How to answer questions

Joseph Donahue, 2014 (photo by Star Black).

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.