Dissertation songs

Joseph Donahue, 2014 (photo by Star Black).

Reading Joseph Donahue’s Before Creation in reverse order, the short biographical statement at the back of the book serves as a kind of accidental preface for the poet’s first collection. Not only does it tell of his birth in Texas, his adolescence in Massachusetts, and his current life in New York City, it also sets the tone for the text that is to come. With its references to Donahue’s many hometowns, the short, no-frills note keys us into the poet’s love of populated landscapes, his fondness for luxuriating in the minutia of Cold War cul-de-sacs and Reagan-era rooftops. In providing the poet’s year of birth (1954), the bio resonates with Donahue’s characteristic desire to calibrate personal experiences with larger generational trends. The poems in the early collection forward a handful of autobiographical details but all serve to establish a representative speaker, an all but anonymous baby boomer, hurdling through the late-capital carousel of post-modernity. As much as the book can be said to be about anything, it takes its subject from those ideas expressed in the bio. And it is with this in mind that I want to pause for a moment to consider one specific tidbit from the ersatz introduction.

In giving us a glimpse into the primordial chowder out of which the poet emerged, the bio announces Donahue was “educated at Dartmouth and Columbia.” Surely this could be read as a thoughtless credentialing gesture, meant to establish the poet’s intellectual mettle. But it seems important that the list of alma maters features the ambiguous verb “educated,” which does not necessarily mean graduated. In 1988, when Central Park Editions went to press with the volume, Donahue was still pursuing said education as a graduate student, overburdened with secondary sources and slogging through a dissertation while cobbling together piecemeal academic work. The bio then poses Donahue’s poetry in tandem with his scholarly labors. It tacitly portrays the dissertation as an opportunity for the poet to find his voice in the verse of another, to hone a poetics out of persistent study.

Looking back over the beautiful tributes collected here, we see Donahue’s poetry compared to the work of writers such as Emily Dickinson, James Joyce, Hart Crane, Alice Notley, Ed Roberson, Nathaniel Mackey, Wallace Stevens, Eileen Myles, the Black Mountain Poets, the New York School, and Henry Corbin. One cannot say enough about a talent that touches upon so many strands of literary tradition while retaining a deeply distinctive vision. Nevertheless, there is one name missing from the impressive list of influences and interlocutors. It is the poet Donahue sought to understand more intensely than any other, as the subject of his single-author dissertation, entitled “The Poem’s Force: Culture and Poetics in the work of John Berryman.” For those well acquainted with Donahue’s poetry, Berryman will seem an unlikely fit. Formally, Berryman’s work represents a conservative aesthetic, one based upon a notion of lapidary precision and metrical cohesion, whereas Donahue’s early work exhibits a looser style that brings together vatic digressions and unfettered circumlocution. Even in terms of content, Berryman’s long-suffering narcissism seems a direct contrast to Donahue’s wry dispersal of self. However, in mapping Berryman’s trajectory in the dissertation, Donahue finds more than a one-dimensional egocaught in the feedback loop of carnal confession. He finds a subject worthy of Pound’s claim that the study of literature is hero worship, which is to say he finds in Berryman the poetic pulse for his first collection.

In drawing attention to Berryman’s reverence for popular mythos, Donahue registers an interpretation that sets the stage for his own embrace of bygone icons. Referring to Berryman as “the poet who most cannily registers American anxieties in the postwar era,” Donahue sees in him a scribe sensitive to the drama of identity unfolding in consumer products (1). For evidence of Berryman’s casual mythologies, he quotes from Dream Song 273.

Saudi Arabia is mah favorite place.
‘conditioned Cadillacs, like bigoty Texas
of our own mindless oil.
Come closer, Sambo. I plant your face
ilex. Your face. You jus like a flex
where the bulb failed. Flail (292)

Expounding upon the passage, Donahue points to the Cadillac — unrivalled token of postwar American prosperity — which sets in motion a network of associations connecting the black gold of Texas and Saudi Arabia with the burnt cork of American racial fantasies.

Following Berryman’s example, Donahue makes his first book into a crowded collage, thick with midcentury material. In the tableau of found images, we see “Sputnik over the lake bed,” with “Goebbels himself [showing] signs of strain” (59, 62). Lenny Bruce is there, and so is the “swastika etched in the pupil” (18, 7). In one corner of the assemblage, “the Beethoven of bebop steps to the mike” and belts out “Swing low / Sweet Cadillac,” and in another an expatriate wistfully recalls her life in “Russia, circa 1961” (36, 38, 69). And everything in between burns with the vintage hue of “kodachrome bits [blown] through the world” (76). Inviting the readers to see “the echo of similitude across great distance,” the atomic bricolage highlights those cultural parallels that link the years that bookend the Berlin Wall (78). It also reveals Donahue’s fascination with brand names and billboards, a sentiment he makes evident in the poem “Here and There”:

Every product has
an inherent drama,
said Leo Burnett. The            
Marlboro Man. Hell,
Tony the Tiger. These
are masterpieces. (42)

In half-ironically referring to the advertisements as masterpieces, Donahue follows Berryman’s example and opens himself up to the human story hidden away in the detritus of consumerism.

According to Donahue, Berryman’s interest in mass culture leads him to structure The Dream Songs around the tropes of blackface-minstrelsy. On this he writes, “Berryman’s minstrel show historicizes the relation between media and the imagination of selfhood, presenting minstrelsy as the origin of mass media” (19). Foregrounding the racial subtext of the American dream in his own poetry, Donahue composes “Crania Americana,” a poem that meditates on the invisible role African slaves and African American laborers play in the construction of American ideology. In making the speaker of his poem “the first slave [to set] foot in the New World,” Donahue tells the story of empire from “beneath [the] unruly bundle” of structural inequality, where the “dreams are sad because they [are] true” (54, 53, 52). And like Berryman, who sees in blackface an unstable dialectic, Donahue imagines the slave in terms of a mythic complex, an epistemological double, as he announces, “the dead slave / and the living slave are one” (53).

However it is not until “Purple Ritual,” the centerpiece of Donahue’s first collection, that we see his most apparent application of Berryman’s poetics. In the dissertation, Donahue writes, “Berryman presents himself as a rhetorical figure in his own poetry, an interlocutor” (3). Here Donahue calls attention to the dialogical dimension of Berryman’s Dream Songs, specifically the poet’s construction of a literary alter ego, Huffy Henry. Through the mouthpiece that is Henry, Berryman is able to confess all sorts of vulgar impulses without collapsing the work into self-centered memoir. In providing the reader with “a voice that hears voices,” Berryman uses his rhetorical presence in the poem to assert his identity, while also expanding the boundaries of the self. Similarly, Donahue claims that his purpose for writing “Purple Ritual” is to erect a myth of surrogate selfhood, stating, “My lack of legend the drama’s first cause” (23).

In gathering the lore of corporate selfhood, the poem brings together three different perspectives: the biography of John F. Kennedy, the childhood memories of the poet himself, and the ancient exploits of Orestes. In the beginning of “Purple Ritual,” Donahue treats the three contexts as different realities, consigning each to its own series of sections. By the end, Kennedy becomes an extended member of the poet’s family, Orestes substitutes both for the President and the speaker of the poem, and the perspectival triad comes to stand as a cipher for the casual brutality of ecstatic nationalism. In searching for some significant event to orient his narration of the past, the poet lights upon his numerous personal connections to the assassinated President. He admits, “I was in Dallas when Kennedy was shot” and goes on to frame the statement as a confession: “I tend to confess when talking about my past,” a disclosure meant to muster the “fantasy of […] self-consciousness” (23). While the poet draws attention to the historical convergences between his life and Kennedy’s, it is not Kennedy but Orestes that reigns as the poet’s generative double.

Where Berryman dons the mask of Huffy Henry, Donahue finds a revelatory guise in the myth of Orestes. And like Henry, Orestes, in Donahue’s vision, leads a life of limited inner resources. “He [reads] idealist history. He [thinks] about hanging himself” (22). Departing from the myth of the matricidal madman, Donahue creates a version of Orestes consistent with the poet’s own daily grind, which allows for meta-textual commentary about his current project: “Orestes weighed his absence of childhood legend against his tabloid fascination: national families.” And like Donahue, Orestes associates memory with a kind of writing that surfaces between the cracks of other intellectual engagements, as he states, “the subtle raptures of purposeful work brought him an image of his early past, the gift of a world in a book, of a world as a book” (28).

In compiling Before Creation, Donahue does not limit his interest in Berryman to issues of content and form; he also engages the latter at the level of poetic theory. One of the central claims in Donahue’s dissertation is that Berryman’s poetics center around the belief that “a poem’s force may be pivoted upon a missing or misrepresented element in an agreed-on or imposed design.” Here the pivot has less to do with the form of the poem, as it relates to the “turning or rebounding” of the Petrarchan sonnet and more to do with the action of poetic thought. The pivot for Berryman, according to Donahue, resembles the “turning of the soul in conversion narratives.” Like any good spiritual autobiography, the Dream Songs understand one act of confession begets another, as each admission intends to capture some absented truth. In order to build a sense of mystery and rouse interest, the poet keeps some secret from the reader. For Donahue, then, the defining characteristic of Berryman’s poetry is that it “derives its force, ultimately, from that notion that information can be crucially withheld from the reader” (12).

Instances of critical concealment abound in Donahue’s first collection, though nowhere as apparent as in “Purple Ritual.” In terms of form, Donahue uses the strategies of selective obscurity to blur the line separating his personal experiences from those communal narratives of the nation-state. The connection that Donahue draws between his family and the Kennedys is not simply a result of what the poet tells us — that his uncle, “a veteran of the JFK senate campaigns, joined the White House as a liaison to Congress” (26). Rather, the connection depends as much upon what he does not tell us: all those intimate details about his family that do not relate to the myth of the Kennedys. Even when the poet recalls personal memories that separate his family from every other family including the Kennedys, he handles the material in ways that call his family’s distinctiveness into question.

A case in point occurs at the level of content. In a section entitled “First Communion,” Donahue delivers an account of his initiation into the Catholic church. In the passage, a botched photograph of the proceedings leaves his mother “terribly upset.” The evidence of her son’s participation in the religious rite has been compromised, leaving her with nothing to show the relatives back east, nothing to fix the image of her idiosyncratic family. Identifying himself with the “gray blur” at the middle of sacramental snapshot, Donahue becomes the physical embodiment of Berryman’s withholding principle, an “absence” through which his mother’s “disappointment illumines the dark” (28).

Berryman’s withholding principle also appears in the subject matter of “Purple Ritual.” Titled after Ed Paschke’s painting of Lee Harvey Oswald, the poem broods over the poetic possibility of Oswald’s brutal act. In the closing section, entitled “Oswald at the Window,” Donahue theorizes the scenario in detail:

Oswald breaks the President’s literal power and announces the tyranny of the figurative. The perversity of this logic does not diminish the assertion that Oswald’s was the central act of the imagination. The assassin creating the void in which the images shine. The negation preceding the first flash of light. Oswald at the window. Inarticulate and errant. (31)

Here Oswald ascends, or rather descends, to the status of anti-sovereign and becomes the inarticulate author of an imaginary order called forth by physical negation. In assassinating the president, Oswald punctures the seamless shroud of American hegemony, making the absent presence of JFK’s body an aperture through which the light of the postwar world streams into the poet’s thinking.

Of all these parallels, this last one carries the most significance for Donahue’s corpus at large, since it falls directly within the poet’s Gnostic wheelhouse. In offering up a quintessentially Donahovian definition of the Gnostic problem, the poet opens his essay “Salvation under the Sign of Reagan: Poetry, Gnosis, and New York” with an infectious piece of mass culture, taken from the chorus of the Talking Heads’1980 classic “Once in a Lifetime.” For Donahue, the question posed by David Byrne — “Well, how did I get here?” — represents the essential Gnostic quandary. It points to the same uncertainty that led a group of second-century Christians to shun the material world and search out their spiritual bearings on a more transcendent plane. And couldn’t we say that Byrne’s question — “Well, how did I get here?” — plays by the rules of Berryman’s withholding principle? It situates the audience in an unfamiliar and broken world and instructs them to follow each ensuing lyric, as if what follows the question might hold an answer to set right the soul’s quest for a self.

Likewise, the Gnosticism Donahue associates with the Talking Heads, and their choral search for undivided daylight, finds its roots in the poet’s deep admiration for the opening line of Berryman’s The Dream Songs. For pages on end, Donahue interrogates the line, “Huffy Henry       hid the day,” emphasizing its typographical irregularity, its positioning of a rhetorical double, and its suggestion of a nuclear apocalypse. However, the poet, so consumed with the possibilities of a Gnostic postmodernism, fails to notice Berryman’s gesture to occult concealment. After all, the epic begins with an act of withholding. In hiding the day, Henry conceals the diurnal light of divine presence, making our search for such truths possible. Or perhaps Donahue does not miss this reference, but instead decides that such awareness can only be assessed outside the dissertation, in the songs the dissertation inspires. In this way, it becomes the insight that dispatches the poet to his privileged long form, where the task, after all, is the same one that led Berryman to take up the unappeasable epic in the first place, “the construction of a world” (23).