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.