Who will your baby be. Freshly a person. With curious habits. With important emotional attachments. Indelible little spirit at first. When it’s most vivid perhaps. Not another you.
But with little bits of you
That’s so strange how we talk in third person to the children. Not I yet. To them. Not free of them. But related.
Cleaning diapers. Carrying the first teeth in your wallet. Then you must write. And they can’t give you the time. Because it’s not theirs. Or it is theirs. And the little rings they leave in the sink are innumerable. Or they cry in the night. Or call your name in the morning.
I mean your real name. Not mom. And you stop in the hallway and think about that. That they’re separate. That they’re separate houses with a little life going on in a parlor.
Motherhood for Donnelly yields a ‘scavenging poetics’ in which scraps of daily life — activity, language, song, routine, inactivity — are worked into poetry. Yet she fears that this poetics is also one of ‘profound irrelevancy,’ i.e., political irrelevancy. This fear is compounded by her concern with community, specifically the effects of parenthood on friendships: ‘What happens to friends when they have children. It narrows. Because of constant tugging. Can’t hop on out to see you. No deposits of great gulps of time together.’ Donnelly also addresses the difficulties of maintaining a romantic relationship while being a new parent: ‘There are days Arthur and I don’t speak with each other. Days we’re riddled by an expanse of ourselves. Or the administration of a family. Once in a while from a sulky dismissiveness. // Though mostly watching the days together. Behind ourselves.’
The split self suggested in ‘behind ourselves’ and in the following excerpt points to the crux of Donnelly’s concerns in ‘A Bonnet Gospel’:
There is a grammatical parallel between the infinitive and pregnancy. ... When you trace your birth to your mother’s body can you imagine that presence of mind. The hours spent considering you. In an abstract.
And in relation to some idea of herself.
How to write poetry and live in a way that matters — that includes and embraces the world outside the home — while attending to the inherently insular world established by the birth of her children? The self, like Donnelly’s paragraphs in ‘A Bonnet Gospel,’ splits and simultaneously regards itself and the world around it.
Domestic space also features prominently in ‘Legend,’ a series of 26 short poems based on the alphabet. Most of the poems feature a noun — object, animal — that begins with or includes the section’s titular letter. The poems are alliterative, disjunctive, unpunctuated, fabular, and also political, based as they are on maps (thus, ‘Legend’) and their borders and flags. Consider ‘Ll’:
a brother to his
shadow they were
lions they were
to be noble
no flag nor
a coast where
fruit trees through
the lens shine
Certain words — ‘king,’ ‘flag(s),’ ‘guest(s),’ ‘room(s),’ ‘lion(s),’ ‘goblin,’ ‘map’ — dominate the series, adding further cohesiveness to the piece. Everywhere the childlike meets the political, a Heraclitian tension encapsulated by the series’s opening couplets:
the little king says
a flag a flag a flag
the little king says
the prey of a civic map
A child’s wonder and linguistic development (conveyed simply yet effectively by repetition) give way in the second couplet to adult political discourse. The couplets are linked by the repetition of their first lines and the assonance occurring in ‘flag’ and ‘map.’ Similarly, Donnelly later writes, ‘beyond the original spell / of flags of what is owned / the alphabet dreams of guests’ (‘Bb’). With their colors and lines and shapes and words, maps cast a ‘spell’ over children, yet the ‘flags’ also remind us of ‘what is owned’ — a situation that Donnelly, after introducing it, seeks to surpass. Hence the guests — lions, a goblin — that are invited into this alphabet poem. Community here becomes an imagined community with real-world implications.
Other issues that emerge in the individual pieces in ‘Legends’ — the violation of animals’s domains in the name of knowledge (‘the lions have noticed / a lens in the rushes // an equivocal badge / to science their shadow’), the charting of domestic space (‘a map / of his cradle’), the transformation of domestic space caused by children (‘the kid landscape / more grave & exact // than expected unless / it grows enormous’), the inquisitiveness of children (‘the little king says / ... why does a sword / find its cradle’), and artistic doubt and failure (‘each // faulty poem is a pact,’ ‘strings of shattered poems’) — aptly demonstrate Donnelly’s public and private concerns. Ultimately, ‘all our tombs are cast / in a civic adventure / a flag they hover / might tousle an ocean / really only lined / with children.’
Confined to Donnelly’s social network, ‘Ballad’ relies primarily on others’s speech. Each paragraph begins with ‘X said’ or ‘X says’ (with ‘X’ being Leslie, Ted, Jack, Bruce, ‘my father,’ Sarah, Susan, Alex, Alice, Arthur, Joan, or George). This creates a community within the book in which the words of the poets’ family members and of like-minded artists produce miniature treatises. Donnelly even includes a jab at Bruce Andrews: ‘Bruce says something stupid about younger poets and that’s a dead divisive duck anyway ancient exclusionary mantle trophy building hee-haw party.’ But she softens at the end of this passage, mumbling, ‘aw shucks but his poems,’ thus half-excusing the ‘stupid’ comment because of ‘his poems’ and thereby contributing to the authority of the elders who hoard and distribute mantles and trophies in the top-down system that is American poetry. Elsewhere, Donnelly reconciles her beliefs and others’s with more fortitude, or conviction, as when she concurs with Alice Notley’s statement ‘the problem of America is my body’ or praises Joan Retallack’s ‘mind’ for being ‘beautiful and thorough.’ The final paragraph of ‘Ballad’ offers Donnelly’s incisive and poignant take on the contemporary domestic life: ‘to brush this tawdry suburban into me perfect armor of insufficient wealth dormitory fable ... but it’s primitive even to giggle with my sons when parents have or have not killed up on the hill in a house behind a country I call into them have heard or shed when we need it.’
With its 50 unnumbered poems, ‘Anthem’ continues and expands Donnelly’s meshing of private and public concerns as she takes on the U.S., state by state. The sequence is buoyed by the poet’s attempts at a spiritual and ethical life — through poetry and through family and friendship — which contribute much intellectual and emotional energy to the poems. In each of these poems, Donnelly addresses if not assaults the mindset(s) we find across the 50 states and extracts pointed commentary from her journey. Acknowledging that ‘not all fifty states / can be beautiful,’ Donnelly rolls through them in a captivating style marked by quick shifts, distillation, and frequent enjambment. Delaware’s ‘villainous handkerchief / of coastline // & crabtraps’ sets up the observation that ‘pieces / of the moment // stay to gender / perception // & nourish / the air // with authorship / for the dead.’ New Jersey’s ‘mystical bustle’ is, of course, nothing like Alabama’s ‘mercurial // goblet of tyranny.’ Nebraska is characterized by ‘fatigue in the earth / a collective // spiritual project / in banners of wheat // & cows who crunch / before electric // scum / & gunshots.’ In Kansas, which contains ‘acres / of restlessness,’ ‘lawn care points to // privilege’ and becomes a symbol of ‘scanty / ecstatic kingdoms.’ In the more mountainous Montana, ‘a metaphysical flag // ... pulls & whittles / my starry pledge.’ Arizona has ‘a sunlight // we could anchor / disorder in.’ ‘[P]aintings / in a drug store’ in Maine ‘frame / the human // irrelevance / to land.’ And North Carolina becomes the site of the ‘hammock factory of the mind.’ The question ‘how many states / can you clearly sing’ emerges as a challenge to the reader as well as to the poet, who tends toward using ‘you’ as a surrogate for the ‘I.’ But in this long series, the reader has been invited to create meaning — to build his or her own map of the 50 states — with the poet, so the question resonates far beyond the rhetorical, arriving in the mind of the reader as an invitation.
‘Anthem’ naturally invites comparison to Walt Whitman, and he makes an appearance (in the phrase ‘miles of Whitman’) in Donnelly’s Kentucky poem. Donnelly shares with Whitman a capacious vision, a style that manages both restlessness and concentration, and an impulse toward definition:
the person is
a boulder without
sleep is a harbor
to be named is
babies are people
who wake in the night
with who they are
Elsewhere, her definition making is more overtly political: ‘to pledge is not a sound / to follow a flag a long pause,’ ‘history is intimate // with a body heaving / a map at my skin,’ ‘a mother’s body // extends a civic frontier / a banner calling me to kneel.’
Donnelly’s interest in children as poetic subject emerges in other places in ‘Anthem,’ as when she writes ‘most children enjoy the sound of their own voice / let’s go look at something & talk about it // the Indiana skyline for example,’ or ‘children are also // kind kindly for real reasons of kindliness which / throws us a bit when we expect them to share.’ Again, this presents a tension for Donnelly, who seeks community (‘the tiny cloud of // common friendship’) and political relevancy — thus her self-admonition to ‘involve the children / in a bigger fence // of reference.’ This ‘fence of reference’ merges with most of Donnelly’s concerns in the sequence’s Alaska poem:
I am colors in a military meadow
I am mothering strength enough
to original me I am a halo
passenger a mechanism
for civic memory I am armored
with remembered friends the length
of my arm at dusk a procession
of sleeps & blinking intimacy
with a rat’s reaction to violent
impulse hair & toenails
but substantively thought
which tenders the 3 billionth
atom in Alaska where my dreams
may well be preserved
by the cold shock of days defiantly
preceding the millennial rumors
boundless bounding casual love
& naked in the glittering vista
Here, friendship and family life provide Donnelly with the strength — physical, emotional, intellectual — to confront the ‘civic’ and its rote expectations. Nothing in ‘Anthem,’ or Anthem, succumbs to expectation. For that, and for the fortitude such a project requires, this reader, at least, is grateful.