“I will not give in. I will grow more strange,” announces the poet Timothy Donnelly in his debut collection, and he’s certainly a man of his word. This singular concoction—audacious of whimsy, ferocious of style—almost lives up to the copious hype, with jacket blurbs from Jorie Graham and Lucie Brock-Broido, not to mention Richard Howard’s foreword inside. (Since when do first books of verse come with forewords? Since when does Grove even publish first books?) Whatever strings were pulled, Donnelly is unquestionably the real deal, shifting registers between the colloquial and the vatic—or, “what trash what/treasure, piss and brilliance”—with aplomb. Deciphering his inventive, intricate palimpsests may take time, but it’s worth the effort.
Donnelly’s exuberant rhymes and enjambed rhythms immediately draw a reader in; the music of what happens entices even when what’s happening—i.e., the meaning—is 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 woolens 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 specific—a plucked ostrich in a bamboo cage should be arranged “Tantalus-style,” its beak approaching a bucket marked SESAME but filled with sand—the 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.