by Willard Spiegelman
from The Yale Review, October 2012
I feel like Keats's watcher of the skies: a new planet has swum into my ken. I had heard of the expanse known as Timothy Donnelly previously, but I never really "breath'd its pure serene" until I sat down with The Cloud Corporation. I inhaled, that is, I read. Then the feeling overtook me that all lovers of any art form will recognize: a combination of gratitude, wonder, appreciation, questioning, and a desire to go more deeply, to repeat and augment an initial experience. Wallace Stevens (about whom more later) said that "the poem must resist the intelligence, almost successfully," and everyone knows that the most important word in the aphorism is almost. No resistance means no challenge, and therefore little pleasure; but a totally successful resistance means no understanding and no desire to go farther. (I think of the worst excesses of so-called experimental poetry.) Donnelly's poems resisted my intelligence but they also challenged it. This is the right thing. A good poet, when we first encounter him or her, makes us scratch our head and admit that any sense of discomfiture belongs to us; it's not the poet's fault that we don't get it all at once.
And sometimes, I confess, it is hard to know what a specific poem by Donnelly may be about, although we can register its effects. Helen Vendler once began an essay by saying that it was time to talk about John Ashbery's subject matter. Subjects? He had subjects? As with Ashbery, so with Donnelly: although we know that something is going on, its wholeness may still evade us. But there is enough there to make us go back again, this time more slowly, to resume our labors, and to repeat our pleasures. I expect that other readers have shared my experience.
Donnelly writes poetry of and for today. Between his arcana and his colloquialisms, his indebtedness to precursors and his alertness to the present moment, you can find—and hear—virtually everything about our shared cultural life, as well as the poet's own personal one (albeit at one remove), in this elegantly produced volume. Donnelly has written one previous book, Twenty-Seven Props for a Production of Eine Lebenszeit (2003). His accomplishment in two volumes was sufficient to gain him the prestigious Kingsley Tufts Prize, a hundred thousand dollars for a mid-career artist. He deserved it. His poems, with their stately rhythms, antic wit, sociopolitical savagery, and calm analyses, betray an indebtedness to Auden, Stevens, the Romantics and (above all) Ashbery, but they are uniquely his own. Like Ashbery, Donnelly ranges far and freely with regard to subjects, tones, and registers of diction. Even the concluding Notes suggest a hungry mind or temperament that takes in all stimuli hospitably: Osama bin Laden, the Egyptian Book of the Dead, Gustave Flaubert, Edward Gibbon, Monk Lewis, Charles Maturin, H. L. Mencken, Bruce Springsteen—and this list doesn't include the other echoes one hears in the poems. Nothing escapes his notice; nothing is beyond his attention. Donnelly is admired by cool young Brooklynites, whooping and hollering, and also by the senior poets Mary Jo Bang and Mark Strand, all of whom showed up—you can find this courtesy of YouTube—at his book-launch party.
Donnelly's is a poetry that combines opposites, from the title on. Clouds are nebulous, airy, dreamy, indecisive, and temporary. Think of Wordsworth's single cloud, which "floats on high o'er vales and hills." A corporation, on the other hand, is etymologically of the body, something substantial. In 2010, the Supreme Court (in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission) allowed corporations to act like persons with regard to campaign contributions, but the "personhood" of corporations in this country goes back as far as 1819 (Dartmouth College v. Woodward). Both the airy cloud and the embodied corporation bear on our individual and collective national existence. A corporation is now synonymous with a person.
The year 1819 was also Keats's annus mirabilis, a more than purely random fact when considering Donnelly's subjects and tones. If a corporation can be a person, a poet can have a corporate identity. Donnelly is the latest-born son of the English Romantics, especially Keats and Shelley, whose influence washes over his poems. Donnelly's great subjects update Romantic ones. At the hands of a less supple or more harshly doctrinal poet these would devolve predictably into ranting, finger-pointing, and shrill accusations. But the politically radical Shelley (Matthew Arnold's "bright and ineffectual angel, beating in the void his luminous wings in vain") and the more negatively capable, though less politically engaged Keats would have found Donnelly's subjects congenial: the solidification of clouds, the personalizing of corporations, the embodiments of ideas, and everything Marx would include under the blanket term "reification." Wordsworth described his psychological ideal as the "ennobling interchange of action from within and from without": such may be Donnelly's greatest inheritance from his Romantic precursors of two centuries back.
The Cloud Corporation also speaks to, and of, our current conditions. Donnelly could become the poetic voice of the Occupy Wall Street movement, if that vaporous nebula would ever condone, let alone welcome, so articulate a spokesman. Not for nothing does he take as epigraph for his book Caliban's supposedly reassuring words about the music heard on the strange New World island of The Tempest: "in dreaming, / The clouds methought would open, and show riches / Ready to drop upon me, that when I wak'd, / I cried to dream again." As befits our contemporary situation, Donnelly specializes in an eerie combination—sometimes comic, sometimes terrifying—of calm and menace, an acceptance of things as they are and a fear that they may get worse. In "Partial Inventory of Airborne Debris," a poem in short-lined tercets, perhaps concerning a hospital stay (in Donnelly's poems, it is often hard to pin down specificity of place, time, and reference), Donnelly plays with the sounds as well as the meanings of words, groping for the right ones as he works his way through a list of Items in an attempt to describe his situation. Banal phrases ("a failure of delivery," "the push in technology") mingle with modest, self-delighted colloquialisms ("admit it, I'm on the fat side"; "I'm not / complaining, it's like being / detained indefinitely / / but with three meals a day / on a tropical island!"). And the poem ends with an actual quotation of Keats's great phrase of anesthesia, "the feel of not to feel it," and a fading into puns and semi-consciousness:
Item. Actually I'm doing
much better now, maybe
a little, what's the word,
soporose, I guess, I think
maybe I just needed to
work it through and now
in its wake I feel a little
what was it again, a little
soporose, that's right,
that captures it in a way
no other word could ever
even hope to, I suppose,
I just feel soporose, so
soporose tonight, uniquely
soporose. You think
I should be concerned?
Here's Donnelly in his faux-naïf mode. Pleasure and pain, feeling and non-feeling, wonder and acceptance: he is on the qui vive, ready for all experience. In his hands, you might "suppose" that the soporific becomes enlivening.
Two kinds of riches inform his book: the material excesses of America in a late-capitalistic mode, and the poetic gold Donnelly has spun from the straw and other detritus he finds around him in our culture. Think again, of Stevens: "Money is a kind of poetry." Donnelly both believes and scoffs at the sentiment. Like Ashbery, he finds his subjects and his tones everywhere. All linguistic frequencies make an appearance on the flow chart of his consciousness. He is a tour guide to contemporary lingo as well as to the contemporary cultural landscape. And right from the start, Donnelly mingles the dead, abstract clichés of corporate "culture" and advertising with the consoling nostalgias of a belated romanticism, of Stevens's "interior paramour." In "Between the Rivers" (which refers both to Mesopotamia and contemporary New York, itself situated between two rivers), we hear a tour guide's amiable tone:
Pistachio nuts thrive
in the irrigated gardens of our city, as do pomegranates
naturally rich in antioxidants, which protect the body
from free radicals' interference with normal cell function.
A trio of poems, "To His Debt, "To His Own Device," and "To His Detriment," address aspects of the self that are compounded of material and nonmaterial parts. This is a genuinely Romantic poetry of economics. Donnelly applies the language of measurement to the unseen as well as the seen. Think of the Shelley of "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty" readjusting himself to life in the twenty-first century:
Where would I be without you, massive shadow
dressed in numbers, when without you there
behind me, I wouldn't be myself. What wealth
could ever offer loyalty like yours, my measurement,
my history, my backdrop against which every
coffee and kerplunk, when all the giddy whoring
around abroad and after the more money money
wants is among the first things you prevent.
["To His Debt," lines 1-8]
Here's one example of Donnelly's masterful mingling of registers, of high Romanticism with the cash nexus, or with what William James called America's worship of the Bitch Goddess, Success. Donnelly, by his admission someone who has lived close to the poverty line, knows about the metaphorical resemblances between Keats's "realms of gold" and real gold, and one hears a strong note of acidulousness underneath the lapidary wit of his lines.
He is a curable Romantic. For every image, line, or passage redolent of the plangent nostalgias of past masters, we have a harsh slap in the face reminding us of present cruelties. Among the former, consider "the long amble back / to the sofa where we sink in amber through the night," or the opening lines of "His Agenda": "All these empty pages must correspond to the days / devoted to lying in the bygone style, the head / / buoyed for hours in a harbour of jade pillows." Think of complacencies of the peignoir. Or take the last lines of "The Last Vibrations":
Through the time we made
we felt what happened dismantle into yellow
leaves thought prolonged into trembling sentences.
Thought, leaves, houses; the last vibrations
faded to be remembered, in a place we would never
finish imagining: and it was then we began.
Regular, lulling rhythms complement the haze of recollection with a patina of impressionist nostalgia. Donnelly's commitment to Keats as a precursor comes through in direct quotation ("the feel of not to feel it"), as does something more subtle but equally insistent: "I name the bees / sun's diplomats to an embassy of flowers / whether neighbors want me to or not" ("Chapter for Removing Foolish Speech From the Mouth").
In counterpoint to the beauties of Romantic inflections and innuendoes come the flattened tones of business-speak in contemporary America. The volume's title poem, one of several long ones, comes in seven parts, each neatly composed of seven tercets (another homage to late Stevens), each part beginning with a nod to Stevens's "Sea Surface Full of Clouds" ("The clouds part revealing a mythology of clouds," "The clouds part revealing an anatomy of clouds," "The clouds part revealing blueprints of the clouds," and so on). At the end of part 1, following a contemplation of the clouds and their insubstantiality, comes a reference to a worker being fired from his office in the skies:
all they want from you now is your station
cleared of its personal effects please and vanish—
not that they'd ever just come out and say it when
all that darting around of the eyes, all that shaky
camouflage of paper could only portend the beginning of the
end of your tenure at this organization, and remember
a capacity to draw meaning out of such seeming
accidence landed one here to begin with, didn't it.
Think of George Clooney in Up in the Air. Donnelly is capable of an ongoing whoosh of syntax—like the clouds themselves, like the flow of consciousness—in passages like this, and the result often sounds like the deeply hypotactic single-sentence poems of Amy Clampitt meshed with the quickly changing tonal registers of Ashbery.
For the artist who observes, or even occupies, a space in the cloud corporation, life is fraught with more anxiety than satisfaction. The poem's sixth part starts with the clouds revealing "a congregation of bodies / united into one immaterial body" (presumably the corporation itself), "a fictive person / around whom the air is blurred with money, force / / from which much harm will come, to whom my welfare / matters nothing." He "fear[ s ] them / and their love of money, everything I do without / thinking to help them make it." Part of a process and also peripheral to it, Donnelly's observer reimagines for us an updated version of Eliot's crowds flowing over London bridge, Dante's souls in Limbo, modern corporate America's Waste Land, as he falls asleep with "a crowd of eyes" watching him lose consciousness, "past marketing, past focus groups, past human / / resources, past management, past personal effects, / their insignificance evident in the eye of the dream / and through much of the debriefing I wake into next."
In such a world, the clouds and the dreamers don't stand much of a chance. "Advice to Baboons of the New Kingdoms" (Donnelly evidently learned from Ashbery and Stevens the fun of titling his poems to draw us in) offers sage suggestions to the monkeys of the new age on how to deal with the blandishments of the seducers / conquerors who will lure them with material objects, take them up the Nile with barge music, settle them into the new city, "feed [them] pastilles of licorice and poppy, slowly bathe / and adorn [them]," and install them in a temple's holy chamber. The poem ends:
In this manner, you will pass
months, whole seasons, possibly years, until you are
possessed of a god at last, and this one means business.
"Possessed of a god" means "possessed by a god," that is, the baboons have been duped into thinking their newly established divinity something of their own creation, whereas in fact they have bought into a system that has seduced them with promises of worship. And by "means business," Donnelly reminds us that in our world God is Business, not Love. Business is our God. I imagine that the whole poem took root with the cliché of the ending in Donnelly's mind first. He then worked backward to imagine a way in which to rise to a nifty punning climax.
Donnelly is a sensualist. He is also a worrywart. His fin-de-siècle weariness is matched by his satiric eye. He is a hipster caught in a Romantic's body and soul, and whether he turns inward or outward, he can seldom find contentment. Giddiness yes, sanguinity no. When he looks within, he turns gloomy, nostalgic; when he looks at our world he seems trapped by our consumer-corporate society. Like Matthew Arnold, he seems to be "wandering between two worlds, one dead, / The other powerless to be born." What is a poet to do? It's hard to tell whether Donnelly wants us to take his poems as an antidote to contemporary culture or a symptom of it. He is all-encompassing, like Whitman, and also stand-offish, like Dickinson.
One way to think of these poems is as a combination of symptom and cure. Like Ashbery, Donnelly is energized by language and rarely capable of laconic speech. Everything pours into him and then spills out. His poems move propulsively. In an interview he has said, "As a child, I couldn't put an end to the saying of things, and as an adult, I refuse to." Like Ashbery and Whitman he is garrulous, but unlike them he is often tense, never mellow. And Ashbery never wants to diagnose our collective ills. Donnelly does. Dan Chiasson has called Donnelly, in The New Yorker, "an acrobatic formalist," and this seems about right to me. He makes high-wire verbal leaps, which he keeps in check by a safety net of compact stanzas and even, stately rhythms. The poems come in two sizes: the compact and the spread out. Of the latter, the title poem and "Globus Hystericus" are the book's best achievements. They may seem daunting.
All good books of poems, encountered for the first time, will have some easier of access. With Donnelly's, I recommend starting with—and even reading out of order—some of the shorter ones, then moving to the larger articulations. Take, for example, "Montezuma to His Magicians":
If they are gods, if they have
divinity in them, then why
when we lay at their feet
garlands of quetzal feathers
and gold coins do they leap
upon the gold as dazzled
monkeys might and tread
on sacred plumage like dust?
The idiocies of imperialism are seen through the lenses of cross-cultural wisdom. Or consider "His Excuse" (which sounds eerily like one of A. R. Ammons's "really short poems"), "Dispatch from Behind the Mountain" (a sixty—four-short-lined single sentence), "Epitaph by His Own Hand,"" No Mission Statement, No Strategic Plan" (another single-sentence poem, in which the language of business competes with the language of romance), "Chapter for Kindling a Torch" (one of several "chapter" poems that take their titles from the Book of the Dead), and "Team of Fake Deities Arranged on an Orange Plate" with its charming ending: "And even if there is a Deity, I still like the idea / of a team of little fakes, and if we turn their invention / into a contest, you can bet your ass I'm writing."
You can bet your ass he is. And then you can move to more strenuous exercises. For example, "The Rumored Existence of Other People," in which those "other people" appear only as the absent producers of miscellaneous products, "objects / manufactured by people I would never meet or know." Desire breeds only more desire: "those beyond me made me pang for them there." Capitalism and "love of wealth and luxury, which in the past had seemed / merely distractions" become a Sorcerer's Apprentice nightmare, everything rushing out of control, or rather kept under control by the imperial march of poetic quatrains. "Profiteroles" rhymes with "remote control." The poem ends with the speaker as both god and animal:
I hear the naked hands of strangers make
my dumplings but experience insists that what makes them
mine is money. I open the door and I extend good money
into ancient night, night prosperous with stars, order heavy
in my hand. I'm immortal that way. I lie down and I feed.
The romance of take-out Chinese food has overwhelmed even the denizens of leftie Brooklyn, who presumably should know better.
To end your trip through Donnelly's world, which may leave you, like stout Cortez, silent (or perhaps simultaneously laughing and weeping), try the book's other major poem, "Globus Hystericus." In seven sections (all but one composed in eight tercets; the seventh section has eleven), it surveys all Donnelly's major themes, invoking them in the language of science and of corporate life. It treats of nature and ecology, the creation and destruction of the global citizen; it anatomizes the human body and psyche as industrial products; and it does all this in tones occasionally reminiscent of the dystopian fantasies of Charlie Chaplin and Woody Allen:
When the last of the human voices
told me what I had to do, they rattled off a shopping
list of artifacts they wanted thrown down open throats.
That left me feeling in on it, chosen, a real fun-time guy
albeit somewhat sleep-deprived; detail-oriented, modern,
yes, but also dubious, maudlin, bedridden, speechless.
The horrors of capitalism and post-capitalism have come home to roost, in the mind and life of a speaker who identifies those horrors and seems not just powerless to resist them but actually to revel in them. He is a complicit witness of the realms he surveys: "surviving almost everything has felt like having killed it." Alert to what he calls (like Ashbery or John Cage) "the constant hum around or inside me," Donnelly inquires, in a tone compounded of patience and incredulity, about his own part in the industrial machinery:
Am I not now beset in the utmost
basement of industry? Is that basement itself not beset
by the broad, black-green, waxy leaves of Mesoamerica?
And haven't I parted those selfsame leaves, discovering me
asleep on my own weapon, threat to no one but myself?
There is something both apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic in Donnelly's scenarios here. He discusses ecological disasters, the squandering if not the wholesale killing of the earth's resources, but then he can't resist making a joke, as when imagining an interview by some post-holocaust reporter. "Asked again what I miss the most about my former life," he clears his throat, looks into the camera and acknowledges "that what I miss the most / has to be those cream-filled cakes I used to like, but then / they prod me with their volts and lead me back to the barn." He careens from disaster to joke, detailing his movements with imperturbable coolness and chastening acceptance.
Cool and accepting, at times. At other times, the temperature in a Donnelly poem, or part of one, can range from the whitest heat to the most numbing freeze. Throughout this long poem, the speaker seems to be photographing the surround as industrial waste and ecological horror take over. He is both witness to and victim of our age, reveling in as well as suffering from junk food, the inner equivalent of outward squalor:
I relocate in time to the lit bank of vending
machines still humming in the staff-room corner for a light
meal of cheese curls, orange soda, and what history
will come to mourn as the last two cream-filled cakes.
Our society is deadly, but the somnambulistic worker bee, "wandering the wings of a ghost-run factory" gets pleasure if not exactly nutrition from it. In late-industrial society, "the purity of a feeling is ruined by the world" to such an extent that readers of these poems can never know for sure whether purity of feeling is even possible and, were it to be, if it would be a good thing.
Donnelly is too manic to be elegiac, always careening from mood to mood, like Ashbery. In a crazy world, a "globus hystericus," a wise man does well to be a fool.
For Donnelly, such hysteria constitutes not folly but the only wisdom available.
* * *
About the Author
Willard Spiegelman is the Hughes Professor of English at Southern Methodist University, and the long-time editor-in-chief of the Southwest Review. His latest book is Seven Pleasures: Essays on Ordinary Happiness (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).
Editor: J. D. McClatchy
Associate Editor: Susan Bianconi