Mythography in 'Before Creation'

Joseph Donahue, 2014 (photo by Star Black).

Let’s begin by making a distinction between “myth” and “mythology,” in which the latter term refers to a big coffee table book that espouses a belief in systems while claiming to catalogue all sorts of mythic material as it arose from some particular zone of the planet. Let’s say that the term “myth” is one that escapes mythology, because it is still in process, or at least that some myths have a chance of escaping the logos because they are still in process, and that these are the important ones for a live poetry. In this sense, myth ends where mythology begins, and a myth-in-process would not be a story in a traditional sense, since it is incomplete: not those myths that are achievements and emblems of fame and hence conservative compensations for mortality, but the myths that are still being unfolded in the deep structures of perception, thought, and desire, and thus harbingers of natality, of things to come. To talk about the poetry of Joseph Donahue we need a third term, too — “mythography,” in which the myth is still in process by way of writing, as opposed to, say, as part of an active oral tradition. Moreover, we need to think about a mythography as diverse as a great city, as infinite as a grain of sand, as jostled as the mind in the age of the media blitz upon the possibilities of language, perception, and desire, and as cutting-edge as American poetry has been able to muster since Black Mountain and the New York School, if we want to do justice to the textures of Donahue’s writing.

For my micropurpose, I want to look at a single text of Donahue’s from his first, great book, Before Creation. That text is the page-and-a-half-long “Posthaste and Romage,” in which many of the latter motifs of Terra Lucida and Donahue’s other later, larger works can already be found. Published in 1989, the poem foregrounds sky and skyscraper:

broken into zones.
Half ecstatic transfiguration
and half resembling an agony without hope. […]
Blue cup: each twist of steam
a naked outline. Branches wet, torn.
World Trade lost in the silver ball of a stormcloud.
You look up from your desk. You spiral free from
a recurrent daydream about an incident of self-blinding. 

Retrospectively, I am struck here by the image of the Twin Towers (“World Trade”), lost twelve years after Before Creation’s publication to hijacked planes, intense fire, cataclysmic fall, and mass death. In the poem it is momentarily lost in the ball of a silver stormcloud. This occurs just as the subjectivity in the poem spirals away from a self-destructive reverie, perhaps Oedipal in nature, as in Sophocles, when Oedipus atones for the polluted city by putting out his eyes, one-upping the gods in the process, in a turn of the plot that did not exist in any prior version of the myth of Oedipus but rather is Sophocles’ mark on that myth. The sky is here in zones, one of “ecstatic transfiguration,” the other of hopelessness, as if fractured or torn down the middle. In one way, this is a sky as empty and pleasant as a late summer day. But it also must be autumn, perhaps latest autumn, with that particular chill in the air, and the smell of burning leaves or other mysteries that the nostrils pick up for months on end. Certainly Donahue always posits the tiny against the huge as here a coffee cup releases a cloud of steam (one of those blue, Greek-mythology-illustrated cups omnipresent in New York during that period?). I don’t think I’m wrong to think to of Pound’s “Station in the Metro”:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

On the basis of Donahue’s

Branches wet, torn.

How does Donahue succeed in making each image in his composition so suggestive, so saturated? How do we move from the sky gods to the underground of the subway and the crowds of the dead? And how does Donahue move us from the world in tatters to rebirth in the poem?

The text of “Posthaste and Romage” continues:

The islands rising are drops of blood
Scattered by a god’s sword.
This, and other myths of pure origin.
And later:
Blue fog. A bridge
The color of mountains upriver.
A friend calls the rain adoration.
River, white.  Gold sky flaking into black …
But you are older and have begun to bathe
in the streams of light in which all things are named.

If one of the powers of myth is to make a landscape inhabitable, then a passage like this operates on the built landscape, in a mode of composition only a wisp away from description, and yet far more than mere description. Light, moisture, and mist are light, moisture, and mist, but now they are animate, especially moisture. Color is light made present and rain is a gift. “Fire escape,” a few lines later, is indeed “fire escape,” but also a possible escape from fire. Mist lifts to reveal a mountain, a skyscraper, or the lashes of an eye whose form makes one forget everything but the female. It is Donahue’s attention to the particular that allows the divinity at play in the particular to be felt on the page, and then to vanish just as quickly, “like a goddess in Cocteau,” as “Posthaste and Romage” reminds us a few lines later.

Then, in italics:

I can’t explain where this joy is coming from.

And finally:

Red robe lost in smoke and choruses,
a woman standing in a circle of fire.
A garden scratched in stone.
A flayed satyr cradling a child
as each cradles a fresh sentiment.
At midnight you rearrange the letters.
The alphabet of rapture rises.

Myth is a narrative that is not quite narrative because it remains incomplete; mythography is the writing of the incomplete, in the awareness of our complete immersion in a language in which each question contains a quest, because the word “question” insists, and in which the responses to the question become part of the myth. If one is the mythographer, “At midnight you rearrange the letters.” Myth mutters “mother” but also mutters the impossibility of knowing the point of origin. Composition is natality, not mortality, to borrow and reconfigure a distinction Hannah Arendt offers to distinguish the philosophy we have known heretofore from the philosophy she wants us to know. Spiraling amidst the sprites and goddesses of a condemned cityscape that will only reveal themselves in moments of heightened intensity, myth is on the verge of a new articulation when “The alphabet of rapture rises.” Myth is premonition is transcendence. In Before Creation, Donahue’s body of work is already on its way, resisting the fate of the mythological in favor of the birth of twenty-first-century myths of violence, destruction, and rebirth.