By Christian Viveros-Fauné
By Miriam Felton-Dansky
By Tom Sellar
By Tom Sellar
By Jessica Dawson
By Tom Sellar
By R. C. Baker
By Tom Sellar
Donnelly's exuberant rhymes and enjambed rhythms immediately draw a reader in; the music of what happens entices even when what's happeningi.e., the meaningis occluded. In the brooding, seven-part "The Spleen's Own Music" (shades of Robert Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy), Donnelly grapples with an unspoken depression:
when to stay would stifle as a vault of skin,
a masterstroke of disproportion in the
worn, the vapors of a strange creation born
and breathed back in, as if to asphyxiate self
with self induced a more judicious choking[.]
The sequence concludes with a partial self-reprieve"But all I did was live." Watching birds in a park, he elliptically resolves, "I will be a flock of the feeding/flown. When one takes off, they all fly, done."
If that seems too poetic, Donnelly elsewhere strikes a bracingly modern pose, reminiscent of Johns Berryman and Ashbery in its playful address. (The mad allegory "An Inflorescence" features the utterance "Hot ukulele! How do you do?") Case in point: the eponymous opener, "Twenty-Seven Props . . . ," a sort of perverse how-to manual for producing an imaginary play. Doubling as both a veiled autobiography (eine Lebenszeit is German for "a lifetime") and an ars poetica (the book contains 27 poems), it sets the stage for the rest of the volume. (Literally stage-setting, the poem tells where the requisite props, indicated in italics, should be placed.)
While these orders start out as preposterously specifica plucked ostrich in a bamboo cage should be arranged "Tantalus-style," its beak approaching a bucket marked SESAME but filled with sandthe tableau vivant's godlike director is gradually revealed as no benevolent Creator (first line: "Let there be lamps"), but a mocking taskmaster who belittles Donnelly. "You know I hate it when you whimper, don't you?" sneers the voice, all jaunty menace. "Now shut that cavernous cartoon mouth." The tension crescendos to a knockout finish:
Now what's that rapping at the shattered
It's the only egress, I neglected to mention.
But here's a rope with knots to help you
a dozen square knots, the last a hangman's.
Now take your heaving to the curtains, part.
They're dove gray, dolly, and fall like art.
Contemporary critics relish poems about poetry, and Donnelly sprinkles numerous self-reflexive musings about. He's "a doctor of a different kind, always/fixing false anatomy, an actor's doctor, always/singing." The metaphysical anxiety made fashionable by Graham also rears its tedious head, in disruptions and corrections"I think I didn't say that right"intended to mimic the flux of thought. Postmodern chestnuts regarding the unfixed nature of consciousness (see "Chance of Infinity in a Little Room") and epistemological uncertainty also get trotted out. When Donnelly writes, "I don't know how much I mean," he probably, uh, means it, but it's hard to care.
When it comes to emotions, however, he has plenty to say. "Three Panels Depending on the Heart" charts the aftermath of a loved one's death, with Donnelly swearing, "I will wrap myself around your ghost till the ghost/itself wants letting go." Piteously unable to face change, he is "not adapting . . . /I'm the one macaque left clinging fast/as the others flee, all eyes and drastic." And Donnelly can make with the happy, too: In his bravura closing poem, "Birdsong From Inside the Egg," the writer adopts the persona of an unhatched chick, full of wonder at a liminal instant of existence. "I am/a composition, the one life's work I have/been forever, the loom and the wool and the mat/for dreaming." At its best, Donnelly's collection weaves such rapturous possibilities together to fashion a strutting, dazzling, exhilarating body of work.
Take the most exquisite
moment in the gallop, where all four
hooves now tread the air, and stretch it
taut indefinitely [ . . . ] An inkling sparks
half the congregation when you rub it right,
half the congregation when you rub it wrong.
I am song forever. I will not have sung.