global stage on which time is a mere conceit. Simultaneity rules Donahue’s clock as if the essence of events were some kind of eternally lingering vapor (“smoking bones”) that mixes with whatever follows yet is never dispelled, never without its imprint on our senses. Our apprehension of the past binds us together, Donahue posits; it’s what Crane would an call “infinite consanguinity”: The pilot’s remains mutate into bravura, the bravura into the sun, and the sun becomes, “the mind turning to / phosphorous / which means you are // receiving thoughts from afar, from someone inseparable from you.” Our deaths are ours alone, our bones destined for sale, but there is commonality in the ongoing experience of history, in its totality, which may be found in any pebble.

There is nature, but it’s not quite natural: “On a mesa with / magnetic properties / long held to be healing, / a blue butterfly pops up, dazzling wings, huge, the size of a hand.” The subtly varied alliteration (mesa, magnetic; held, healing; blue, butterfly; huge, hand) draws us effortlessly through what seems to be a conventional image from the pages of National Geographic. On closer inspection the scene takes on a stranger cast. The mesa is a mythic locale, one capable of vibratory emanations; the butterfly appears in the desert abruptly, a burst of deep-sky color against earthen reds and browns, and its extraordinary size an emblem of the landscape’s supernatural resonance. A kind of magic realism infuses an image that is both filmic (the poet’s eye is panoramic) and palpably eerie. The butterfly — unnaturally large, luminescent — is a harbinger of timeless, otherworldly forces. Toward what Bethlehem, toward what birth, does this dazzler slouch?

And there is a sense of loss: “The stones sing / high above the tree line / where, as legend says, // the moon tore loose / and left its light behind.” Satellite and its radiance — not one, but two things. The moon departs, leaving behind its most salient feature. Is light then its essence? It is for those who look up at the night sky. But the lifeless rock, of course, only reflects rather than produces its glow. So what has been separated — the thing from our perception of the thing? The loss the poet articulates is that space between moon and its beam, which we may also read as the gap between the object of desire and desire itself. Earlier in the poem Donahue describes an “Edwardian nymph, eyes closed, head tilted dreamily back. / A man behind her buries his head in her hair.” There is another woman and another man and Donahue notes this is a “dance of stone called / “The Solitude of the Soul.” We can learn that these four figures separately arrayed yet “tenderly touching” around a block of rough-hewn marble are, in fact, the subject of a sculpture by Lorado Taft that bears that title. The piece on display at the Art Institute of Chicago presents these people as barely emerging from the block that still holds them fast. They have not “torn loose” from the rock; their effort to find the solace of connection is thwarted and they are shown caught between desire and the desired. They are alone, but emerging into. Perhaps they are even about to arrive in our world of flesh, where the semen reeks and bones smoke. Where birth and death are bright flashes on the human field.

How to answer questions

Joseph Donahue, 2014 (photo by Star Black).

I read Joe Donahue’s work because it’s purposeful and clear: an applied and reapplicable poetics. I use his poems.

Donahue lays down a lot of references, ranging widely across time and subject area and in close proximity to each other. This produces synthesis, sometimes to a rhetorically breathtaking degree. In the space of a page, Hermes invents the sonogram, Nicodemus waits for Jesus, acid-tripping garage-rockers find purity, and the sun sets behind the pillars of Hercules and rises on Peruvian mountains. It’s more than a mere postmodern mashup; it’s constructive:

In China in 5000 BC, tone holes in bird bones.
In Sumaria in 3000 BC, the stars in the sky

are scattered out in a musical phrase.
In Babylon, the great dragon is shown

to represent scales of 4ths and 5ths.
When Marduk slays the dragon

he establishes the octave,
that gift from the living stars.

Donahue triangulates universality in these passages. I can use this after I close one of his books and get up to do something else. I can hear someone call out to someone else and I’m thinking about the dragon-octave. I can look at the oil stains in a parking lot and I’m thinking about the stars read as a musical phrase. I’m extending Donahue’s synthesis into my own experience.

Many poets’ work can be described as being charged with purpose, but that’s really just a way of writing. Certain syntactic and rhetorical moves give that sense. There are car ads charged with purpose, too. Thank Cicero for them, poems and car ads both. But Donahue’s purpose is more than Ciceroishness, more than a vague feeling of subterranean or nonverbal forces at work. He’s trying to understand experience and history as simultaneous mysteries. I can use his model.

Donahue’s poetic work doesn’t all fit under the title of his multi-book opus Terra Lucida, but it could. I take the title as a mission statement. Literally translated as “earth light,” you can go in a few different directions with it. In addition to being the ground that gravity holds you against, “terra” can become ground as in foreground and background. “Lucida” can become clear like how glass or air is clear, or lucid as in a clearly presented argument.

I can take a question to Donahue’s work and come away with an answer. Reading his poems functions like a divination. It’s not deterministic. But it builds an armature that I can skin with argument, observation, decision, what-have-you.

A diviner ritualistically uses a set of objects to provide an answer to a question. The diviner tosses objects in a basket, interpreting where they land in relationship to each other. Each diviner’s set of objects is unique, though certain objects are common across sets. Tiny figures of people and animals usually represent family, ancestors, tribal members, property. Throughout the African continent, a lump of red clay might represent a grudge and a lump of white clay might represent innocence. Posed figures represent certain conditions or emotions while remaining open to differences depending upon how they relate to other objects in the divination. Seeds, stones, shells, and other locally sourced objects also comprise a diviner’s set. There are around twenty to thirty objects in a typical set.

Questions with gradation, requiring interpretation, are brought to a diviner. The historical references in Donahue’s poems are a diviner’s collection of objects. His syntax and rhetoric places these references in proximity in the diviner’s basket. Donahue’s proximities, as well as my reading, have interpretive value.

Poetry could be useful like this. It should be.

An imaginal homage to Joseph Donahue

Joseph Donahue, 2014 (photo by Star Black).

Antique light shines simultaneously its primodiality and eschaton. The cosmos isn’t so much created as it is revealed. Which is to say, hidden in the prospects of historical time, unspooling and magnifying toward its expanded telos: a horizon, swallowing the great arc of the visible into a dark light, mirror of its apparent twin. What is it we see in this time, in this place, on this lucid earth? “Our thoughts are / like these arabesques,” writes Joseph Donahue in Terra Lucida, his ongoing epic serial poem, “the negative space reveals / a superabundance of life.”[1]

I. Mundus imaginalis

In June 1964, in the Colloquium on Symbolism in Paris, Henry Corbin, the historian of Islamic mysticism, delivered a paper translated into English as “Mundus Imaginalis, or the Imaginary and the Imaginal,” in which he coined the notion of the “imaginal,” a term of enduring value for thinking about the intermediating (mesocosmic) properties of the imagination. In this paper, Corbin draws down from the ‘alam al-mithal, a visionary realm encountered in the journeys of Islamic mystics, a sense of the imaginative consciousness capable of perceiving this realm. He writes,

Between [the empirical world and the world of abstract intellect] is placed an intermediary world, which our authors designate as ‘alam al-mithal, the world of the Image, mundus imaginalis: a world as ontologically real as the world of the senses and the world of the intellect, a world that requires a faculty of perception belonging to it, a faculty that is a cognitive function, a noetic value, as fully real as the faculties of sensory perception or intellectual intuition. This faculty is the imaginative power, the one we must avoid confusing with the imagination that modern man identifies with “fantasy” and that, according to him, produces only the “imaginary.”[2]

This is the same faculty that Corbin elsewhere identifies as the Creative or Active Imagination. It’s a faculty absorbed by and manifested in ta’wil, which is a textual exegesis of the Quran that focuses on hidden, esoteric meanings of its prophecy. Ta’wil emerges from an exegetical trance of the Active Imagination. In Dissolves, Donahue writes:

The temple
preexists all that

is and should shine
behind our closed eyes.

If it does not now
appear this is

due, the

observes, to
three catastrophes: first,

the destruction of its replica,
long ago, in Jerusalem;

second, the birth of
false learning

that pulled the glory
of the temple from the heavens,

scattering the twelve
stones where Jacob

rested his head,
dreaming of the ladder;

and third, our own
evil reasoning,

that finds us

to Pharaoh
that time

and place
determine us … (29–30)

In Avicenna and the Visionary Recital, Corbin conceptualizes what kind of being might be capable of seeing something like the pre-existent temple Donahue’s poetry speculates the existence of. Corbin summons the Creative Imagination epiphanically:

The figure of the Active Intelligence reveals its proximity, its solicitude. The Angel individuates himself under the features of a definite person, whose annunciation corresponds to the degree of experience of the soul to which he announces himself: it is through the integration of all its powers that the soul opens itself to the transconscious and anticipates its own totality.[3]

The Active Intelligence sees in the angelic realm, anticipating the soul’s totality, only visible from the angle of eternity. The imaginal recital in Donahue’s epic is an anticipation of the soul’s eventual totality, viewed from the present we drowse in, rousing slowly to a wakefulness engulfed in oneiric lulls. “In a cave,” Donahue intones,

our way

we sleep
for centuries,

step out, astonished.
We close our eyes

accepting x,
open them

espousing y.
We sleep

as Hindus,
wake up Jews,

drift off

rouse as Muslim. (41)

Who watches over us as we sleep? The poet, who observes the visionary recital and, in an act of spiritual exegesis, locates and returns to the soul its secret source of energy.

(The world is asleep
but I am awake.) (73)

II. Hypnopompic narrative, epic trance

The Phantom Dawn is twilight’s opposite but also its twin. Sentinels both for transition. From transconscious anticipations to new awareness. Donahue composes his poetry immediately after waking. He sits in bed, a notepad in hand, inscribing couplets for Terra Lucida. The hour after waking is the hour of transpeciated, poetic light, when the light’s primordiality is textured with some aspect of its totality. Themes of dreaming and waking run throughout Donahue’s poem, whose character I would describe as an epic trance of hypnopompic mythos. I mean mythos in the sense that Aristotle uses the word in his Poetics to stand for plot or narrative. Epic is poetry that contains mythos, plot. Or, as Duncan asserts in one of the headpieces for “The Truth and Life of Myth,” quoting Jane Ellen Harrison in turn quoting Aristotle, “by myth I mean the arrangement of the incidents.”[4] For Duncan, myth inspires the dromenon, which is the ritual pageantry that arises from the mythic plot — its visionary recital.

Trance is another mysterious word, one with ominous origins that have been absorbed into the word’s seemingly neutral behavioral sheen. In the Romance languages — French, Spanish, and Portuguese, specifically — transe referred to the hour of death, to a great apprehension of approaching evil. In Italian, transito refers to passage or death, coming from the Latin transitus, referring to a passage, a movement, ultimately, from the realm of the living to the realm of the dead. By way of transformation and metaphorical application, trance can presently refer to an ecstasy, a state in which the soul appears to have passed out of the body into another state of being, which is to say, a state of rapture or vision, in which the body is insensible to the things of this world. The soul anticipates its eventual totality in death, whose sexual petals emit an alluring, hypnotic perfume.

Falling asleep involves hypnagogy, which is to say thoughts, hormones, habits that power down the mind and body and lead us helpfully down into the deep trenches of sleep. Hypnagogic thoughts are the ones you have that, when relaxing your mental cycles, lull you and coax you to step even further down into the valley. Great draughts of restorative unconsciousness follow.

Waking is another matter. Just as we’re led down into sleep, we need to be guided from sleep back into wakefulness. Hypnopompic thoughts in our dreams and in our freshly woken minds accomplish this for us. These thoughts accompany the process of awakening. They are unusually limber and adhesive — and this is prior to any kind of stimulation from light or caffeine, for instance. Hypnopompic thoughts have a liveliness and magic that ordinary thoughts obviously lack. And because they accompany us into wakefulness, they have a potential for ongoing vitality in our waking hours. What might a waking, hypnopompic trance look like?

The mi’raj refers to Muhammad’s ascension to heaven following his miraculous Night Journey from Mecca to Jerusalem in 619 CE, during which the structure of the heavenly spheres was revealed to him and in which he spoke to Moses, who provided him with the instructions for daily prayer. The mi’raj is an article of faith for Muslims. Annemarie Schimmel points out that the mi’raj is an object of focus for Islamic mystical practices, connected on one level to daily prayer, “which was experienced by Muhammad as a repetition of the joy of ascension,” and on another to transformative, transconscious anticipations: “The mystics applied the ascension terminology to their own experiences in the rapture of ecstasy.” During his ascension, the angel Gabriel guided Muhammad through the heavenly spheres, leading him before angelic and supernatural beings, to Bayt al-Mamur, the celestial mosque directly above the Ka’aba, and eventually toward the ultimate lotus tree, as-sidrat al-muntaha, but which Gabriel was forbidden to approach. “If I would go one step further,” he told Muhammad, “my wings would get burned.” Mystics regard his profession as the “archangelic sigh.”[5] Retelling the story of Muhammad’s journey with Gabriel in his essay “Muhammad,” Eliot Weinberger recounts:

They came to a river of light, where Jibril said he bathed every day, and each drop that fell created an angel who speaks a language unintelligible to the rest. Beyond the river were five hundred curtains of light, and between each curtain a journey of five hundred years, and beyond the last curtain was God. Jibril said that he himself could not go a finger’s length further on, but that Muhammad must cross the river and travel on.[6]

What might a waking, hypnopompic trance consist of? The ecstasy of the archangelic sigh. Crossing the river of light into contact with the divine. An epic, theopathic parlance that articulates the soul’s secret source of energy. “Creation is Epiphany,” states Corbin in Alone with the Alone, which he clarifies as “a passage from the state of occultation or potency to the luminous, manifest, revealed state; as such, it is an act of the divine, primordial Imagination.”[7] Language enacts the trance, an ecstatic premonition of death ascended into through the imaginal zone illuminated in the expanded moments between sleeping and waking.


if into, as
if through,

into, through, as if
into and through, as if

our way

into, through,
the seven sleepers

of Ephesus,
into, through

a miracle,
in a folktale,

in the Koran,
into and through

“The Virgin Mary’s Smoke,”
as if into and through


when you spoke,
when you hesitated, as if

your way

into Turkish,
through English,

into as if, as if
through, through as if,

we as if astonished,
dreaming our way

out of dream,
into your words (46)

III. Angelophanic light

Seeing is retrieving. In the Abrahamic imagination, angels are emissaries of light in whose appearance we might glimpse something of the higher reality. Describing his Duino Elegies to his Polish translator, Rilke famously characterized the angels that populate his poems as having “nothing to do with the angel of the Christian heaven (rather with the angel figures in Islam) … The angel of the Elegies is that creature in whom the transformation of the visible into the invisible, which we are accomplishing, appears already consummated. For the angel of the Elegies, all past towers and palaces are existent, because long invisible, and the still-standing towers and bridges of our existence already invisible, although (for us) still persisting physically. The angel of the Elegies is that being who vouches for the recognition of the invisible of a higher order of reality.”[8]  In the same letter, Rilke insisted to his translator, “We are the bees of the invisible,” enacting the transformation of light into gold, of the unseen into the seen. In the epilogue to the 1972 edition of Caesar’s Gate, Robert Duncan sees Rilke’s claim as an “apprehension of a higher reality,” adding,

The work of the Elegies has to do then with this alchemy in which the elements of our world are transmuted into the honey-gold of an other. The hive of this order may be the skull, and its combs the tissues of the brain, for thought is one of the Invisibles into which the things of our world pass and are stored away like honey. Appearing in thought, the “Angel” of the Elegies appears in the Invisible.[9

The dynamic, intermediary zone between the visible and the invisible is a place of intense focus for the imagination of the visionary poet. Light is quarried and collected from this realm, changed to pure energy in paradise; turned into metaphorical gold in the lower world we inhabit. In the intermediary, visionary realm, every thought is a person, every person is accompanied by an angel. Thinking is angelomorphosis. Enlightenment is angelophany.

Writes Corbin, “The burgeoning and growth of the soul of the angelical or demoniacal virtuality is the measure of its ascent (mi’raj), or of its fall into the abyss. In the first case, as our author says: ‘Its thought becomes an Angel issuing from the original world; its word becomes a spirit issuing from that Angel; its action becomes a body issuing from this spirit.’”[10]

In Terra Lucida, Donahue dissolves the light in Logos:

If theologians have
discerned both increate

and created light, which is
it shining when we step out of

these glowing zones, when we pass
through veils of soft strokes?

In church, for forty hours,
men of the parish keep watch.

One or two, kneeling, hand folded,
and on the altar, the ciborium,

the gold sunburst, the white
center where the Host is held,

the eye of God watching
our world, so white amid

spikes of gold, the eye of the
miraculous, the transfiguring

glance, so distant, and yet
energy pours through it,

the monstrance, eye of
Jesus, not the Jesus

who died, but the Jesus
floating in flame beside

Moses, beside Elijah,
             light beyond light

within the gold
but not the gold,

a light no prism
can ply apart,

light before the light
that brought the world

to be, the very light that
dissolved the cell of Simeon

the New Theologian,
the air bright as snow,

he felt his body quit the
things of this world

Sweetness filled him.
His insides turned to fire. (130-1)

Vision is vouchsafed in embodiment, even as the body immolates metaphorically, actually. Saint Symeon the New Theologian, one of the greatest of the Orthodox Christian saints, lived from 949 to 1022, and was for a time as a young man a Byzantine courtier, studying nevertheless with the renowned Saint Symeon the Studite (after whom the New Theologian took his religious name). Still fully ensconced in a secular career, young Symeon was struck by a vision of the divine and uncreated light, and, after some confusion in the fallout of this vision, he eventually entered the monastic life, where he advocated a light mysticism among his adepts, as well as a deference to the “energies of the Holy Spirit.” While in exile from Constantinople toward the end of his life — owing to jealousies in the Byzantine court — in the Asiatic town of Paloukiton, Symeon composed almost sixty hymns to the Divine Eros, a series of poems unmatched in Byzantine literature: ecstatic, scripturally rich, incantatory, laudatory.[11] In the midst of the first of these hymns, he writes:

                            The Lord of the Sun

 needs nothing else but rather gluts the being

 of all good creatures with blessings,

 with a sign, with will. He owns the force of light.

 Whose glossy throes still my tongue; what I understand

 I let lapse into silence knowledge irrupts with:

 my mind contemplates, my mind wants to say it but finds no words:

my mind sees invisible unornamented formless shape,

simplex, without composition, boundless in grandeur.

This form without shape sees no beginning and looks to no end

and doesn’t know a middle: how will it say what it sees?

In short — the whole thing; not its essence

but the communion of its gathered lordly energy.

Start a fire with a fire; it’s the whole blaze you take,

and nevertheless the fire remains — undivided — not having lost a thing

even though the transmitted fire was taken from the archaic flame

and then set to so many tapers. For it is an earthly fire

lathered in its hearth’s outlandish ore.

But God’s is a spiritual fire, indivisible, stellar and hellish,

impossible to portion or corner.

Not a shared fire that produces other lesser fires in frivolous delight

but rather an unassailable fire cored

in God’s pneumatic umber, time’s inertial shadow

he burns around, like original sin’s waxy encasement:

an unquartered fire that nevertheless starts in me, a star’s quantum roar.

It rises up in me, in my poor

heart, dawning like the sun, like the Eucharist’s

massive solar monstrance —

it is a sphere, a lumen, yes, a flame.[12]


In the angelophanic afterglow, the insides turn into fire; poetic language is its ash, its trace. For Donahue, evil clings to the world as a residue too resilient to remove but not altogether impervious to a light that poetry intermediates like a gauze near a flame. A poetry of epic trance in an imaginal world. Spectacular. Speculated. In a luminous speculum.

light and dark,

says the scholar of
the Manichees,

as the greatest

the universe
can offer
. (125) 



1. Joseph Donahue, Dissolves (Greenfield, MA: Talisman House, 2012), 31.

2. Henry Corbin, “Mundus Imaginalis, or the Imaginary and the Imaginal,” in Swedenborg and Esoteric Islam, trans. Leonard Fox (West Chester, PA: Swedenborg Studies, 1995), 9.

3. Henry Corbin, Avicenna and the Visionary Recital, trans. Willard R. Trask (Bollingen, 1960), 8.

4. Robert Duncan, Fictive Certainties (New York: New Directions, 1985), 1.

5. Annemarie Schimmel, Mystical Dimensions of Islam (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1975), 218–19.

6. Eliot Weinberger, An Elemental Thing (New York: New Directions, 2007), 170.

7. Henry Corbin, Alone with the Alone: Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn ‘Arabi, trans. Ralph Mannheim (Bollingen, 1997), 187.

8. Rainer Maria Rilke to Witold von Hulewicz, 13 November 1925, in Selected Letters of Rainer Maria Rilke, ed. Harry T. Moore (New York: Anchor Books, 1960), 390–91.

9. Robert Duncan, Caesar’s Gate: Poems 1949–50 (Berkeley: Sand Dollar, 1972), 65.

10. Henry Corbin, Cyclical Time and Ismaili Gnosis, trans. Ralph Mannheim (London: Keegan Paul International, 1973), 53.

11. For biographical and thematic details about Saint Symeon, see The Philokalia, vol. 4, trans. and ed. G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Kallistos Ware (London: Faber and Faber, 1995), 11–15.

12. My translation.

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.