Poetry; Business; Corporations; The bible; Noah: these are, I kid you not, the keywords that will lead you to Timothy Donnelly on The New Yorker’s website. Since the publication of The Cloud Corporation, Donnelly’s second book of poems, a remarkable and deserved flow of critical esteem (occasionally from predictable sources) has been bestowed upon Donnelly. And upon a fourth reading of this book I can say, probably with many others, that I have run the gamut of emotions from happily (and unhappily) disoriented, to jealous, to joyfully surprised. I was not, however, surprised to see that John Ashbery had pulled ‘the poetry of the future, here, today’ from out of his ever-deepening file folder of panegyric blurbs. Yet, The New Yorker’s keywords are apt. This is a book of poems which sardonically reapplies a contemporary, bureaucratic vocabulary to an imaginative space which might otherwise have been theological. While this tactic of using secular language to fill Christian potholes is common, Donnelly’s book is an extremely unusual and carefully constructed secular chapel.
The eponymous poem ‘The Cloud Corporation’ is indicative of the style of this 148 page (yes, truly) collection. This is a seven section poem, each section containing seven tercets and beginning with the line ‘the clouds part, revealing…’. Each time, like a magician producing a wonderful illusion, Donnelly shocks us. Part 2 begins:
The clouds part revealing an anatomy of clouds,
viewed from the midst of human speculation, a business
project undertaken in a bid to acquire and retain
control of the formation and movement of clouds…
In tone and syntax this is representative of all of Donnelly’s long poems, which are by far the stronger of the collection. All of this is happening in the ‘clouds’, which provide a kind of vast ethereal backdrop for poems which, despite this, can be trusted to be about very quotidian things. The praise that Donnelly has garnered is partially, I think, due to an accurate perception of the unique poise he holds between the new and the old; and this may be a tired dichotomy, but it’s still an intuitive critical yardstick for many poets and critics. I constantly found myself wondering: who, in the recent past, has written pentameter tercets quite like this? No one. But then, are they really iambic pentameter? Do I look like a fool calling them that? The provocation of that kind of internal dialog is what I look for in a book of poems; ask yourself: have they made a fool of my critical sensibilities? Stylistically, Donnelly is categorically elusive (thank God) but bears a bit of analysis. A wry conversational tone combined with a predilection for brilliant run on sentences push these poems into an uncharted rhythmic territory. Imagine a camera shot of a 19th century locomotive slowly chugging into the rhythm of pushing itself forward—and then, suddenly, its gained an almost impossible speed. Donnelly’s poems pull you forward with this kind of rhythmical trick; and it’s nearly impossible to isolate a single stanza and get the sense or syntax complete. The best of these poems just go on and on, holding their delicate balance between the daringly abstract and the fiercely concrete.
Cringe-worthy moments in an 148 page book of poems are not hard to find. ‘Chapter For Being Transformed Into A Sparrow’ begins ‘The world tries hard to bore me to death, but not hard enough./ Today it made me sit immobile in the bath-’. It continues ‘…but the fact is, World—/ I was totally into it.’ The rhetorical gain of this kind of cynical, bathetic wit occasionally results in a great success and occasionally a great flop. This humor repeats itself everywhere, and frankly, I’m still confused about much of this book—why the things he does are successful in some places and utter failures in others may remain a mystery to me for a long while. But Donnelly’s is a fresh kind of mystery, one that seems ultimately trustworthy. Since publication, this book has most often been compared to Wallace Stevens, with whom he shares a predilection for fluffy, tantalizingly abstract sentiments and sentences. The greatest point of comparison between the two poets, however, is that the surreal excesses of their imaginations are animating—not alienating—presences; many poets could learn something from this.