I’ve always been a pretentious git. No argument. When I was 16, you could find me sitting around Feltham precinct (that’s what we called it – two carpet stores, two banks, two non-founting fountains, a handful of shoe shops, and a dodgy pub called The Cricketers), reading Charles Baudelaire’s Paris Spleen and drinking any can of beer I could find that matched the colour of the cover – in this case, pale grey. So, Lowenbrau for Rimbaud’s Collected Poems, Stella Artois (thank god) for Thom Gunn’s My Sad Captains, and Mackeson Stout for Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems (how I hated that book). I’ve also written elsewhere that writing a poetry review is like dancing about architecture (someone said that about art criticism, I think). So, here goes – a stab at The Cloud Corporation with a veiled promise not to be too pretentious.
Deep breath. First, I love the cover – a hazy Jasper-Johns-like affair resembling a glass of Pernod with Scrabble tiles instead of ice cubes, or engravings under tissue paper, or a cloudbank peppered with headlines. Actually, that last analogy works for the entire collection. Donnelly gives us glimpses of a new reality (or reality [eo ipso]), a new intelligence, a new way of apprehending (in both senses) the world through words. As with the Martian school of poets (particularly Craig Raine’s 1979 collection A Martian Sends a Postcard Home) in which “Mist is when the sky is tired of flight / and rests its soft machine on the ground: // then the world is dim and bookish / like engravings under tissue paper.” (ooh, see what I did?) Anyway, as with Martian poetry, Donnelly makes the familiar unfamiliar, we’re never quite sure where he’s going, but we follow in order to see what uncanny synapse triggers an image or a word that has no right to be where it appears.
The fusion of the domestic and the surreal sometimes reads like John Ashbery, “Prodigies of timing may be arranged to convince them / We live in one dimension, they in ours. While I / Abroad through all the coasts of dark destruction seek / Deliverance for us all, think in that language: its / Grammar, though tortured, offers pavilions / At each new parting of the ways.” And there its is, what Ashbery calls “thinking in another language” – a language of poetry not prose, a tortuous grammar that re-thinks the world. Donnelly’s reality runs at supersonic speed, it merges sensation and sensitivity, it is disturbing and yet beautiful, a strobe-lit nightclub of the mind. (That’s two I’ve counted so far.)
In some of the poems “slow time / reassembles”, and Donnelly speculates on our way in the world, gently haranguing the reader with almost-Biblical, quasi-legal language, “And such proceedings shall be considered criminal: / amusement amendments, two or more individuals, / any dream proceedings which engage in the activities // indicating intention, love or other things of value.” At other times, he adopts a more classical surreality, “When loathing’s narwhal thrusts its little tusk / deep into the not-for-profit of my thought / and anchors in the planks across which I have // stomped unfathomable hours, and thanklessly.” However, Donnelly never betrays his own voice, the poet as observer embedded in language but not subservient to it. He doesn’t go as far as the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets – Bruce Andrews, Charles Bernstein, Ron Silliman, et alii and Susan Howe, Lyn Hejinian, Tina Darragh, et aliae – in foregrounding the presence of language, nor does he go to the extremes of abstraction as do P. Inman and Jackson Mac Low, “aNd clouDs E aZes tuRned ple, /
As Poggio uOise, / ad Up weeN chilD E aZ,” but he uses the experimentation of these poets to create “Disturbance that ask to be likened to the weather,” small word storms, elaborate language fronts that shift and skew our vision, lyrical thermals that lift us above the world and then plummet us back at dizzying speed.
Reading this collection, I kept getting flashbacks to other American poets, and thought that, yes, maybe Donnelly is the heir to Walt Whitman, Jack Kerouac, Kenneth Koch, Ted Berrigan, and Clark Coolidge, see Coolidge’s, “I passed the rows of brick where Easter neared / with eggs of varnished ice that vanished not / in air as blue to touch as mountain’s thrust is rough / on windows hard with dust that I had traced there once.”
Any Cop?: Yes. A dazzling set of poems with brilliant titles, refreshing imagery, and provocative wordage, “Thought, leaves, houses; the last vibrations / faded to be remembered, in a place we would never / finish imagining: and it was then we began.”