By Timothy Donnelly. (Wave Books, 2010)


Timothy Donnelly’s poems begin with himself, as problem: T.D.=what? T.D. has what prospects? The problems are of course insoluble, but they provide an excuse for indulging in the sheer joy of writing. The remarkable poem “Fanny Fowler’s Workshop” in his first book, Twenty-Seven Props for a Production of Eine Lebenzeit, was an exception in being “I”-less but typical in being a rhetorical romp, in this instance in the absurd field of the question what’s left to create? In fact, the first book mostly uses the “I” as a torch for firing up rhetorical games and adventures. The modern self is an exploded self—that is its message. A cast of thousands—of voices, words, historical moments—inhabits it. In Donnelly’s second book of poems, The Cloud Corporation, the who how what of a more narrowly constrained, an everyday, T.D. comes forward in proportion as the rhetoric recedes. In it, Donnelly is like the speaker in Frank O’Hara’s “To a Poet,” who says, “I am sober and industrious / and would be plain and plainer / for a little while / until my rococo / self is more assured of its distinction.” (Not that the rococo Donnelly of Twenty-Seven Props is certain to come back. He may be quite rococo shy by now, as a result of the miscomprehension of some vocal critics of the book, who didn’t see that the all-over-the-place manner had its proper historical moment, as the title plainly indicates. Do pay attention.) The focus in The Cloud Corporation is on “the responsibility / of making meaning.” Here, Donnelly displays yet another gift, one for unfurling, this way and that, in new fantasy-fields, the fabric of familiar and not so familiar ideas—various phenomenological miseries that stem from an existential “vacancy at the center.” Though the language is sometimes botheringly pedestrian, I think I understand Donnelly’s turn to the common tongue: the problems he addresses are almost transparently “universal,” despite the clinks of the pronoun “I,” and (this being an effect of his ambitious earnestness) feel too grave for beauty, let alone gaiety of language to garnish. Not that ravishing passages don’t anyway float out from less lovely reflection:

—don’t give up on me,

I can fight this, I am Tiberius, a sudden wooden boat

my boat floating sofa spoken from the mouth of a grotto

bright with water, the blue a blue noon sky, my voice

your voice is around us lacing with light’s clear voices

(“Tiberius at the Villa Jovus”)


“Sofa” is droll, sweetly domestic, charming in this passage of exalted Romantic feeling, with its comfortable thought that speech is a vessel of conveyance and at the same time a multiple chorus of voices (not just the poet’s own) echoing off the blue grotto’s walls as if the light itself were also speaking—nature being after all not the not me. The vocabulary itself self-echoes. But for the most part Donnelly discourages the sort of striking image that deathless music promotes, e.g., “Make death with me: my sugar // boat set loose on caustic indigo,” though, as the example illustrates, if he cultivated his gift for it he’d astonish the language. He relies, instead, on one or another large-scale fantasy (such as diving, or sailing) to be his poetic prop, an allegorical basis for scrutinizing his experience—a support that encourages a somewhat loquacious discursiveness. Perhaps what works best for him is a formal component, as in the title poem, where the opening lines of each of seven sections punch out a different number in the punch board, each a winning number: “The clouds part revealing a mythology of clouds,” “The clouds part revealing blueprints of the clouds,” etc. The gambols and formal archness of the first book and the searching thought of the second await a fusion, should T.D. be so inclined. Meanwhile, three of the pieces in the new book, “In His Tree,” “The Cloud Corporation,” and “Globus Hystericus,” number among the  freshest and most awesomely ambitious poems of recent years. They kick off from the davits of caution and sail away, poet and poem hardly knowing where. Well, the poem probably knows.

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