On the question of Joe

Joseph Donahue, 2014 (photo by Star Black).

Joseph Donahue is one of my teachers, though I never took a class with him; one of my influences, though I write nothing like him. I count myself lucky to have crossed paths with Joe and his work at a time in my development — as a poet and scholar of poetics — when I was most consciously and openly trying to figure out what to value, what to attempt, and how to grow. He arrived at Duke while I was there as a graduate student and began, in his characteristically unassuming way, to expand the conversation about poetry and poetics within the English department. Memorably for me, Joe invited Nathaniel Mackey (still on faculty at UC Santa Cruz then) to give a reading on campus. His introduction of Nate’s “Song of the Andoumboulou” and the Dogon cosmology, jazz aesthetic, and liberatory politics that undergird the ongoing serial poem not only prepared us to take in that brilliant and beautiful work but also revealed Joe to be a deeply curious, highly sensitive reader and critic of poetry. 

A few months later, when I first heard Joe read his own poetry, I was able to see the kind of linkage between the spiritual and the lyrical that must have drawn him to Nate’s work. It was quite a blessing to be exposed in these ways to poetry that privileged spiritual inquiry, carried out in a gnostic vein and without losing sight of the world in which the seeker (poets, readers) must live. In this same period, I was reading Brenda Hillman’s Bright Existence and Toni Morrison’s Paradise and learning from all of them the vital importance of questions and questioning, noun and verb. From Terra Lucida, Joe’s own gorgeous serial poem:

What first flames
do you move among?

What ignorance
will you win?

Devoted, as you are,
night & day to dreaming,

what allegories blow to mist
within your bruised skull,

your pain without

What closed over you
once the day tore a hole,

once thought was all, and
gone: the whole hell of here?

What memories
bleach like shadows?

What biography dissolved
like a dream in the depth of day?

It is no small thing to be able to formulate the questions that haunt us, in images that can give shape to the ineffable. To do so in language this full of music, this rhythmic and melodic at once, is a powerful gift. 

A related quality of Joe’s poetry that he also encouraged me (by his example) to value is a kind of complexity in which one discerns the poet’s struggle to do justice to the intellectual and ethical intricacy, the affective charge, the sublime (in the sense of awful) unresolvability of certain problems and ideas, by searching for aesthetic strategies that are appropriate for and up to the task. Our conversations about poets like Alice Notley and Ed Roberson, whether over lunch or in a conference panel, have always been illuminating for me because of a kind of openness in his approach to reading that allows unusual, unforeseen elements and patterns in such work to rise to the surface. Importantly, his openness extends in other directions as well, which is to say that he also reinforced in me a willingness to be generous as a reader and a critic: to look for what I value in poetry that might not seem likely to incorporate it (and not to be surprised when I find it there), and to look for the value of that which I did not already find valuable (and to acknowledge it freely when I discover it). Joe knows what his own aesthetics are and, beyond that, what other aesthetics speak most directly to him, but he is not, in my experience, a subscriber to fenced-off camps or closed-door schools.

Joe was one of the earliest of my friends to encourage me to believe that I could forge a career in which my poetry and my scholarship played an equal role. The only irony in this fact is that he is so little career-oriented himself. He brings all of his gifts as a writer and his training as a scholar to the classes he teaches, taking his students seriously as thinkers and artists who are able to rise to the level of the work and ideas under discussion if they so choose. His essays and editorial work (with Ed Foster on the magisterial anthology The World in Time and Space) are wonderful contributions to the field of poetics. Yet he has pursued the life of the mind without the regimented hoops and sometimes punishing incentives that come with a more careerist approach to academe. And, more frustratingly for those of us who admire his poetry, he has declined to carry on almost any of the business that falls under the heading of “promoting one’s poetry.” His work is published by editors who cherish and pursue it; it circulates among readers who are “in the know.” If his center stage appearance in the circle of writings of which this piece is a part serves to bring Joe Donahue’s work a new wave of readers, they can thank us later. I am grateful for this opportunity to thank him, publicly, now.