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
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.
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:
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?
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.