Not only fragments and filaments, but also liturgies and litanies embed themselves in Joseph Donahue’s Terra Lucida, a chain of poetic assemblage that both embodies and breaks free of given notions of the long poem. While the formal designs of that thematic behemoth can be ascribed to his project, Donahue’s abrupt transitions, radical breaks, and vertiginous frames disrupt the cohesion and narrative continuity on which the genre depends. Rarely in contemporary poetry has the couplet served so astonishingly as a centrifugal mechanism, as bonding agent to the lines, serving to contain and unite its pressurized contents — “all those/tatters of the creation” mediated “in this aberrant rendition” — which seem at any moment threaten to break apart.

The newest installment, Dissolves: Terra Lucida IV-VIII (the previous volume, eponymously titled Terra Lucida, was published in 2009), continues the restless deployment of stark, imbricated images, meticulous descriptions, bracing meditations on the sacred and the worldly, and various micro-narratives. In Donahue there is both gravity and grace, “microbes and leviathans,” a feverish commingling of arresting mythic, mystical, and mundane realities with no adversarial disjunction between different zones of incorporated materials and experiences. The intricate architecture recalls the miraculous scaffolding of Ronald Johnson’s ARK..

The poem’s traffic through many intellectual domains undermines  the categorical or secure sense of religious poetry, although Biblical allusion moves intermittently through the work, contriving shapes of thought that aid the interpretive processes that visit material and spiritual concerns. There are intercessions and intersections of personal biography and objective analysis of phenomena; historical and counter-historical thinking converge in dialectic akin to the relationship of dream and desire.

Ghosts and bodies at play and in pain haunt the text; interestingly, the term “spirit” scarcely appears (I counted one instance in either volume) while “soul” is preponderant — signifying a noumenal entity that can be less ambiguously rendered as sacral, apocalyptic, or in suffering. The phenomenal and the phe-noumenal coalesce, so too projection, evocation, and perception so that the transcendent can be measured against the empirical, “A paradise/in bits,” and elusive and illusory apprehensions of either. Dissolves contains a sequence of “must be” declarations that are ultimately upended by doubt:

Must be
paradise, visible.

But then:

But then, closer up,
no, nothing more than

a 19th century tintype
of the covenant…

Radical faith is tempered by radical skepticism, and vice versa. The poetic itinerary moves like a quest narrative, almost a phantasmagorical (even psychedelic) reinvention of the Irish imram, a would-be ballad whose redemptive maneuvers in a fallen world are sought but never settled on, where kinesis and potentia keep tension, and knowledge, like the title, “dissolves.”

Donahue splices together his materials, treating them as delicate, porous membranes, connecting them and creating a synergistic relationship of therefore non-discrete objects, interposed rather than juxtaposed. He reviews and reinvents epistemological relations, reckonings, and erasures through which poetic consciousness renews itself, replenishing a voracious need to fine-tune its assessments of the material world in its facts and fictions and the imaginative, spiritual world in all its force and seeming nature.

A letter, large,

Greek, maybe Hebrew,
letters are gates, to be entered,

though the art turns eerie
the longer I look,

a letter, maybe not,
maybe just the place

where all the
space inside of the

world’s paintings
goes, all the shades

and planes
of light.


You bring your statement
and you vanish with it.

Dan Flavin, the man
of light said,


Tradition brings stability, perception yield uncertainty; the classical conjoins with the modern and the merging brings clarity. The negotiations of language — in their materiality, discursive natures, restless poetic apprehensions — seeks fulfillment in the “light” of insight. Yet the embodied meanings are not decisive.

Flavin’s fluorescent installations appear as artifacts of achieved presence but, as the artist’s italicized quotation suggests, clarity or opacity of representation cannot necessarily be determined. Rather, the point is to struggle with one’s materials and experience, allow them to ignite, flicker, and go dark. “Perfect” Donahue adds, extending Flavin’s quote, and thus the poet joins in valorizing this sensibility as a viable, perhaps the only valid, artistic and personal statement.

The result of this critically sensitive, relentlessly searching intelligence is a fraught, almost visionary kind of poetry which refuses the closure of revelation, a stunning song to insufficiency but also incremental enlightenments. The earlier volume recollected romantic reveries and personal loss and longing interspersed with interrogatory asides and descriptive scenes and discourses of religious life. Sometimes religious matter was reworked into new contexts or reiterated to evoke a spatial and temporal threshold the poem channeled between worldly woes and unworldly miracles or maybes. Donahue’s poems/poem take Beckett’s dictum — to live the space of a door/that opens and shuts — to fundamental heart.

Over and over, Dissolves works like an occult procedural, trying different strategies of synthesis and interpretive penetration to find balance, if not full possession, among the artifacts, debris, monuments, and ruins it encounters. The “Sura 18” section  magnificently braids various religious traditions into a fable of language, logic, and dream epiphany, working through various cultural and anthropological markers, a mélange intent on recuperating a metaphorical Babel of disconnection and confusion. However, doubt recurs throughout the volume defining ways and means, origins and ends:

But have we
succeeded, at all,

in fathoming
the root of things

which lie hidden
in God?

The filigrees of the infinite share their light, a light that is often the spark of understanding yet just as often a quick, failed stay against the darkness that diminishes recognition and visibility. A gnostic attitude is paired with worldly beatitude.

“Pain and beauty/so distract me,” the poem tenderly affirms and strives to make sense of, make sensible. Whether engaging pop cultural riffs in the person of Jimi Hendrix as tragic mystic and messenger, or returning to the departed mother in guise of prosopopeia and forever unreachable presence — “the heat that was/your touch,//touch on/my arm,//a touch that has not faded … ” Dissolves, a constellation of poems and a poem in full, makes its pain and beauty powerfully tangible. The ellipses which end so many of the sequences here testify to the evanescence of all things as well as our  compulsion to focus on them all compassionately as they pass. Joseph Donahue has become over the decades a poet of disquiet and refuge, a singer of the void and the vertex of the fathomable, a modern, modest Virgil:


the oscillation of
a possibility

passing through
where we are…

…And where we are in Dissolves is deep in the core of marvels and mastery.

*   *   *

Joseph Donahue’s Dissolves: Terra Lucida IV-VIII (2012) is available at The Paper Cave and online booksellers.

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Jon Curley

Jon Curley is the author of four volumes of poetry, most recently Scorch Marks. Remnant Halo is due out in spring 2021 from Marsh Hawk Press. He teaches in the Humanities Department at New...