'Red Flash on a Black Field'

What there is in it

Joseph Donahue, 2014 (photo by Star Black).

There is an abiding sense of emergence: The red burst upon the field is one color that flashes out from among the many hues that constitute black. Or perhaps the red has shot down from the sky to spark across the dark expanse. In any case, the title poem of Joseph Donahue’s most recent collection, Red Flash on a Black Field, carries forward the theme of coming into being that has marked the poet’s work since his debut collection, Before Creation, whose title announced this preoccupation. In its demonstratively terse first line, “Trees flower,” Red Flash establishes the familiar nature trope of rebirth, one that is immediately brought into a grosser realm of materiality with the next: “The air has the reek / of semen in a steam bath.” Donahue complicates the image by calling up not only reproductive biology’s physical details, but his conjuring of sex (masturbatory? homosexual?) at the gym subverts reproduction itself. In these opening lines, we have the coupling of incarnation and mortality, of celebration and elegy, that forms the expressive chords between which the poet pivots in every book, in nearly every poem.

There is a disquieting insistence of the improbable: We are told that the “chemicals of / the dream remake the body of the dreamer,” that the monkey king “orders the other monkeys / to dive into the well, to save the moon.” While among Donahue’s influences we can count the visionary tradition of Donne, Duncan, and Herbert, as well as the Surrealist energies of Desnos, Peret, Lamantia, his own renderings of these extravagant impulses is one both plainspoken and measured. That monkey king, he “sees, deep in the well, the moon” and then sends his simian subjects into the dark pit. The scene we might imagine is clamorous with squeals and chaos, yet the poet refrains from high-octane adjectives, choosing instead to report this implausible (impossible) drama with the straightforward language and syntax of a newspaper account. The calmness, of course, accentuates the oneiric quality of the image. Donahue presents the dream as if commonplace, thereby solidifying the dream’s tactility. His grace note — delivered in the deadpan tone of a local TV reporter broadcasting live from the scene of the monkey sacrifice — confirms the improbability: “The tale does not end happily.”

There is the purposefully absurd: “On TV, it’s the Branch Davidian // “Reunion Special.” This observation is followed by the image of a child’s drawing (one of those that died in the Waco conflagration?) of a ladder that “rises to heaven.” Then: “Cut to: smoke across a dry field.” In these rapid-fire lines, Donahue sparks pathos, leavened by media critique (“Cut to” — such is the nature of contemporary screen-made consciousness, we are always about to “cut to”), and then envelops both in the absurd. His quick strokes allow us to conjure a possible voice-over: Welcome to a special hour in which we’ll meet and reminisce with some of America’s most famous martyrs. The latent spiritual dimension of pop culture’s incongruities (the authentically awful entwined with the awfully authentic) percolates to the surface of this poem to sow our happy viewing hours with discontent. Donahue is Christopher Smart in possession of a mega-channel cable package.

There is, much appreciated amidst the darker notes, some sex: “Arms around each other, kissing, / but they have no skin. There are waves of tendons, / and veins, and sparkling nerves.” Okay, maybe that isn’t quite the frisson we craved — a pair of skinless lovers, their exposed nerves wet and shimmering. But the image isn’t quite as macabre as it seems; Donahue is imagining a “man and woman, as they might be seen in / a middle school biology class wall chart.” So this encounter is mere simulacrum — a depiction of a depiction. No actual humans were harmed in the production of this coupling. The passage segues into a description of a phone sex worker who slips “his hand on and off / the receiver, so that / the illusion of passion is maintained.” The illusion. Of passion. This is better than no illusion at all. And maybe, given Donahue’s neutral, if not forgiving, tone, the illusion’s better than actual passion. 

There is adventure: “I cross a volcanic crater // in a rainstorm, warm steam rising / from openings in the earth. Cross a strafe of gray through black, / crystalline flecks of ruby in the / whiteness of a beach pebble / from when the world was molten.” The poem handily balances hallucination, introspection, and a sense of the epic. Donahue smoothly moves from one tonality to another, all of his voices unified by the shortness of his lines, their telegraphic directness. We detect the changes in scene and vocal register only after they’ve occurred. These lines — and those that immediately follow — lean into a brooding, biblical stateliness. “I now know the / origin of the earth,” the poet pronounces upon completing the perilous journey across the crater. Yet there comes a deft, barely perceptible turn to a colloquial precocity — the smart aleck in the back row needling the teacher: “but / could you explain to me // the continuity of the / generations?” Adventure is found among geologies, genealogies, and in how Donahue do these different voices.

There is the past that isn’t even past: “The VC pull the smoking bones / of the pilot from the treetop wreckage // and sell them back. / That bravura in the bamboo / could be the sun.” The poem moves through time with the light step of a vaudevillian’s soft shoe. Bombs fall over Baghdad. Cleopatra’s lovelorn slave. A destroyer in the Pacific. Fascists in the ’30s. Elton John sings at Diana’s funeral and Nietzsche rebukes the reader. And, of course, for a poet who was draft age in 1972, Vietnam. Disaster, eros, and longing play out on a global stage on which time is a mere conceit. Simultaneity rules Donahue’s clock as if the essence of events were some kind of eternally lingering vapor (“smoking bones”) that mixes with whatever follows yet is never dispelled, never without its imprint on our senses. Our apprehension of the past binds us together, Donahue posits; it’s what Crane would an call “infinite consanguinity”: The pilot’s remains mutate into bravura, the bravura into the sun, and the sun becomes, “the mind turning to / phosphorous / which means you are // receiving thoughts from afar, from someone inseparable from you.” Our deaths are ours alone, our bones destined for sale, but there is commonality in the ongoing experience of history, in its totality, which may be found in any pebble.

There is nature, but it’s not quite natural: “On a mesa with / magnetic properties / long held to be healing, / a blue butterfly pops up, dazzling wings, huge, the size of a hand.” The subtly varied alliteration (mesa, magnetic; held, healing; blue, butterfly; huge, hand) draws us effortlessly through what seems to be a conventional image from the pages of National Geographic. On closer inspection the scene takes on a stranger cast. The mesa is a mythic locale, one capable of vibratory emanations; the butterfly appears in the desert abruptly, a burst of deep-sky color against earthen reds and browns, and its extraordinary size an emblem of the landscape’s supernatural resonance. A kind of magic realism infuses an image that is both filmic (the poet’s eye is panoramic) and palpably eerie. The butterfly — unnaturally large, luminescent — is a harbinger of timeless, otherworldly forces. Toward what Bethlehem, toward what birth, does this dazzler slouch?

And there is a sense of loss: “The stones sing / high above the tree line / where, as legend says, // the moon tore loose / and left its light behind.” Satellite and its radiance — not one, but two things. The moon departs, leaving behind its most salient feature. Is light then its essence? It is for those who look up at the night sky. But the lifeless rock, of course, only reflects rather than produces its glow. So what has been separated — the thing from our perception of the thing? The loss the poet articulates is that space between moon and its beam, which we may also read as the gap between the object of desire and desire itself. Earlier in the poem Donahue describes an “Edwardian nymph, eyes closed, head tilted dreamily back. / A man behind her buries his head in her hair.” There is another woman and another man and Donahue notes this is a “dance of stone called / “The Solitude of the Soul.” We can learn that these four figures separately arrayed yet “tenderly touching” around a block of rough-hewn marble are, in fact, the subject of a sculpture by Lorado Taft that bears that title. The piece on display at the Art Institute of Chicago presents these people as barely emerging from the block that still holds them fast. They have not “torn loose” from the rock; their effort to find the solace of connection is thwarted and they are shown caught between desire and the desired. They are alone, but emerging into. Perhaps they are even about to arrive in our world of flesh, where the semen reeks and bones smoke. Where birth and death are bright flashes on the human field.