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Timothy Donnelly

In His Tree

They are untold: the advantages of entangling
oneself completely in a place like this, up and beyond
all chance of discovery, here where untold means
not in the dark, but numberless, numberless not
without number, but many—and if I sit in the dark
now and wait without number, the difference is

I do it voluntarily. Not the way the yellow leaf
is chased by another but the way the word yellow
can be drawn by hand through the same pond air
and then across an open page. Here the one keeps
evolving into the next, like listening into seeing
thin layer after layer of nacre affix to (to whelm)

the body fastened to sleep in the heart of a pearl.
All afternoon a feeling needed to be described to me
before I knew what I felt. The very terms of this
predicament had disqualified me from the honest
work of that description—prior to my knowledge of
how could I describe a thing?—while the whole

burden of assigning the work to a desk not my own
promised nothing but to deepen the predicament’s
bite in my perception, and having watched hours
and even days turn out largely perceptual in the end
I would discover at this crossing no fast distinction
between seeming to be worse and actual worseness.

But an object absorptive of all my attention, a thing
outfitted with otherworldly fire, set to consume
more than I could ever feed it, might so completely
overtake the mind that there would be no room
available for feeling and therefore neither cause
nor way to describe what just wasn’t there. And so

I set out to find that thing, drawn down by an under-
water instinct true to the warp and weft of a small
false deafness, locked deep in the blue-green private
compartment broken up into shifts and strung in
accordance to the wiles of arachnid light, a light too
truant from its source to reflect a compact back

with fidelity: the sun its half-remembered lozenge
trapped among the birch. Everywhere suddenly
rivalingly glinting like a new place to contemplate.
Cobbled paths linked by garden bridges arched
over the pond’s narrows and ambled on to unusable
amphitheaters brightened by mats of continuous

aquatic vegetation: primarily macrophytic algae
fringed in eelgrass, coontail, and the American lotus
rising a child’s height above the water’s surface.
Suspended in the air on a firm stalk the enormous
round leaves shaped into bluish, soft-sided cups;
if floating, into plates; if emergent, they were as yet

unopened scrolls, a history of the pond’s bottom
unnoticeably written on them. Portions of the lotus
interknit beneath the surface provided habitats
for invertebrates not visible from bridges: cryptic
rotifers and hydras, the larval and the nymph
incarnations of mosquitoes, beetles, damsel- and dragon-

flies fast as horses as adults, but in their youth
sustenance for numberless fish, amphibians, reptiles,
and all the fervid waterfowl whose bills plunge
upward and down with untold destructiveness.
And I could tear my eyes from none of this, probably
because the mind kept seeing more than an eye

or kept wanting to, detecting in what it landed on
what it didn’t see but knew, sensing the relation
between things present and between present things
and those remembered or supposed: humanity
in the park’s stonework, messages raveled in
long bolts of music stampeding from the ancient

calliope at the heart of the carousel, and the future
bound in decay. A lost past beating in sago palm,
the hagiography of red caladium, and the resistance
to deterministic thoughts on identity implicit in
ten skipjacks convulsing from the shallows at once.
Always a stuntlike communiqué in the loop-the-

loop in which wind blows a paper cup across macadam,
deep in a mushroom, and in 108 sunflower faces
turned to face the setting sun, its diameter spanning
108 times that of the earth, here where we in turn
invest in 108 feelings: the first 36 pertaining to the past,
as many again to the present, and as many again

trailing off into the future, each coruscating dimly
as daystars, or as stars at night through exhaust, each
known by its own appellation, each with a unique
list of probable causes, cures, and a prolix description
reworked as history determines what we can feel.
All afternoon a feeling needed to be described to me

but the wording only veered it nearer to the word.
Or even just to check on it would change the way I felt.
Furthermore it constantly underwent self-started
evolutions I pretty much never managed to observe:
fluctuating on like a soft shifting mass, yielding
instantly to pressure and engulfing any object senseless

enough to have trusted in its surface, incorporating
whatever it can into the grand amalgam of itself
discovering itself and finding everything perfectly
indispensable and pointless as the rowboat comparison
builds for the landlocked hydrophobe in all of us.
Nothing terrestrial could be equal to a force like this.

No leathery general could ascertain its stratagem
squinting through binoculars across the scorched sands.
The TV might be getting warm, but police hounds
can’t track it down because it smells like everything.
To surrender to it means you taste its invincibility
deliquescing in your dune-dry mouth, its properties

becoming yours, as when vigilant in a cherry tree
one converts into the branches, the drooping downy-
undersided leaves, the frail umbrella-like flowers
and impending fruit, until you forget what you were
watching for to begin with, the need to know now
culminating not in dominance, not control, but liberty.

 

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Timothy Donnelly is the author of two books of poetry, Twenty-seven Props for a Production of Eine Lebenszeit, and The Cloud Corporation. He earned a BA from the Johns Hopkins University, an MFA from Columbia University, and a PhD from Princeton University. He is also poetry editor for Boston Review. He lives in Brooklyn, New York with his wife and two daughters.

“Not freed / but caught up in what thinking tries to conceal:” that is what spending time with Timothy Donnelly’s poetry feels like, “where to know / is to feel knowledge dissolving. . .” (“Chapter For Breathing Air Among the Waters”).

Essentially metaphysical, the poems of Donnelly’s second book, The Cloud Corporation, are fueled and refueled by self-critical dueling, a curiosity about being, and a skepticism of being’s significance. The speaker’s craft is self-referential but never heavy-handed. The book is also driven by an inexhaustible love for language; many of these poems are expertly wrought love letters to language itself.

It is particularly refreshing to encounter Donnelly’s poems amid the ongoing financial spiral, with politicians posturing at troubleshooting and the generally frustrating vapidity (not to mention downright falseness) flying around like debris in the wind. Though these poems are not overtly political, there is an undercurrent of social and political commentary. Donnelly observes, “the mind that fear and disenchantment fatten / comes to boss the world around it . . . .” Readers may come to different interpretations of what precisely Donnelly is referring to, but I don’t think Donnelly would oppose connections to the current political and financial quagmires.  Unlike most of the ad copy and corporate verbiage, which Donnelly satirically appropriates and alchemizes for reintegration into his own creations, Donnelly’s poetry can be taken to heart. He speaks like a parent who is not afraid to tell a child the hard truths he’s garnered from living: that most things are unstable (especially knowledge), that the significance of our existence is debatable, and that “nothing might feel good for a time” (“The New Hymns”).

These poems shine in the cold light of acknowledgment of things few people openly admit. In the first poem of the collection, “The New Intelligence,” Donnelly acknowledges that practicality does exert an influential hand in what happens, despite our romantic (or naïve) desire for it to be otherwise. The speaker and a loved one

observe an arrangement in rust and gray-green,
a vagueness at the center whose slow, persistent
movements some sentence might explain if we had time

or strength for sentences.

Donnelly acknowledges that if you are involved with living, you are probably weary. But his willingness to admit exhaustion, disenchantment, and uncertainty is coupled with tenderness. He does not merely point out where existence and the world fall short of our expectations; he also exhibits love for other people and the things that make up the world around us. These expressions of love escape preciousness every time because they are unmasked and unabashed. The speaker takes pride in how vulnerable he feels when in the presence of the person he loves:

I love that when I call you on the long drab days practicality

keeps one of us away from the other that I am calling
a person so beautiful to me that she has seen my awkwardness
on the actual sidewalk but she still answers anyway.

Yet for as much as these poems traipse amidst the clouds with an inquisitive and intellectual demeanor, they are also firmly rooted in the adult world, on the ground, anchored there by various responsibilities. I do not think it is an accident that the third poem in a book of forty-nine poems is a cheeky yet serious apostrophe “To His Debt.” Donnelly asks, like an indentured servant out of a Monty Python skit, grimacing through a smile, “What wealth / could ever offer loyalty like yours”? Somehow, perhaps paradoxically, Donnelly manages to depict that endless impediment to freedom with a Stevensian lexicon and aplomb:

My phantom, my crevasse—my emphatically
unfunny hippopotamus, you take my last red cent

and drag it down into the muck of you, my
sassafras, my Timbuktu. . .

Donnelly faces a thing that many people might deny—debt is uncomfortable, it makes it harder to breathe, it prevents us from hamming up our characteristically American idealism. He tells it like it is instead of looking away: “there you are, supernaturally / redoubling over my shoulder like the living / wage I never make, but whose image I will always / cling to. . . .”

Donnelly frequently turns his knack for facing reality on himself. His is a Blake-ian eye that sees outward, and inward too—at times with hyperbolic self-scrutiny, as in “Clair De Lune,” or with poignant projection, as in “To His Own Device.” In the latter poem the speaker addresses a specter, a shadow-self, “an antic of the mind”:

What’s more, I said, you are amiss in this ad hoc quest
for origin and purpose. . . .

—At this, the figure dropped the box from its hands,
turned down a dock I remembered and wept.
I followed it down there, sat beside it and wept.

The speaker acknowledges, while weeping beside a personification of his craft, that “being itself had made things fall apart this way.” Donnelly exhibits a constitution that can stomach such an observation and keep going, despite the fact that our very existence and the course of events mar the world. He sees that “the air nearest earth / …had been ruined by what happens” (“Chapter For Being Transformed Into A Sparrow”).

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These poems do not limit themselves to the abstract. Some poems are lush with things—”sea-thistle, pinecones, a crate of tangerines” (“The New Hymns”). Others meditate explicitly on the production of commodities; “The Rumored Existence of Other People” interweaves litanies of things with the poignancy that comes from investing things with meaning:

A silver line, a souvenir, a sieve of relation
meaning to release something lovingly means always
remaining tied to it. . .

. . .The more I gave it thought the more it seemed to me
obvious. Also touching. Whoever built that warehouse

across the way built it thinking someone would one day
look at it in wonder. Also sorrow. To keep an endless
store of that feeling. To make, to provide it. . .

Occasionally, these poems do settle down for the night into a blissful, if brief, quotidian moment—”a present too lived-in to cherish” (“Chivas Regal”). From the speaker’s location in the bathtub, we hear his humble thought said aloud to the steam-filled room: “In this life I’ll almost certainly / not be acquainted with / much luxury. . .” (“His Theogony”). The speaker indulges in these spare pauses as if exhausted by previous sessions (and resting for future ones) battling a kind of Minotaur amid labyrinthine syntax. Though instead of half-man, half-bull, this hybrid monster is half-self, half-metaphysical conundrum; and the speaker’s sword is his mind. See him winding through maze-like syntax, pursuing a grasp on the idea of knowledge, in part four of the excellent “Chapter For Being Transformed Into A Sparrow,”

In the shade of the need to know, to know that what was once
remains, grows the knowledge that what was

was almost certainly not that, not merely,
not once. There is a way through all this—

After the speaker questions everything, including experience itself, he concludes with a reversal of previous perception: “what was / was almost certainly not that.” At times Donnelly plays with reflections of words so successfully (giving off optical and aural illusions) that language seems to unlock just for him. A lesser writer, or a mere dabbler in wordplay might get lost in the maze of language and never find a path to meaning. But Donnelly’s prismatic configurations of words masterfully reveal meaning every time. He writes, “After the first weeks after, I lost myself remembering / the worth of what was lost, the cost of which was nothing.”

The more time I spend with these poems, the greater my impulse is to treat them like impressionist paintings— stepping closer, observing the layered brush strokes, then stepping back and observing the whole, then stepping closer again. . . But, reading these poems aloud and carefully listening to the words seems to reveal even more than just looking. I hear that the words are not illusory, nor is their meaning. The lines, if you listen to them, speak directly to you. Who of us has not swam out farther than we should have, trying to remember “the worth of what was lost”?

Below are some candid photos I’ve taken of Poetryland’s Personalities.

“One of the marks of our world is perhaps this reversal: we live according to a generalized image-repertoire. Consider the United Sates, where everything is transformed into images: only images exist and are produced and are consumes… Such a reversal necessarily raises the ethical question: not that the image is immoral, irreligious, or diabolic (as some have declared it, upon the advent of the Photograph), but because, when generalized, it completely de-realizes the human world of conflicts and desires, under cover of illustrating it.”

“Each photograph is read as the private appearance of its referent: the age of Photography corresponds precisely to the explosion of the private into the public, or rather into the creation of a new social value, which is the publicity of the private: the private is consumes as such, publicly.”

“The Photograph is an extended, loaded evidence — as if it caricatured not the figure of what it represents (quite the converse) but its very existence… The Photograph then becomes a bizarre medium, a new form of hallucination: false on the level of perception, true on the level of time: a temporal hallucination, so to speak, a modest, shared hallucination (on the one hand ‘it is not there,’ on the other ‘but it has indeed been’): a mad image, chafed by reality.”