“The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.” — John 3:8 (King James Version)
Joseph Donahue’s Wind Maps I-VII (Talisman House, Publishers) marks an important departure for a poet who has written in a variety of styles, but has maintained a singular vision through his previous seven books. Donahue is one of several contemporary poets who are reinventing the poem — especially the long poem — as spiritual quest. (Others include Nathaniel Mackey, Susan Howe, Peter O’Leary, and Lissa Wolsak, to name a few.) Looking back to mid-century poet-mythographers such as Charles Olson and Robert Duncan, these are writers who engage any number of religious traditions to produce, as Donahue puts it in Wind Maps, “if not a body of light, // a body becoming / a kind of light.” Throughout Wind Maps, we find allusions to Jewish holidays, to the temporal cycles of Hindu cosmology, to Muhammed’s mystical Night Journey, to the hexagrams of the I Ching, to Greek, Egyptian, and Mesopotamian mythology, and, of course, to the wind of the Gospel of John (which Donahue quotes as an epigraph to one section of the book). The result is a “symposium of the whole,” in Duncan’s famous phrase (from The H.D. Book, 2011), out of which we hear his “cry for a mode of being / that has never yet existed.” In this book, as in so much of Donahue’s poetry, even the most ancient and esoteric spiritual ideas lead us to an understanding of contemporary events and the tragedies of our recent history, so that we can grapple with them and perhaps look beyond them to psychic, if not social, restoration. As Donahue wryly tells us, “An influx of divine intelligence / can be disorienting.”
Such being the case, the question that the poet must address is how to find a style, a form that can accommodate a prophetic sensibility without falling prey to obscurity or bombast. A number of his previous books, including the recent Red Flash on a Black Field (published by Black Square Editions and edited by Hyperallergic Weekend’s John Yau), feature an aggressively fractured, post-New York School heteroglossia that, at its most intense, drops us in an unlikely space between the mundane and the apocalyptic — John Ashbery meets William Blake. Closer to the tonalities of Wind Maps is the ongoing, multi-volume serial poem Terra Lucida. Written in terse but flexible couplets, Terra Lucida takes its title from the “Earth of Light,” the spiritual paradise of Iranian mysticism, and encompasses a range of discourses, including personal memories, historical and current events, reworkings of myth and parable, midrashic commentary, ecstatic prophecy, exhortation, hymn, psalm, and prayer. Much the same can be said of Wind Maps, with one significant difference: unlike Terra Lucida’s couplets, Donahue’s new sequence takes the form of loose, aerated stanzas and short passages that hover and drift on the page. The wind bloweth where it listeth to be sure, but much to Donahue’s credit, he gracefully rides the currents of his inspiration as “Gust after gust / gifts are / set down.”
Keeping the form of the poem at least somewhat tethered are two repeated headings atop various passages. Some sections are simply labeled dream. These do indeed have the look and feel of the poet’s personal dreamwork. Characters from his personal past return unexpectedly; common objects appear in unlikely settings; archetypal figures engage in rituals both portentous and slightly absurd. As is so often the case with dreams, we are in a world that “provokes in each a hope of / some immense understanding / yet to arrive.” In an essay on Terra Lucida, Peter O’Leary notes that “Themes of dreaming and waking run throughout Donahue’s poem, whose character I would describe as an epic trance of hypnopompic mythos.” We find this in Wind Maps too: we are led out of sleep by the poet, just as he has been led out of sleep by a hypnopomp, a dream guide, into a renewal of mythic or storied truth. This is the goal of the poet’s quest, as, for example, in one marvelous symbolic passage in which a father and son, following dream instructions, take a boat to a dark island, seeking a page in the tray of a copier in a shed. What is written on the page? An inscription of the dream? The poem itself? We are not told.
Other sections of the book bear the heading minor lives. It’s a little more difficult to generalize about these, but they appear to be fragments of anecdotes or conversations drawn from real life, which the poet has found worthy of note, due to their pathos and, perhaps, implied political relevance. They usually consist of quotations and provide an effective contrast to the more abstract lyricism that is Donahue’s prevailing mode. Consider this excerpt, which seems like an extract from a pop culture exposé:
So bad, the Feds had to step in. Forget
the Rat Pack. The Rat Pack thing was a lie.
When they were in town, Sammy Davis Jr.
had to stay on the west side. It was evil,
but also, great. At night, east side gigs done,
the musicians came west and played till
dawn. Johnny Hodges kept a mistress there.
For two bucks, you could see Count Basie.
It was evil, but it was also great.
Racism, enacted in segregation, is directed at black musicians and entertainers, including such notable figures as Sammy Davis Jr., Johnny Hodges, and Count Basie: nothing in any way “minor” here. In another, we read that “The corporation does not own your cells / only the means by which you know / what your cells are doing,” leading to a discussion of medical and legal issues, “because your death is / the corporation’s future life.”
Against such malign powers, what can the visionary poet do? At one point, Donahue allies himself with Dante, another cartographer of the Spirit:
the pure song of
to the digressions of
each utterance is
Donahue understands that the poet-prophet must be a faithful recorder, listening to the songs, the moans, the spiraling utterances, even if they seem to be mere asides. But he also grasps that “Everything you have ever written / hides what you saw in heaven.” Indeed, as one of his guides tells him, “A great force maintains / the tyranny of the apparent, / … because what is kept hidden // would annihilate // what now seems to be…” Against that forgetting, against that tyranny, the poet does his work. He gives us a glimpse of what is kept hidden.