The beauties of a book by Joseph Donahue? Here’s a list. Mysterious events happen in many world-wide geographical zones, and you accept them for the pleasure of attending to them curiously. Semi-metaphysical landscapes spread out, circumstantially, without burdensome explanation, and release you into a state of awe as astonished as it is amused. You are enveloped in the odd pleasures of the past and by a sense of travel. Events that take place in the normal settings of human yearning make you wonder at the evocative emotions they generate. Inside this poetry, you seem to experience the moments of grace that are often their outcome. The language is poised, not showy, perfectly gracious, attentive without strain, and elegantly deliberative, but its scope is wide. The poem seems to know how long it should go on; it neither scampers nor tyrannizes. The diction weaves secular and spiritual vocabularies.
What am I talking about? I am reading The Disappearance of Fate (Spuyten Duyvil, 2020) — but please do not ask me yet to parse the title. The book is split into two equal (19 and 20) groupings of meditative and epiphanic poems connected by a bridge of three notational or haiku-like series. What is the content? The status of wonder — as both a single motivated occurrence and the outward reverberations from each poem after the reader registers the specific quirks and the emotion-laden places in which the speaker seems to wander. What generates this wonder? The look of the world, the look of dreams of the world — from ancient lands, from times not our own with their slightly archaic tale-telling mood, from gleams of insight, from friendship, from broken things in a vacant lot, from sexuality, from other lives examined without meanness, and from the characters in religious narratives; a few scenes might even occur in cinema that is gently surrealist where the non-logic is perfectly explicable and generally liberating.
This book, similar to (but not part of) Donahue’s long poem Terra Lucida, nonetheless continues a poetics of spiritual quest enunciated in the sequence Wind Maps, to which The Disappearance of Fate belongs, and in Terra Lucida (2009) itself. Here is an excerpt from the first book of the latter:
Orders, Songs, Laws
have been hidden away.
We must try to find them
We must, we say, go find them.
But we hide, ever more deeply,
clinging to an unreal glitter
as these perfections
struggle to reach us.
The mutual/musical yearning (reaching/hiding) is a repeated “plot” of the poems, but this spiritual travel often feels as daily as a bowl of soup, a strip mall, a missed flight, or as evocative and commonplace as a hospice, an adoption day party, a ritual.
These events are often articulated in straightforward, unflashy language, in lucid and unassuming lines. The pulse of understanding is rarely melodramatic, but rather humane and temperate, even when the sentiments and insights are startling, large in scope. And why does all of this make the poems illuminating? Because we live (unaccountably) on “earth/ a heaven ‘without/ rent or seam.’” That is, the stance of the poems is the implacability of joy, in what is seen, felt, suffered, experienced, or imagined. Many of the landscapes (a party in Morocco; a kiss so long and intricate it engulfs the recipient; a seashore from childhood; a Japanese ritual bath; an erotic, sulky, and arousing teenage encounter) are offered exactly as if they occurred and yet the reader may suspect some are happening in a dream, in hypnotic consciousness; some as extended narratives from a fantasy; some within the perfection of an enhanced real; some citing and inhabiting paintings. Their provenance changes neither their authenticity nor their impact: “A buoyancy out of nowhere/ filled me, a blessedness.” Not because things are caught in or by the poem but because they are passing through and evanescent. The cosmological fullness endures. It is Joseph Donahue’s calling to know, honor, and perpetuate its voices in his work. His is a unique practice of praise.
There’s an echo, in “earth/ a heaven ‘without/ rent or seam,’” of the paradoxes such as Yeats enunciated: “nothing can be sole or whole/ That has not been rent” (“Crazy Jane Talks to the Bishop” — and gave him a piece of her theology). The Irishness of a certain time, place, and class, the Catholic debates, these materials suffuse Donahue, but the poet, with a wonder more suffusing than purely aphoristic, enters a space beyond Yeats’s paradox. He communicates not only equanimity, but pleasure — sometimes funny, sometimes just pert observations — at very specific bits of everything. The word “angelic” comes to mind. So do the words “amused compassion.” For what is beyond paradox? Sheer being as such. Perhaps that’s why in this book “fate” has disappeared — because it is all attachment (not detachment), all caring, all pleasure at experience. All events are in the realm of being. And all being evokes — in the last analysis — wonder.
The Disappearance of Fate (2020) by Joseph Donahue is published by Spuyten Duyvil and is available online and in bookstores.