An imaginal homage to Joseph Donahue

Joseph Donahue, 2014 (photo by Star Black).

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.”[1]

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.”[2]

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:

The temple
preexists all that

is and should shine
behind our closed eyes.

If it does not now
appear this is

due, the

observes, to
three catastrophes: first,

the destruction of its replica,
long ago, in Jerusalem;

second, the birth of
false learning

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
evil reasoning,

that finds us

to Pharaoh
that time

and place
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.[3]

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,

our way

we sleep
for centuries,

step out, astonished.
We close our eyes

accepting x,
open them

espousing y.
We sleep

as Hindus,
wake up Jews,

drift off

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.”[4] 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.”[5] 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.[6]

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.”[7] 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
if through,

into, through, as if
into and through, as if

our way

into, through,
the seven sleepers

of Ephesus,
into, through

a miracle,
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

your way

into Turkish,
through English,

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.”[8]  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.[9

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.’”[10]

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.[11] 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.[12]


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
the Manichees,

as the greatest

the universe
can offer
. (125) 



1. Joseph Donahue, Dissolves (Greenfield, MA: Talisman House, 2012), 31.

2. Henry Corbin, “Mundus Imaginalis, or the Imaginary and the Imaginal,” in Swedenborg and Esoteric Islam, trans. Leonard Fox (West Chester, PA: Swedenborg Studies, 1995), 9.

3. Henry Corbin, Avicenna and the Visionary Recital, trans. Willard R. Trask (Bollingen, 1960), 8.

4. Robert Duncan, Fictive Certainties (New York: New Directions, 1985), 1.

5. Annemarie Schimmel, Mystical Dimensions of Islam (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1975), 218–19.

6. Eliot Weinberger, An Elemental Thing (New York: New Directions, 2007), 170.

7. Henry Corbin, Alone with the Alone: Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn ‘Arabi, trans. Ralph Mannheim (Bollingen, 1997), 187.

8. Rainer Maria Rilke to Witold von Hulewicz, 13 November 1925, in Selected Letters of Rainer Maria Rilke, ed. Harry T. Moore (New York: Anchor Books, 1960), 390–91.

9. Robert Duncan, Caesar’s Gate: Poems 1949–50 (Berkeley: Sand Dollar, 1972), 65.

10. Henry Corbin, Cyclical Time and Ismaili Gnosis, trans. Ralph Mannheim (London: Keegan Paul International, 1973), 53.

11. For biographical and thematic details about Saint Symeon, see The Philokalia, vol. 4, trans. and ed. G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Kallistos Ware (London: Faber and Faber, 1995), 11–15.

12. My translation.