"I was in Dallas when Kennedy was shot," Joseph Donahue wrote, in a poem called “Seven” in his memorable debut, Before Creation, thus giving a characteristically radiant and weird answer to the generation-defining conversation starter. (Warren Burger’s ghost need not rise: the poem’s title indicates Donahue’s age more or less when the single gun fired.) By turns gruesome, funny, and beautiful, Before Creation is pitched on the balance point between excitement and anxiety, a position Donahue abandoned for a series of chapbooks and his second full collection: dark, prophetic monologues in compressed, often beautiful lines. In Incidental Eclipse, his third collection, Donahue restores the comic timing—the uncomfortable interruptions—somehow increasing his capacity for the sublime.
But first, a little context. In 1989, the year Before Creation was published, there was no Oliver Stone vision of the assassination of JFK, no Twin Peaks to cross-breed detective drama with soap, comedy, and supernatural terror (never mind an X-Files to make the combination syndicate-able), it still took some work to find Velvet Underground CDs (no boxed set yet), and Rudy Giuliani had yet to make the jump from respected ink-hound prosecutor to justifiably paranoid quality-of-life zealot. Around New York, Donahue and his associates John Yau, Albert Mobilio, and Leonard Schwartz were fusing strains of post-war American writing into untested combinations.
While Donahue’s catholic tastes let him claim precursors from Robert Duncan to James Merrill to Thomas Traherne, I tend to claim for him instead the unlikely duo of John Ashbery and William Burroughs (would that be David Lynch?). From Before Creation: “At the corner phone,/ the acting vice president, her son/ beaten with a pipe in a drug transaction.” “The corpse upright on the median bench,/ bits of bodies blown over the airwaves.” “The kidnapper called the station to request/ a song, and shot himself before it came on.” And just when even a not-so squeamish reader might question the called-for-ness of this gruesomeness, Donahue goes over the head of any tastemaker thinking in terms of poetry written in English: “The jury clamors, no goddess descends/ and Orestes condemned to scrub the/ blood from his parents’ house.” (“Transfigurations.”)
There’s a strenuously non-Aeschylean love of the demotic in all its cynical glory, too:
Every product has
an inherent drama,
said Leo Burnett. The
Marlboro Man. Hell,
Tony the Tiger. These
are the masterpieces.
Donahue integrates his deadpan provocations seamlessly into the patter, collaging fragments with sentences, drifting from past to present tense, even shifting from first to second to third person, building long poems that not only compound the reader’s attention the entire way, but reach unexpected climaxes:
The severed head
of a sow lands at
my feet and the
bridesmaid tells me:
That roll of film
you wanted is
inside it. (“Here and There”)
Those italics are the star of this poetry. They’re not absent from the works between the first and third books, but they’re much reduced. A prose piece called “The Age of Oracles” chronicles a day job at a horoscope company called Dial the Stars in the days when Skylab was falling and the child murderer Wayne Williams was stalking Atlanta: “Calm, polite, the caller needs to reach the astrologer. A month ago, he says, his daughter disappeared, walking home from school. Police have given up. A small girl on a dirt road. No clues.” Other work borrows a symbolic framework from a series of paintings depicting Christ entering not Jerusalem but Manhattan, and there’s a syntactic regularity to this period that relies on contractions and elisions to create an eerie, not instantly recognizable vatic tone, e.g. “All’s a rush job, labor the elixir.” Donahue taps into the depressive streak behind apocalypse fantasies, as in an apparent dream citation in italics:
My parents were gone. Only next door.
I didn’t know that. I hid myself. I thought the
Rapture had happened, and I had been left behind… (“Christ Enters Manhattan”)
The new work has a much more vibrant palette, demonstrating ease with the coexistence of opposites, ironies, and lulls: “Kiss me on the mouth,/ bridegroom. Rescue me, flame”; a “yellow tent on purple-grained stone”; “paradisal shimmer/ by the crates of cabbages that/ almost reach the street” (“Lost Letter in a Last Word”). The kabbalistic letter-bride of the poem’s title is sharply contrasted with Eros, seen in a new life as “a walk-on in a variety of TV shows.” In these poems, Donahue lets the italics wrestle with the Roman type:
Heat spells and dust. Sunlight whitens the air.
(Kokoschka, Strindberg, and Kleist are looking on.)
We can have sex if you want, but I’ve got this infection. (“Scandalized Masks”)
This alternate speaker is more aware of the power and limits of the quip, and so finds less ingratiating means to temper the lyric. Mentioning physical pain is one, invoking error is another; Donahue’s characteristic abandonment dreams and dialogue come in on cue too.
In a dream, a mother is speaking to her children:
One Sunday walking home five years ago from church
I just went into the wrong house! I didn’t die!
There are instances of anaphora that resemble storyboards as much as they do Christopher Smart:
The first card, a man with a tarantula.
Then, from the left breast of Isis, blood.
Then, a lavender scarab, pinned
on a smock in a coffin.
Then, a bird of prey in Australia.
Then, a kite dropped from a bomber.
Then, meds for an associative disorder… (“This to That and Thus”)
(That last line can be taken as a comment on list poetry in general.) He is as much the master of the poignant objective correlative as any other American writing (a vacated apartment “looks as if the Nazis swept through,/ forgetting only a gift certificate that/ dropped behind the radiator”) but most importantly, he is capable of going without any of his accustomed devices when the emotion he’s relating can’t really be mastered, as in his elegy for his mother:
Without that voice to call me
I am motionless, says the deer
as evening lifts over the mountain. (“Aria Nowhere”)
The accumulation of these absences all rendered in plain diction on the order of “The coat of the fox turns white” is beyond sublime. Donahue is so persuasive that even if I don’t exactly know how at the end of the poem the sky can lie “broken/ into bits,” the tears and adrenaline make it difficult for me to focus on the words anyway.