The Cloud Corporation, Timothy Donnelly’s new collection of poems, is a difficult book. That is to say, it’s much more complex than the poetry I usually read. I’m a fan of talky poets, writers like Dean Young and Tony Hoagland who, even when they’re being opaque or experimental, give each of their poems a loose narrative arc. Reading them is like having a conversation with a good friend: there are starts, stops and detours, but also a shared logic that makes you both feel like you’re going somewhere. Donnelly’s collection is knotty and complex in comparison; it’s beautiful reading, but it takes time to understand. Where other poems are chatty, these are cerebral.
Donnelly is the longtime poetry editor of Boston Review and an assistant professor of creative writing at Columbia University. He published his first collection, Twenty-Seven Props for a Production of Eine Lebenszeit, in 2003, and wrote these poems over the course of the next six years. The new collection reflects both his academic background and his poems’ long development: it’s full of dense, thoughtful pieces that pull in a variety of texts and references and try to place them in the poet’s world.
Like many of us, Donnelley is preoccupied with the myriad and weighty concerns that have defined American culture since the early aughts: among them, war, torture, and finding his place in an expanding, fractured world. Unlike many of us, he sees these things through a frame of literary reference. So his “Dream of a Poetry of Defense,” for instance, isn’t only about poetry or just about national defense. Instead, it’s a mash-up of words from Shelley’s A Defence of Poetry and The 9/11 Commission Report, a mixture of the literal and metaphorical that makes sense in both realms.
Although it takes up the work of a lyric poet, “Dream of a Poetry of Defense” isn’t necessarily meant to be read aloud. The poem benefits from being voiced; it has a steady rhythm that underscores both its rationality and its nonsensicality. But it also rewards pausing and rereading. Donnelly’s syntax and wordplay can trip you up on the first time through; his grammar is, as a friend of mine put it, “masterfully stacked and inverted.” Maybe it’s my own mental scatteredness, but as I read through The Cloud Corporation I found myself stopping to look up familiar words, expecting them to suddenly mean something new. Donnelly makes it difficult to take meaning for granted. He has a knack for making the familiar unfamiliar. He puts the reader to work.
If you’re willing to do the work, the poems are incredibly rewarding. They offer meaning on many levels: not only are they cerebral in themselves, they ask questions about what it means to think. A few months ago, Donnelly told Publisher’s Weekly that his poems “aim to capture the movement of a mind through thought.” That’s an artful way of saying that they wander, interrupt themselves, and constantly double back. They don’t feign knowledge; they’re insatiably curious, both about their own boundaries and about the boundaries of the human mind. We can see that in “Poem Beginning with a Sentence From The Monk,” in which Donnelly, sitting in prison, recounts his thoughts:
Thoughts to which a mind should not be driven
drove me through a bank of devilment in flower.
Thoughts to which the mind had grown immune
soon sickened me against me, turned me
in among me, stranger than before, my quarantine a panic
room bricked in, a tightening around me
in increments only animals know.
At first, the poem explores the lines between sanity and insanity, quarantine and freedom. The poet delineates those boundaries, and then crosses them, through thought: literally, he’s just sitting down and thinking. Later in the stanza, though, Donnelly constructs thought as itself a sort of prison. In other words, the act of thinking doesn’t just make us aware of our boundaries—it is a boundary, and it can shut the poet off from the rest of the world. Donnelly wants to depict thinking as a type of movement, but he also shows how often it locks us in one place.
Trapped in his own mind, the poet occupies a particularly anxious space. He wants to connect with others, but never can. Donnelly’s poems reflect this tension; everything he sees is personal, but removed. In “The New Histrionicism,” he stages a medieval Irish story in his own garden—then withdraws to an upstairs window to watch. Once he separates himself from the scene, the poet loses his authority as well. At a crucial moment in the action, the house goes black. “A struggle between the darkness and the sense I control it,” Donnelly says, “ends abruptly. The darkness is not nice.”
This is The Cloud Corporation’s central worry: that extended thought will leave the poet and reader trapped, isolated, and ultimately impotent. That we will each be caught in an individual darkness, and it will not be nice. What Donnelly doesn’t seem to realize, at first, is that the kind of thinking his poems represent—thinking that is intertextual and referential—inherently connects people to other people. Because it reaches out to new texts and ideas, this kind of thought can never really seal itself off from the world.
I’m tempted, perhaps unfairly, to compare Donnelly with Tao Lin, who’s also interested in how the mind works and scared of being alone. He and Donnelly cover some of the same affective ground, but many of Lin’s poems are so introspective that they do cut off the poet from anything outside himself. In “Washington Mutual Is A Bank That Is Everywhere,” for example, he writes:
There should be something about you
in this poem. But
there is just me, being stupid.
Putting shampoo on things. My roommate’s shampoo. Uncouth. My heart
is a bar of soap. White, flashing. Soap
is clean. Admit it. That it will kill you
if you eat it
probably. I mean, look
at this poem. Where are you. I love life. November. Wonderful. The sun. A cloud
just said something. I don’t know what it said.
I wasn’t paying attention. I don’t care.
Lin takes a willful turn inwards, and it leads to fracture. He accumulates objects, but doesn’t connect with them. His final line sounds flip, but it’s devastating; by focusing his thoughts increasingly on himself, Lin removes the possibility of comprehending, or even acknowledging, another person. Donnelly, in contrast, begins to realize that he has other options. In The Cloud Corporation’s final poem, “His Future As Attila The Hun,” he writes,
But when I try to envision what it might be like to change,
I see three doors in front of me, and by implication
opportunity, rooms full of it as the mind itself is full
thinking of a time before time was, or of the infinite
couch from which none part.
Donnelly alludes to Edward Gibbon’s account of Attila’s life in The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire—that is, he actually reaches outside himself and connects with another text. More importantly, he shows that thought can be productive, not merely constrictive. Instead of boundaries, this kind of imaginative thinking creates possibilities. In the wrong hands, that move could seem trite—after the artist’s long struggle with self-doubt, imagination and creativity swoop in and save the day—but here it’s appropriate. Donnelly recognizes that he’s in some ways trapped, but he also comes to terms with his prison’s potential. As he puts it in “Poem Beginning with a Sentence from The Monk”:
And although I have often felt buried alive
like an architect in the tomb it was his dumb luck to design
for a paranoid king…
I see no reason why, given a modest
number of revisions, I couldn’t grow to love it.
I love this idea of revision as a cornerstone of productive, optimistic thought. While Lin moves relentlessly forward, abandoning things along the way, Donnelly looks back and takes stock of both where he’s been, and what he’d like to change. That’s the way thought actually works: it’s not linear, it’s repetitious. It accounts for its influences and turns and, in that way, always builds something.
In an unintentionally brilliant final move, Donnelly ends his collection with two quick pages of notes to the reader. He lists outside texts and authors and connects them to his poems. He builds us a lovely little index; it’s really quite thoughtful of him.