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.
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.”
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.”
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:
preexists all that
is and should shine
behind our closed eyes.
If it does not now
appear this is
three catastrophes: first,
the destruction of its replica,
long ago, in Jerusalem;
second, the birth of
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
that finds us
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.
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,
step out, astonished.
We close our eyes
wake up Jews,
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.” 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.” 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.
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.” 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
into, through, as if
into and through, as if
the seven sleepers
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
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.” 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.
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.’”
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. 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.
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
as the greatest
can offer. (125)
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?
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.