Joseph Donahue's 'bowls of memory'

Joseph Donahue, 2014 (photo by Star Black).

In a recent interview with Jon Curley (The Conversant, April 2014), Joseph Donahue calls our attention to two lines from Emily Dickinson’s short poem “The spry Arms of the Wind”: 

I have an errand imminent
To an adjoining Zone —

“Each of those terms,” says Donahue, “‘errand,’ ‘immanent,’ ‘adjoining,’ and ‘zone,’ have for many, many years deeply engaged me. … the mixture of vocation, of meaning embedded in the material, of boundary, and of expanse, are a clarion call. … Where are those zones? What awaits there? Who would one be were one to go there and come back?”

There’s a revealing error here: Donahue inadvertently reads “imminent” as “immanent,” the latter word designating the manifestation of divine presence inherent in the material world (as opposed to transcendent). But why not read Dickinson’s “errand imminent” — her urgent errand — as a longing to discover the immanent? Donahue has always been concerned with the spiritual dimension of material existence: he is, that rare thing today, a seriously “religious” poet. I want here to look at how this poet’s “errand imminent (immanent)” to those “adjoining zones” works in the opening poem of his new collection, Red Flash on a Black Field (2014).

This poem has the tongue-twisting title “Where Every Hollow Holds a Hallow” — a title taken from Joyce’s Finnegans Wake with reference to Phoenix Park: “Over the bowls of memory where every hollow holds a hallow.” The verb “hallow” means to sanctify, make holy, as in “these hallowed halls” or “Hallowe’en.” Joyce playfully turned verb into noun: every hollow, he suggests, holds the memory of something sacred, something Other. And so, in Donahue’s dreamscape, the poet finds himself sleeping in a tree or a barrel or a gazebo, where a whirl of images delight the senses: in the first instance, “At night, / the tree flies to a beach where / the pebbles are gems. / Thunderclap: the moon / in bits.” And in the other two instances: 

I sleep in a barrel. At night,
the barrel flies to a mountain.
The cliffs are sapphire
Where the Hesperus
went up in flames and
I sleep in a gazebo. At night
the gazebo flies to a desert.
the spiders are feldspar.

But — sadly — not every hollow yields a hallow. Donahue’s 115-line poem, with its five stanzas of loose Yeatsian trimeters — the “Easter 1916” stanza — juxtaposes the lovely dream images above to other “bowls of memory” much harsher and prosaic: “An office, / a chair in front of a desk, / a hitch in the interview,” or again:

Was it so long
ago we drew the shades
at lunch, then ate
pound cake, fresh
from the freezer, and
Dad sipped vodka
As we sat in the dark,
playing comedy albums?

Dad sipping vodka and playing comedy albums: it’s a conventional enough picture of middle-class existence in suburban America. Donahue grew up in Lowell, Massachusetts, and his décor is somewhat reminiscent of that earlier Irish American Catholic poet Frank O’Hara, who grew up in another dreary Massachusetts town, Grafton. “There,” as O’Hara put it, “I could never be a boy.” But the lines “pound cake, fresh / from the freezer” are vintage Donahue: what a shrunken existence it is, he suggests, when even the supermarket pound cake hasn’t been given time to defrost? Then, too:

An escapee lurks by a school.
Everywhere, choppers and cops

And further along, we read:

Then a college dean
collars me, crows to all
under the reunion tent:
Meet the one among you
renowned for classes missed
due to venereal misadventure.

After such memories, what forgiveness? The gemlike pebbles on the beach of line 3 give way to an “ocean, tied down / with garbage bags, green / and seething” and “bathers with towels / crossing the mud, down to / the plastic-covered sea.” 

What does it all mean? “While I was away, who lived? … who paid for these alterations”? What scars, the poet wonders, do I bear from what seems to have been such an “unhallowed” past? “Who reviewed my scandals”? But — and here the opposite note comes in — this self-lacerating poet is also one who, like the angel Raphael, “walked with Tobias,” guiding the young man back to help his father. The situation remains equivocal:

While the whirlwind held me,
who broke my bones?
Who underbid me?

The questions cannot be answered. In our most ecstatic moments, someone or something is always ready to bring us down, to underbid us and get the reward. We can only reap the whirlwind.

Donahue’s densely sounded poem escapes bathos by its remarkably agile shifts in register: just when we think things might become mawkish, the poet coolly undercuts a given image, revealing the sky as nothing but “a dirt sponge” and the earth “a bucket.” Just when the ecstatic moment should be savored, it morphs into “a dry run for the Angel of Death.” The visionary is always there, but it continues to elude us. Reading Donahue, one thinks of Hart Crane’s lines “From the Marriage of Faustus and Helen”:

There is the world dimensional for
those untwisted by the love of things
irreconcilable ...

But in the meantime “A billing fiasco looms.” The “adjoining zones” remain just beyond the next turn.