The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2010

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NOV 2010 Issue

Empire Wilderness

Timothy Donnelly
The Cloud Corporation
(Wave Books, 2010)

In Richard Howard’s introduction to Timothy Donnelly’s first book, he writes of Ashbery (with whom he compares the young poet) as coming “to be known for a poetry that refuses to emerge from its rhetoric, its various registers of diction, and its apparent lack of immediately clear subject matter.” He qualifies, importantly, aptly, that Donnelly is a poet who treats his nomenclatures with “exuberance” rather than “dryness.” A typical line from the first book reads, “Let the winds of the explosion / whip your pinions into motion, plough a happy / figure forward into wheres and whens and hows.” Seven years later, in this eagerly awaited second book, The Cloud Corporation, Donnelly’s poetic evolution and mastery are even more distinct—that is, the poems in this new book, no less enwrapped and intoxicated with rhetoric, fully emerge; its registers of diction and apparent lack of subject matter, while ever mysterious, show a new clarity has been sought for and achieved. Call it, “The New Intelligence.” So opens the book:

After knowledge extinguished the last of the beautiful

fires our worship had failed to prolong, we walked
back home through pedestrian daylight, to a residence

humbler than the one we left behind.

Compared with Donnelly’s first book, tonally this may sound “humbler.” That is, there are fewer recondite props and allusions brazenly dropped about, the stages are less self-consciously stagey, the bizarre mental scenery less willfully bizarre. But make no mistake, the ambition is greater and clearer than ever: to write poems that renew our American language, in 2010, toward eternity. Greater concentration and deliberation shape each line and stanza. Hovering over the first line, one instantly reads “beautiful” as a noun. After vaulting over the enjambment, into “fires,” one must quickly reread “beautiful” as an adjective. Recognize, also, the delicacy in such robustly intricate phrase-making: “we walked” anticipates “pedestrian,” but it is the daylight and not the speaker which is depicted so casually close to the ground.

In the next poem—“The Malady That Took the Place of Thinking” (a remaking of a Stevens title)—this same attentive punning and word-winking slyly struts past: “When I close my eyes its voice insists we’re close / to solving once and for all and with panache / those mysteries” [reviewer’s italics]. Even if this second book offered nothing more than these local miracles of elaborate fussings with language, readers would be blessed with a demonstration that Donnelly’s verbal gifts are foremost among his generation: lyrical, conversant, coy yet never cloying, imagistically resonant but rarely “precious.”

But The Cloud Corporation does offer more than a supremely fresh decadent style, luxuriating as it does in its baroque, curveball syntax that’s almost paralyzed with its own cerebriality (“mind,” “thoughts,” and “thinking” are among the most frequently used words). What these poems are, in fact, is nothing less than a grand-scale assault on contemporary life: “the giddy whoring / around abroad and after the more money money / wants” (“To His Debt”), “cruel, ruthless warriors” (“Between the Rivers”), “women and children shot down by an American / battalion on a bright clear day in March” (“The Malady That Took the Place of Thinking”). If that last line’s hard to swallow, the conclusion is no less unremitting in its vice-grip: “with no world to adhere to, there can be no…women, no children, and certainly no battalion / shooting when there was nothing there to begin with.” Imaginatively, fantastically, The Cloud Corporation approaches the world as open for caustic interrogation—a world, that is, not located safely outside of consciousness like a political slogan, but one rather to be operated on in the pit and sinews of each of us. These poems do not replace the world as it is—equally terrible and terrific—but root down ruthlessly into it.

 Donnelly, like Hart Crane, began as a much more literary and “insular” poet. The endnotes for his first and second books demonstrate this development tellingly: Twenty-seven Props for a Production of Eine Lebenszeit cites Wittgenstein, Alfred Jarry, Tennyson, Henri Michaux, and Georges Bataille. The Cloud Corporation’s endnotes point to decidedly extra-literary sources: the My Lai Massacre, U.S. diplomat George Kennan, H.L. Mencken (!), the U.S. Patriot Act, Osama bin Laden’s “Declaration of War Against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places,” as well as The 9/11 Commission Report.

Of course, one must be careful not to put too fine a point on the social or political content present in the work. Nor should this review confuse The Cloud Corporation’s topicality with its purpose. It is decidedly not a book “about” the Iraq War, or September 11, the Bush Administration, or Terrorism. What is its motive for being, given that it explicitly engages those sources? Poetry. That is, to create acts of language that are beautiful, memorable, and haunting. And so it does. There will be earnest readers of this book who will find the title poem, among the book’s finest accomplishments, a masterpiece, an allegory of sleazy corporate Western tactics enacted within the planet’s last unconquered territory, the sky: “all that shaky camouflage”; “a business / project undertaken in a bid to acquire and retain / control of the formation and movement of clouds”; “the chief executive officer of clouds”; “blueprints of clouds”; and, most chillingly perhaps, “the workers / of the united fields of clouds, supporters of the wars / to keep clouds safe,” and “the air is blurred with money, force / from which much harm will come, to whom my welfare / matters nothing.” But so too will there be readers, no less convinced, no less riveted by the title poem, who believe the work important solely for its artistic and meditative excavation of a single mind’s inner workings. Later, in “Globus Hystericus,” another supremely ambitious long-poem, we encounter the poet’s frenzied conscience once more as a voice crying out in the wilderness. It begins with a Shelleyan invocation that reminds us that Stevens’s free-verse tercets, like Donnelly’s, modeled themselves after “Ode to the West Wind”:

A pity the selfsame vehicle that spirits me away from
factories of tedium should likewise serve to drag
me backwards into panic, or that panic should erect

massive factories of its own, their virulent pollutants
havocking loved waterways, frothing all the reed-
fringed margins acid pink and gathering in the shell

and soft tissues of the snails unknowingly in danger
as they pass.

As social commentary, these lines shrill and shriek at our present environmental disasters—our loved waterways have turned acid pink. But the “subject of my production,” the poet’s poems, what the poet-speaker takes and gives while alive, is the more fundamental and alarming concern. Language itself is “ineffectual as doves,” which must be the loveliest way a poet has ever feared defeat. The second section again ends with attacking words: “but even as I ask your hands move / wildly about your throat to indicate you cannot speak.” What blocks speech? It is “the lump in the throat to keep me from saying that / surviving almost everything has felt like having killed it.” Readers who linger over these lines, as they deserve and require, will find it difficult to look (or not look) away. The Prufrockian speaker cannot say just what he means. The silence is violent: “When the last of human voices / told me what I had to do… That left me feeling in on it, chosen, a real-time guy / albeit somewhat sleep-deprived; detailed-oriented, modern, / yes, but also dubious, maudlin, bedridden, speechless.” Sound familiar? Yes, almost, at times, the Fool.*

The echo of Eliot is crucial. Though his rhetoric resembles Stevens’s more than any other mid-career poet now writing, he writes far closer in spirit and tone to Eliot: both obsessed with tortured speakers and ambitious, creating intricate poems that try to account for how much we have been corrupted—not by this or that government, this or that policy, but by the terrifying fact that merely to be alive is to be an active participant in consuming and exploiting ourselves and others.

In its admirable craft, weight, and scope, greater than merely promising, The Cloud Corporation reveals a poetry that’s as serious and timely as it is inventive and, at its best, timeless. Some readers will, as I can and often do with Eliot, admire the technique and urgency of these new poems, but struggle with its intense dissatisfactions toward life and its pleasures. Isn’t literature all about alternate systems of belief to test and consider? But the insistence and difficulty of these poems also challenge other visions for poetry we may have: conceptions less momentous, cerebral, or bleak than what Donnelly fiercely stares at as he prepares to “lay / waste to the empire now placed before me at my feet.” There are other emperors than those of ice cream.  

* Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool.


Adam Fitzgerald


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2010

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