Among contemporary American poets, Joseph Donahue is an underrecognized master. For years, he has been accumulating a prodigious body of work in which a searching vision and a refinement of craftsmanship combine. If, for John Ashbery, Incidental Eclipse (2003) “confirms Donahue as one of the major American poets of this time,” recent publications, Red Flash on a Black Field (Black Square Editions, 2014) and Dark Church (Verge Books, 2015), further solidify the splendor of Donahue’s accomplishments. Both Red Flash and Dark Church are hefty volumes — over 200 pages each — and both are beautifully produced and designed (the former by Shari DeGraw and the latter by Jeff Clark). Part of the impressiveness of this output is the apparent ease in which Donahue inhabits differing modes of poetic expression, which variously engage with the complexity of our material and spiritual lives.
In a 2013 interview with Jon Curley, Donahue explains, “For a while now I have been writing essentially two kinds of poetry, the lyrics that comprise the ongoing cycle called Terra Lucida, and then some other thing […] [which] I characterize to myself in various ways, as associative flights, digressive amble, spirit walkabout, oneiric ode, phenomenological epic fail, breakfast with the dead.” Red Flash collects a colorful array of short and mid-length poems in the “associative” vein while Dark Church represents the latest installment (Books IX-XII) of Donahue’s ongoing apocalyptic long poem Terra Lucida, whose first two volumes Terra Lucida (2009) and Dissolves (2012) were published by Talisman House.
Either one of the new books should be a cause for celebration; both entering the world in such a short time frame has something of the power of an astronomical coincidence — like a lunar eclipse with the moon at perigee. The poetry of Dark Church and Red Flash, according to Donahue, “exist in an antithetical relationship, with the contrasting poles variously understood as, say, song and speech, vertical and horizontal, static and moving, sacred and profane, uttered and overheard.”
As Donahue writes in Dark Church, he is a poet of contrasts, “drawn” “to the agony of / contradiction” as well as “dazzled” “by // the ambiguous grace of / light and dark.” He is an explorer of limits, of the mundane and the sublime, an inquirer of what lies between them—and beyond.
“A Servant of God without a Head,” one of the stand-out poems in Red Flash, tends toward what Louis Zukofsky called the “[l]ower limit [of] speech”; it illustrates Donahue’s facility at capturing—with considerable panache—our bewildering and belated postmodern condition:
…In the glow of
far cities, it’s easy to cross the wrong
airspace and wind up carried in a beige
catamaran to the water, and sailing
toward the clouds where the
mountains are, leaving dogs
and crows around a bonfire or
a wall of smoke, across a green hill,
spilling from the torn bits of
the new cardboard card, copying
the old plastic card, copying money,
copying enslavement to birth and death,
that black road ending in a white mist
by the ruins of a tavern where the
Revolt of the Spirit was betrayed,
where what would have been
a landmark is now a men’s room
with pictures spread out on the floor.
This remarkable sentence unfurls across heavily enjambed lines as Donahue surveys a fragmented exurban landscape as fraught by an uneasy geopolitics (“it’s easy to cross the wrong / airspace”) as it is haunted by the residue of capitalism’s profane representations (“torn bits of / the new cardboard card, copying / the old plastic card, copying money.”) In this debased world, scattered and discarded documents (“pictures spread out on the floor” in “a men’s room”) and decrepitude (“ruins of a tavern”) have replaced a stable sense of history (“what would have been / a landmark”) and the would-be triumph of “Spirit” over matter.
If Red Flash captures the flummoxing flux — both the thrills and disappointments — of our earthly existence, as we enter “wet, shivering with pleasure // into the elements,” Dark Church sets its sights on what Henry Corbin, the renowned scholar of Islamic mysticism, calls “Terra Lucida,” “the land that secretes its own light.” In the same way that Donahue’s oeuvre shuttles between antithetical poles (“song and speech, vertical and horizontal, static and moving, sacred and profane,”) so too does Dark Church, in its revelatory mode, consider, in a nod to the Arabic alphabet, “the verticality / of the aleph, // the horizontal / whirl of the bey.” The book performs a dazzling dialectic play of oppositions: light and shadow, the visible and the invisible, dream and reality, and—to quote “earth shadow,” the first suite in Dark Church—“the // now / —and // the not- / now.”
In an early section of Dark Church, Donahue meditates on the eruption of an Icelandic volcano, bringing to mind the dramatic 2010 spewing of Eyjafjallajökull. The passage’s subjunctive force — fueled by the twinned repetitions of would and were — turns what might have been an occasional loco-description into an intense reverie of eschatological speculation: “Would this / enshrouding // were the emancipation of // matter, would this flame / were of the // spirit, this volcano // ethereal, guttering / forth from // a paradise of / white ice.” There is an ascetic exactitude here, a precision of phrasing and pitch.
In contrast to the poetry of Red Flash, which presents a fast-moving flow of surreal and digressive collages, the more purely lyrical discourse of Dark Church is structured and modulated by repeating couplets. Anchored by anaphoric constructions, the poem generates a liturgical insistence in its desire for rapture:
rush were angelic.
Would souls were assembled on
a mountain in
utterly fly up,
to and through
the gate of a higher
a new body
These narrow couplets form a kind of column or pillar on the page, as if to reinforce the divine verticality of “that liberation, that / escape, up // through the // opening blown // in the sky.” In the subsequent section, which jumps from Iceland to the San Juan Islands of the Pacific Northwest, Donahue travels not up but down the vertical axis to mediate on origins rather than ends: “These may be the islands / where the chief said // the tribe arrived from a star. / They climbed down the ropes // made of celestial roots. / After the descent, and // possibly to their dismay, / the ropes became waterfalls.”
To quote Robert Duncan’s The H.D. Book (Donahue is surely an inheritor of H.D.’s gnostic modernism), any given landscape in Dark Church, from Texas to Turkey, “is a multiple image, in which the historical and the personal past, along with the divine world, the world of theosophical and of poetic imagination, may participate in the immediate scene.” When Donahue writes of Dallas (his birthplace and site of John F. Kennedy’s assassination), he mingles history and mythography. “There could never be / a Dallas without // a Dealey Plaza, just as / there could never be an Egypt // without the great gates / to immortality.” When he writes of a visit to Istanbul in the volume’s final book, landscape becomes historical palimpsest verging on dreamscape:
as if after a long flight
came deep sleep
in a basement room
as if Istanbul
were, could yet be,
This is a place “where you might // in your wanderings / now be, eyes wide // and dreaming, dreaming / that all might at // any moment be / otherwise.”
Donahue excels at invoking such liminal states of possibility even in his so-called “profane” poetry. In Red Flash, he describes in couplets (that could have well come from Terra Lucida) a waking image at the limen:
…In the morning,
open door, hummingbird, black and
white stripes, a long yellow bill,
hangs for a second in the air.
All’s at once, and only once,
says the quick of its wings,
but the once is endless.
There is a rhetorical brilliance to this passage, the word “quick” indicating “the central, vital, or most important part of a thing” while, at the same time, conjuring the hyper-rapidity, the astounding quickness of the bird’s wings; and in a series of subtle repetitions, Donahue changes the word “once” from adverb to noun, making its concept open to radical transformation: “the once is endless.” It is a multiple image, perhaps less phanopoeic than epiphanopoeic, in which profane time opens onto the eternal — an illuminating, if fleeting, flash in the world’s dark church.