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In the creative imagination of the Lurianic Kabbalah is a proposition of astonishing scope and power. Put simply, the universe was shattered at the moment of its material creation. This is known as Sheviret Hakelim, or “Shattering of the Vessels.” The divine light of the Godhead had created ten attributes conceived as vessels, each vessel housing the purer light of the Godhead. The vessels, called sefirot, were unable to contain the light and broke apart. Their shards became the basis for the material world. Reshimu, the residue of the divine light, stuck to the shards. Consequently, signs of the divine light remain legible in the chaos and confusion of the material world. I find all this worth mentioning because I see so much of this mythology alive in the words of Donahue’s Terra Lucida, whose title translates into “earth light.” There is no overt mention of this particular theosophy in Donahue’s work, yet I cannot but help find glimpses of it among the shards of imagery and shell-like words of divine intimation. For instance, on page 44 we find these lines:
in bits. Lesser
worlds float free…
in hand. You’re
Terra Lucida is a book-length poem written entirely in parallel couplets. The structure is significant. If line length manages the flow of timing in a poem, affecting our ability to absorb an idea or image through its cadence and richness of accent and syllabic interplay, the pairing of lines acts similar to the mechanics of eyesight, the enhancement of vision through two eyes rather than one. Two eyes provide a wider field of vision; the overlapping visual fields enables stereoscopic vision by blending slightly dissimilar views of an object which is then seen singly and with depth. By pairing one idea or image with another idea or image, either by contrast or harmony, opposition or similarity, the impact of each line is enhanced, a kind of stereoscopic magnification is effected cognitively. In the excerpt above, for instance, it is delightful to see how the image of worlds floating free is contrasted with the folding of sunglasses; one image is rather nebulous and loose, the other particular and concrete. We hear the clack of glasses folding, feel the looseness of something barely perceptible occurring, and are coaxed into a wondering about consciousness and perception, the possibility of other dimensions, other worlds, within range of the quotidian. This is why I find the Jewish mythology of Rabbi Luria so compelling in relation to Donahue’s poetic conception. This is not, however, a point I want to belabor. I want merely to draw attention to the overall flavor of the work, which is a blend of the personal with the cosmic, the very grand with the very modest.
Another aspect to the use of parallel couplets emphasizes another strategy that Donahue uses to great affect. When two statements are made as if connected the reader is forced to consider their relations for her or himself. The connection may bear a logic, a sense of coherence, that bears some integrity to the overarching dynamic of the poem and is there for the reader to discover, or may project a buoyant randomness whose weightless line of thought will have a joyful dereliction, an invitation to freely associate until bound or tethered by the more forceful gravities of a theme.
In Donahue’s work, it is the former quality that is most operative. He prefers relation and rational argument to phantasmagoria and delirium. There is often a sense of collage, an idiosyncratic contiguity of pop culture and mysticism, but Donahue is not a surrealist; his constructions cohere very gracefully. There is ambiguity, but it is the type we find in books of theosophy and metaphysics, not strictly in the purviews of a language at odds with its own rules, an ebullient metalanguage driven by anarchical inquiry, convulsive developments and chance operations. Donahue is unabashedly transcendent, a romantic in denim. He enjoys the riddling qualities of the parable in a manner similar to Edmond Jabes, the hidden realities of religious enigma, the invisible made visible in verbal equations akin to the great parables of Sufi and Talmudic lore and the scintillating mysteries embedded in the riddles of the Christian gnostics. Yet, despite the loftiness of such a Quixotic orientation, he remains down-to-earth, very much at home in the everyday, in which he sees much beauty, and pathos and charm.
One of the more strikingly beautiful poems of this collection is devoted to the Hudson River School. This is an apt choice for Donahue whose work is everywhere diffused with luminosity. The Hudson River School painted in a style called Luminism, which sought to convey a pantheistic view of nature in which the sublime and beautiful are united in the soft, breathing light of a benign, universal mind pulsing through nature in a glamour of trailing mists and alluring vistas. Here is Donahue’s poem in its entirety:
With Church, all’s horizon,
or like a horizon, on, towards,
over, beneath, up from which light
streams. For the first time, we feel
what it means to live on a planet.
Volcanic smoke drifts across the sun.
Icebergs float in chill black waters.
And finally we can begin to feel
what the open sky might mean.
Underneath it, the water in the lake
has turned to a white mist.
A jungle seems shot through
with Persian colored thread.
Beneath that sun, America is all
waterfalls, waterfalls and cascades.
The sun is like a long glitter of
silver and white falling into a cloud.
And Cole said: what matters is
not what we see. What matters
is the veil through which we see it …
Air is liquid. Liquid aspires to be light.
Mist is spilling from the hollows.
The settlers on the spit of land
seem about to walk out on the water.
The world is a cycle of rising and falling,
a peak where a saint stands, arms upraised.
The sun is the light of revelation.
The sun hides nothing but night.
At night the sun is in an asylum
where Ralph Albert Blakelock
paints black trees, black
trees without leaves,
black trees without leaves
on a starless night…
Donahue’s poetic critique of the Hudson River School might serve as a critique of his own work. There is a precision to his writing that feels Neo-Classical in its underpinnings and scale. The tone is reverent. The words are poised in psalmodic proposition. There is a stately, measured grace by which we move from line to line.
The poem begins with a cluster of searching prepositions: on, towards, over, beneath, and up. The horizon is elusive, beyond the reach of language. The prepositional coordinates fail; Donahue moves toward a more imagistic plane of reference. “Volcanic smoke drifts across the sun.” “Icebergs float in chill black waters.” “And finally we begin to feel/ what the sky might mean.” The poem begins to equal its equations in this very simple representation of high, exalted emotion. These are very blunt, very direct images of a world that is still alive in the freshness of primordial creation, an Edenic horizon of icebergs and volcanoes, chill waters and open sky. Despite the implication of danger, it is not a world of menace or evil, simply a world that is rough and potentially lethal because it is alive with creative force.
“America is all/ waterfalls, waterfalls and cascades.” The poem at this point has the aura of frontier, America the beautiful, a wilderness not removed from God but imbued with God. Mist spills from hollows. The air aspires to be light. The settlers, unlike the Puritans, almost in complete opposition to the Puritans, are a part of nature, able nearly to walk out on the water, so at home do they feel in this frontier between earth and sky imbued with the light of angels and beatitude.
This unabashed reverence is highly unusual in contemporary American poetry, particularly among the postmodernists, where irony and contrariety are more apt to explode into seditious collage and convulsive syntax rather than a measured blend of candor and transcendental rapture.
Donahue is not all exaltation, however. There is a personal side to his poetics. Throughout this work, which spans several decades, are numerous references to a life of intimacy and accident, mood pills and lipstick. One feels a warm, affectionate personality driving the words of this elusive work, but the identity of the poet remains vague, not so much hidden behind the words as sublimated by them, diffused into breath and broth and and rivers and stones. There is a ghostly quality, a wistful ephemerality, occasioning glimpses of a life immersed in ancient mythologies and deep ruminations, a Prospero among his books. Personal details emerge briefly and fragmentarily before being folded into more exalted themes. There is a mysterious romantic intrigue that occurs at a party, a loved one who appears to have suffered a brain injury or undergone surgery sipping water “adrift in prescriptions,” a terrorist strike at a concert, the “glitter of red on harp strings,” “the musicians all dead,” abuse of a strange pharmaceutical called “black beauties” (which a Google search reveals to be a combination of amphetamine and dextroamphetamine), holy words in a grocery bag, flakes of lemon peel, girls murmuring in deck chairs, an “endless phone bill.” The kind of a daily detritus on the periphery of anyone’s life, but within the context of Donahue’s pilgrimage, these details float and bob like flotsam on a sea of luminous thought. Even the terrorist attack has the feel of something occurring at a far distance, an irreality on the fringe of perception, like something happening in a dream.
“Our consciousness, and the poem as a supreme effort of consciousness,” observed Robert Duncan, “comes in a dancing organization between personal and cosmic identity.” (Duncan, 78). In Donahue’s poetry, reverence for the personal and reverence for the cosmic provide a warp and woof of universal biography. The poetry resists the encumbrance of too much personal detail, the specifics of personal crisis, because it verges perpetually on the life and light of the universal mind, the imbuement of a higher consciousness akin to that of Josiah Royce’s pansychism or Alfred North Whitehead’s panexperientialism. Duncan is the only poet in recent history who has the same ability to speak so frankly on myth and religion without sounding the least bit affected or pious. It’s easy to assimilate Duncan’s unabashed romanticism because of the power of his intellect and the integrity of his lines. If we reach further back into English literary history the metaphysical poets of the 17th century come to mind: George Herbert, Thomas Traherne, Henry Vaughn, and John Donne. Religious excitement is made palatable by the work of these poets because of its essential gnosticism, its unorthodox boldness of conceit and image. This religious or transcendental feeling that pervades Terra Lucida glimmers in the easy grace of its lines and couplets. It is a scintillation of sound and sense, a roving, intuitive making in which each true image continues the original, universal Creation.
Donahue, Joseph. Terra Lucida.Jersey City, New Jersey: Talisman House Publishers, 2009.
Duncan, Robert. Fictive Certainties. Berkeley: New Directions, 1985.
John Olson is the author of eight collections of poetry, his most recent being Backscatter: New and Selected Poems, from Black Widow Press, 2008. Souls of Wind, his novel about the exploits of poet Arthur Rimbaud in the American West, where he meets Billy the Kid, was published by Quale Press in 2008, and has been nominated for a Believer Book Award.