The Cloud Corporation
reviewed by Christie Ann Reynolds
The Duplicity of Donnelly
When I first heard about Timothy Donnelly, a friend sneered and referred to his first book as, "the one with the really difficult-to-pronounce title." Donnelly's second book, titled, The Cloud Corporation certainly rolls out of the mouth more easily than Twenty-seven Props for a Production of Eine Lebenszeit. Consequently, it is an ordinary human flaw to criticize the complex, and certainly, one must note Donnelly's resume: prestigious teaching position at Columbia, editor of the Boston Review, published by the widely-admired Wave Books, the two page New York Times Book Review. I can only see the Donnelly who, so honored to have been asked to read for The Stain of Poetry Reading Series at the Bushwick Literary Festival this summer, happily sat in a 100 degree, poorly-ventilated room at the Market Hotel to read two hours past schedule as sweat poured off his forehead and onto his reading material. This is not to say that because he has risen to a specific level of prestige, that he should only be expected to read in a cushy air-conditioned university. Donnelly is not just a summary of accomplishments. He isn't just some over-accomplished poet who people are unreasonably going gaga over. In fact, this is what makes Donnelly compelling. Donnelly's poems and Donnelly himself possess a duplicity. His poems make the world a more human and less created place. There is a natural and genuine quality to Donnelly that I don't feel with every poet.
I've heard The Cloud Corporation referred to as "too intense" and "too difficult to read in one sitting." I've seen Donnelly read three times: at Blue Angel Wines for the Metrorythm Reading Series, at the Market Hotel for The Bushwick Literary Festival, and at the Noguchi Museum. All three times, I was emotionally floored by his delivery: each poem was delivered in a passionate rap. Donnelly's body language which, at times involved a slight rocking of his heels or the nodding of his head, evoked a gentler, less bling-crazy version of Jay Z.
After each reading, I asked my friends' opinions of his work and delivery. The results were mixed—people sometimes loved his readings, but expressed detachment from the actual poems. I realized that sometimes the reading or "performance" brings the poems to life the way a marionette may be made to dance. This is not to say that without Donnelly's delivery, the poems would just be a crumpled collection of strings and wooden limbs. But it was easier to feel and hear the poems, as communicated by Donnelly, than actually sit down and consciously see and read them.
Perhaps, the craft of the poems, may be off-putting because they are so intensely wrought, controlled, and "designed." His poems don't exactly coalesce with the popularity of the Heather Christle's and Zach Schomburg's whose poems require a different kind of (and no less important) attention to more surreal and dreamlike moments. A poem by Schomburg is magical and transporting but it does not require a recall of poetic history. Donnelly's poems can be very formal. They possess a natural internal rhyme and off-rhyme that I recall Sexton perfecting. But they don't move expectedly, they don't tie themselves up at the end or leave the reader with an immediate realization. Most poems are composed of long lines and are in couplets or tercets. It can be tedious to read these poems. I thought about whether or not Donnelly's live reading may be necessary to the private reading.
When I attended a reading and discussion by Graham Foust and Joshua Beckman at the Supermachine Reading Series in Brooklyn a few months back, Beckman and Foust were asked to comment on their reading styles and the lengths of poems they chose to read at readings. Foust stated that he believed that a reading of a poem should be understood by the listener as something that one can "enter and leave." He meant that he is well-aware that by reading a very long poem, he will lose some of his listeners' attention, but that it is ok. He thinks of a reading as a comfortable place for a listener to engage and become disengaged as one wishes. While this is interesting—and something I think about often when preparing for a reading—I think that Donnelly's poems require an engaged reader and listener. His poems demand the same kind of attention on the page as they do off. To illustrate a comparison, think about Eileen Myles's Sorry, Tree. The poems are "easy" to read and her voice brings a specific kind of character to the poems. But we don't need both Eileen Myles the reader and Eileen Myles on paper.
I think that many of Donnelly's readers are only experiencing the poems from a "slash and burn" perspective. They encounter The Cloud Corporation, and are not immediately gratified, as our culture so vehemently asks to be. A close friend and fabulous poet said that he had to read the book so many times—it was too overwhelming. He also stated that the book is "so good" he actually can't finish reading it. But isn't this what we want? The book that we can't ever finish reading? Isn't this the moment where, the tops of our heads are taken off? Isn't this the solitary four-leaf clover whose presence eludes even the most careful observer? Yes. The answer is yes. I understand we all have different tastes, that yes, a 150 page book of poems is often a daunting prospect. But maybe the issue isn't Donnelly, maybe the issue is us. Maybe as of late, we haven't read collections that that so elegantly punch us in the face, and then ask us to stay and swell and believe in its ability as a book to possess longevity in our lives. Personally speaking, I don't think I've read a newer book of poems captures all that I feel, have felt and want to feel about love, live and beyond. I don't read "self-help" books, but I would consider The Cloud Corporation to be one of the few books of poems that have made me think about my character and personal life so deeply.
I realize that my opinion is biased by the spell that Donnelly—the person and poet—has cast over me since I first saw him read. I understand that bias is influenced by my desire for a poet to exist as more than a book and actually physically construct their written world in the form of a dramatic reading. But I think that Donnelly's poems ask us to unearth each dirt-covered diamond and inspect it for cracks and imperfections. Chris Hosea, in an essay titled "First Encounter XXIX: The Art of Loosening," which discusses his discovery of Bishop's villanelle, "The Art of Losing" states:
By the time I completed the project, I was in awe of the multiplicity of meanings that this poem carries. What seemed at first glance an enormously clever rendering of a philosophical commonplace about loss revealed itself to be a windswept, changeful sea of denotation. I saw the dark star in "disaster;" the "losing" loosening of "practice;" the wakes of massy vessels "filled with the intent / to be lost;" the notion that past places could return as visitations of what "it was you meant;" lapsed communities of "the hour badly spent," the oceanic feeling of belonging to landscapes that overflows into a sense of ownership of "rivers, a continent;" a dark twinge of the inevitable disintegration of contentment that locates a frightening but also fertilizing and fructifying echo of (in)continence in the word "continent;" irresolvable, anxious doubts about one's lover's fidelity and one's own ability to love…
Donnelly's The Cloud Corporation should be approached in this manner. Each poem contains tiny and powerful starbursts of "awe of the multiplicity of meanings." We need to see that "dark star" in "disaster" and not confuse, for example, his use of the word "lasagna" in a few poems, as the faulty placement of a comical reference.
I have an imaginary checklist in my head that was in part compiled by the late Liam Rector. On this checklist is the task of writing about or perhaps, in submission to money. Rector always said, "All poets talk about is money, but no one writes about it." Donnelly writes about money in, "To His Own Debt" where he addresses debt as his "missive shadow", "My phantom, my cravasse—my emphatically/ unfunny hippopotamus…" The poem continues to make light of the weight of monetary debt—and the fact that perhaps as humans, we cling to it anyway. Isn't it American to be in debt? Isn't it a badge of complaint, as a poet, to have one's own slice of debt to ignore, defer, or gab about around the hors d'oeuvres table of our Christmas parties? Certainly it is. But what begins as a comical reference to the albatross of debt becomes an offering of the self where the poem speaks to debt:
—there you are, supernaturally redoubling over my shoulder like the living wage I never make, but whose image I will always cling to in the negative, hanged up by the feet among the mineral about me famished like a bat whose custom it is to make much of my neck.
The poem makes peace with debt—in fact, considers it a mutual parasitic love where host and feeder reconcile their cyclical position. It is interesting to note that the poem is titled, "To His Debt," while the speaker takes the form of "I"—simultaneously furthering the duplicity of the host and parasitic love of debt and of Donnelly—the poet and person.
Monetary debt is not the only debt that burdens Donnelly's poems. The true admiration and love that comes from another is something noticed so much by the speaker in "The New Intelligence," that he feels he cannot purely own it himself—it is the will of being that owns and pays for love. It begins:
After knowledge extinguished the last of the beautiful fires our worship had failed to prolong, we walked back home through pedestrian daylight,
The poem continues, "To admit that what falls/ fall solitarily, lost in the permanent dusk of the particular." But even as we are lost in the permanent dusk of the particular, the poem's "primitive bird shapes" and "the…aftermath of the nothing we will ever be content/ to leave the way we found it" reduces the particular to a very specific phrase: "I love that about you." The poem twists into more of a specific dedication to a "you." To a "you" and a "she" that "…has seen my awkwardness on the actual sidewalk but still answers anyway." It reminds me of the twist in Kenneth Koch's "Permanently," where the end of a poem that appears to be a parody of the use of nouns and adjectives, becomes a love poem.
Everyone has a poem that helps him or her enter the self so entirely that they keep referring back to it time and time again. I think I find a new one every year or so. "The New Intelligence" is that poem this year. It is the falling-in-love and heartache poem I will keep with me forever. While the "new intelligence" communicated to the speaker by a bird is actually a poem about an ordinary epiphany of love, the poem ends with new intelligence of a very human quality: will. The last tercet of poem exhibits again, the duplicity of Donnelly.
I won't be dying after all, not now, but will go on living dizzily hereafter in reality, half-deaf to reality, in the room perfumed by the fire that our inextinguishable will begins.
The "knowledge" that kills the fire in the beginning of the poem also keeps a silent, more powerful fire "inextinguishable." And it is inextinguishable by the fire's perfume, or smoke, which is literally often impossible to remove from a room or hair or clothing. The will between the speaker and the "she" in the poem is so inextinguishable, that it blurs reality. Love blurs reality as well as "knowledge," but the speaker in Donnelly's poem realizes he must submit to the marriage of both. Thus, the new intelligence is, as the poem insists, dependent upon the fact that "…the goal of objectivity depends upon one's faith/ in the accuracy of one's perceptions."
"The accuracy of one's perceptions" may not always be so rewarding or easy to obtain. Personally, the accuracy of my perceptions are never accurate, and therefore not always rewarding. In fact, my perceptions are often so clouded with what I believe is a "new intelligence" that I end up actually listening to the birds, thinking that they have something to say. This isn't to say I've given in to being a fatalist. But reading The Cloud Corporation changed these feelings. It made me feel like the knowledge or gift of our perceptions should always be communicated. We should use our perceptions as fuel, as Donnelly does—to sift, filter, and perhaps mash them (or cleverly construct them) into a poem in order to understand what the hell is happening in our world. This, I believe, is a new responsibility—a path of forged by Donnelly and his poems. We can no longer live without some kind of duplicity. The contradictions of the self, and the display of such contradictions, are necessary. Why submit to honoring seamless unity? Donnelly's form may suggest otherwise, but this is his way of organizing, not perfecting, inner chaos.
Donnelly captures this duplicity, and perhaps, the multiplicity of the human self. He makes it safe to contradict ourselves and yet aware of how to correct and change those contradictions—if we want to. We cannot know how to feel good without first feeling terrible. We cannot love without committing to the discovery of how one feels when he or she has come to the realization that without doing, thinking doesn't matter. This idea is best captured in the end of the poem, "The Malady That Took The Place of Thinking":
If it looks like I'm thinking, I'm not I'm waiting, and I can wait forever to find out why. If it looked like I was sorry to look at that photograph of women and children shot down by an American battalion on a bright clear day in March, look again: with no world to adhere to, there can be no photograph, no women, no children, and certainly no battalion shooting when there was nothing there to begin with.
While this last image appears uncaring or sarcastic, the majority of the poem inhabits the idea of, "…solving once and for all and with panache/ those mysteries to which we've been applying/ ourselves so much these days…". The poem continues to develop this idea and argues how "There had seemed to be only one world to adhere to." Again, the duplicity of Donnelly suggests that our world doesn't exist as plainly as commercialism or the ease of daily life augmented by technology or wealth may seem. The poem suggests that,
These mysteries will be solved not one at a time but in a slow, general unfolding along the lines of the magnolia, and trying to rush one solution by prying it open will compromise not only this solution but many if not all the others.
The poem calls for the generalizations—money, power, fame—to be reintroduced with careful consideration of the future, not just the present. This is represented by the magnolia tree, and the fact that the speaker insists, "I'm not that person anymore/ with his hands immediately all over the magnolia." The magnolia represents what is sacred about our lives—family, independence, solidarity as a people. If there is any sentiment that summarizes who the speaker of Donnelly's poems is, strives to be, and hopes you want to become, it is not covet and betray the human nature that has been given to us so graciously—the power to think and feel and make decisions that consider all people and things.
I recently read an interview with Leonardo DiCaprio where the interviewer wrote, "At 35, DiCaprio finally looks his age." DiCaprio's young, fresh face allowed him to defy time, but also seem mature for his age. So think of Donnelly in this way—his still relatively small output somehow make him appear less deserving of so much praise, even though the poems contain maturity and wisdom beyond his years. I think we can think of Donnelly's Twenty-seven Props for a Production of Eine Lebenszeit as his version of DiCaprio's performance in This Boy's Life and The Cloud Corporation as DiCaprio's role in The Departed. Since we've already been DiCaprio-ed, what will happen when he Daniel-Day-Lewis-es with his next book?