28 February, 2011Issue 15.4LiteraturePoetry

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The Syntactical Sublime

John Steen

foerTimothy Donnelly
The Cloud Corporation
Wave Books, 2010
176 Pages
ISBN 978-1933517476

Timothy Donnelly’s much-anticipated second book of poems, The Cloud Corporation, is an expansive, enveloping work. At 150 pages, it’s three times the size of many trade paperbacks in the genre; some of its poem-length sentences approach 200 words; its lexicon comfortably includes both “bet your ass” and “bewildered anomalies”, and its sources range from The Beverly Hillbillies to Flaubert. In the Wave Press paperback, the title spans, banner style, across the tops of seven title pages, creating a cloud cover of words that, in its conjuring of wispy and ethereal materia poetica, nods humorously to “concrete” poetry and threateningly to any reader or reviewer who would claim to comprehend the book’s topography as from above. Nevertheless, and against the threat to visibility posed by clouds, these are poems that illuminate.

The volume’s magnum opus is its long title poem, which introduces the cloud corporation as a nearly invisible, inescapable, and all too easily ignored economic and commercial system that smothers and supports us in equal, irritating measures. If there were any doubt, these clouds are not lonely romantic wanderers or fluffy anthropomorphisms, but smog-like domineering forces that separate what they shadow from the sun. Indeed, the poem’s refrain—”the clouds part revealing”—grants knowledge in the small spaces or passages that shed light on a world whose control has been ceded, almost without our noticing, to the power of exchange.

As such, the collection, which apposes battle hymn with lament and Egyptian history with personal prophecy, becomes a corporation of a different sort of cloud. These poem-clouds often “part revealing”, but don’t hesitate to conceal and obscure. They are made rather than manufactured, and they resist the technocratic discipline of commerce or mammon; they are invested not in the market, but in a kind of knowledge, recovered by means of introspection and meditation within this efficiency-minded world, and perhaps harnessed for its change. Most importantly, instead of the encompassing knowledge engendered by corporate fog, this knowledge would be provisional, personal, irrational, bearing a “resistance / to deterministic thoughts on identity”:

what happens one knows, but only with a knowing
mistakable for dream, or for a portraiture of weather
pushpinned to the wall above a bed’s tangled deep.

Instead of hovering under the sign of T.S. Eliot’s haunting phrase, “after such knowledge, what forgiveness”, the first poem of The Cloud Corporation introduces calls for “The New Intelligence”. The first two words of the piece are Eliot’s, but the rest of the line, and the poem, search for a new place from which to begin resisting. “After knowledge extinguished the last of the beautiful / fires our worship had failed to prolong”, it begins, informing us that the poem’s milieu will be post-epistemological.

As the collection proceeds, we learn that “after” is only one of many prepositions that modifies knowledge and its objects, placing them into question and displacing them from certainties with a syntactic pyrotechnics that is dizzying, at times, but apt for the phenomena he describes. We witness the events of a mind torn by work-related injury and consigned to the margins of dream-life and the underworld in its bid for redress of grievances.

At the same time, Donnelly is capable as few poets are of a rousing, dramatic writing that wears its irony lightly. He casts even the most private elucubrations in a casual idiom, an imaginative discursiveness that knows its hearers aren’t always so certain where it is leading: “You fear that you have been demanded into being / only to be dropped on the wintry streets of this / imagination rashly….” But Donnelly’s poems work back toward the reassurance that, as in “The Night Ship”, “We are in this together.”

“The New Intelligence” closes with just this kind of reassurance, and in both the first and one of the last appearances of a tender, personal “you”, he joins love to the dream-like animation of objects and creatures, genres that will come to characterize the rest of the volume:

I love that about you.
I love that when I call you on the long drab days practicality

keeps one of us away from the other that I am calling
a person so beautiful to me that she has seen my awkwardness
on the actual sidewalk but she still answers anyway.


I won’t be dying after all, not now, but will go on living dizzily
hereafter in reality, half-deaf to reality, in the room
perfumed by the fire that our inextinguishable will begins.

If Donnelly’s titles—”His Debt”, “His Agenda”, and “Through the Wilderness of His Forehead”—call to mind the mythology of self of Yeats’s early work, the poems themselves channel John Ashbery first and foremost, whose patois they adapt for original use where others only pantomime it.

Before Ashbery, Wallace Stevens is here, not only in these “poems of the act of the mind”, but in the sincerity (tinged with more humor than Stevens usually mustered) with which Donnelly approaches the perils of reflexivity as it unfolds alongside entanglements with others. And before Stevens, Baudelaire’s perversions of personal woe imbue the unexpected objects—dream baboons, cloud machines, diminutive deities—of The Cloud Corporation with a mythlike exoticism that is gratuitous only in the sense that the corporate world, with its bottom lines, wouldn’t tolerate it.

Not that the scions of commerce would survive the syntax of these poems long enough to come face to face with its other-worldly forms. Donnelly is a master of the turns that coax a single sentence across several stanzas and into a poem—a feat that would usually invoke the word “stretching” but that seems wholly unnecessary to describe Donnelly’s line: when the sense gets away from us, as it sometimes does, it’s not from the sentence being poorly made, but from a sort of sublimity at the level of syntax, in which we take pleasure at being so roundly overwhelmed. “Antepenultimate Conflict with Self” does just this, getting away from itself grammatically while lamenting the difficulty of doing so actually:

The time the thought of being pulled apart from
you comes as a relief have now come to outnumber
those it startles me like light from a hurricane
lamp left burning unattended dangerously near
the curtains of the theater we both attend and are.

There’s a Donne in Donnelly, too. Across The Cloud Corporation, a weaving or nesting of metaphors sustained enough to warrant calling them conceits, a rare enough trope in contemporary poetry, allows Donnelly to bring such heterogeneous words and sentences under the umbrella of commentary on corporate America. “Poem Beginning with a Sentence from The Monk” indulges the thoughts of a man too dumbly in his being pent (to borrow Stevens phrase); he imagines an archive of others’ addresses to him:

I wish what others spoke were stilled inside
The mind in stoppered, mouth-blown bottles,
and I’d place these bottles in cabinets made

to resemble faces, and what was said would stay
where you’d expect to find it: in the cabinet
pertaining to the face of the person who had said it.

Conceits like this lead to observation points or scenic overlooks that, while their theme is limitation, seem to make something more possible than before we’d heard it. Referring to his cabinet of voices, we learn “Storage of this nature should, but can’t be infinite— / One’s archive’s blueprints echo one’s anatomy.” Donnelly’s lines are usually long, but he’s not at all incapable of this brand of stunning, stanza-punctuating concision.

Such versatility befits a maker of clouds in their many, itinerant iterations. Donnelly is a poet as comfortable with the long poem in sections as with the short lyric that doesn’t stop at transcribing the pestering hypnagogic thought, but actually follows it into sleep. “Chapter for Breathing Air Among the Waters”, one of several poems in the book to take its title from the Egyptian Book of the Dead, begins with a sentence too long to quote in full:

Whereat the one clear thought
ffI might ride on the remainder
of my wakefulness was taken

fffffby the throat and carried under

the surface leaving me
ffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffnot freed
fffff but caught up in what thinking
tries to conceal:
ffffffffffffffffffffffffffffits foundation
fffffmade of clouds, an anchorage

in sinking down where to know
fffffis to feel knowledge dissolving […]

Donnelly’s doctrine, if it is reducible to one, is to sustain thought in conflict with itself as long as possible. This project is continuously beset by those who would devalue it and undo it in the inevitable “debriefing” that, instead of any calm, follows the storms of clouds corporate. If syntax barricades are the resistance proper to poetry, Donnelly’s poems erect them in style. When the fog or smog stifles them, Donnelly is honest enough to record the way imagination, feeling, and good intentions break down along with the sentences that try to give them lift. Usually, another sentence is waiting in the wings to pick up the thread, giving a continuity to The Cloud Corporation that offsets the blinding pervasiveness of corporate cloud machinery. “Chapter for Removing Foolish Speech from the Mouth” gives us first the book’s resolve, and then what that resolve is up against:

Latest clouds in apricot coach my lips
through wordless chants against a purr

fuming from the nearby textile factory…

ffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffas they take
me to task for having squandered so much
time on that sinkhole reverie I might
have invested in real estate or futures.

We ought to be glad he didn’t: these poems introduce a significant new perspective on poetry’s stake in common concerns. In the early months of a year already marked by the events of hopeful uprising, Donnelly’s ongoing sentences test poetic language’s potential for lift, a potential catalyzed by words articulated “as cross-fertilization / of intelligence and cloud.”

John Steen is a PhD candidate in comparative literature at Emory University.