You would like to feel a dreaming mind makes all this, and, you’re part of it, you are a dream, and shot through with deep joy knowing that all you see, hear, taste, touch and smell passes through you, floods the greater mind, that dreams all, a mind curious about all that is each moment coming to be, as if this were the first time the world could be truly seen, as a stream flowing both ways at once, though appearing so still none could say for sure
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).
As near as I can see — and this is just in riffling through one of Joe Donahue’s books, not even attempting to dig far down but just gathering from what is scattered so availably on the various emerging surfaces — we have here, at one point or another, letter, memoir, history, philosophical dialogue, mantra, aria, imagist snapshot, news flash, plot line, art critique, joke, memorandum, oracle, marginalia, tourist guide, surveillance tape, weather report, playlist, glossary … and none of those in isolation, none that is not so spun together with the rest as to be inextricable without risking
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.
I read Joe Donahue’s work because it’s purposeful and clear: an applied and reapplicable poetics. I use his poems.
Donahue lays down a lot of references, ranging widely across time and subject area and in close proximity to each other. This produces synthesis, sometimes to a rhetorically breathtaking degree. In the space of a page, Hermes invents the sonogram, Nicodemus waits for Jesus, acid-tripping garage-rockers find purity, and the sun sets behind the pillars of Hercules and rises on Peruvian mountains. It’s more than a mere postmodern mashup; it’s constructive:
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?
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.
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.
To live with a poet’s work for a long time is to change and find that the work opens itself to future selves. One hopes but never knows whether the work will continue to disclose its layers over time, that it will continue to unfold. I’ve lived with Joseph Donahue’s poems for years, each time coming back to them a slightly different person, each time apprehending different layers of their baroque density, their teeming referentiality.
[From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate is an ongoing series of letters written by composer/multi-instrumentalist N., founding member of a band known as the Molimo m’Atet based in Los Angeles.]