'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.