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Jacket 21 — February 2003   |   # 21  Contents   |   Homepage   |  Catalog   |

Brian Henry reviews

Anthem, by Jean Donnelly

Sun & Moon Press, 2002
$11.95, 124 pp., ISBN 1557134057
Sun & Moon Press, 6026 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles, California 90036, USA
National Poetry Series Winner

Jean Donnelly’s debut volume, Anthem, presents an unusually cohesive, finely conceived examination of contemporary American life from the perspective of an innovative, community-minded poet. The poet is also a mother — a fact most often relegated to bio-note relevance but which in this case is actually central to the poetry itself. Each piece in Anthem — the book consists of two long poems (the 26-part ‘Legend’ and the 50-part ‘Anthem’) and two prose series (‘A Bonnet Gospel’ and ‘Ballad’) — emerges as a distinct, sustained, and successful exploration of community, family, political engagement, and the possibilities of language, particularly the lyric poem.
     A prose matrix consisting of five series of five paragraphs, ‘A Bonnet Gospel’ employs improbably sumptuous fragments to disrupt the advancement of the prose’s lyricism, but the piece manages a cohesiveness and fluidity rarely found in paratactic works. Each paragraph ends on an unresolved moment that is clarified or amplified in the first sentence of the next paragraph. The unconventional style of ‘A Bonnet Gospel’ becomes especially notable when we consider that the piece’s primary concern is motherhood — specifically how to engage emotion without sentimentality, write honestly without resorting to established modes of sincerity, and build a family while remaining a political being. And since the bio on the back of the book informs us that Donnelly lives with her husband and three sons, we can assume that she is writing from personal experience. Since personal experience does not translate automatically into engaging poetry, we can acknowledge it and move to a consideration of the more pressing issue of how she transforms motherhood in her work.
     Donnelly offers many possibilities — ‘All the static is important. It’s intrinsic to a domestic poetics’ — but few answers. Didactic tendencies are continually being subverted by swerves, qualifications, and context. Even her more general statements — i.e., ‘A parent is more than a cultural conveyance,’ ‘The threshold of the civic is a mother’ — avoid didacticism because of the piece’s intricately imbricated structure. Irony, that safety valve, appears rarely in the piece, but Donnelly does not strain for sincerity. We believe Donnelly, not because she attempts to speak the unvarnished truth in unvarnished language, but because she works at language and foregrounds it as the medium of her messages. Language for her is never transparent, never to be taken for granted as a window onto experience. Her meditations on parenthood seem both accurate and true in their obsessiveness, fears, selflessness, and self-consciousness.
     Donnelly’s approach to the struggle of the mother-artist results in exceptional moments of insight and beauty. Consider the following extracts:

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
pious owning
no flag nor
oath resolute
speculative pacing
a coast where
fruit trees through
the lens shine
like armor

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

action anti-sign
anti-record new

babies are people
who wake in the night

with who they are
right there

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.

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