Timothy Donnelly The Cloud Corporation 176 pp, £9.99
Picador, Pan Macmillan, 20 New Wharf Road, London N1 9RR
YOU THINK I SHOULD BE CONCERNED?
As seems to occur with the advent of each new century, the limitations of the well-made personal lyric are once again in question. Much of Timothy Donnelly’s The Cloud Corporation can be read, in its range and ambition, as an implicit critique of that lyric. One of the book’s best poems, ‘The New Hymns’, even addresses it head on:
I don’t want to have to
locate divinity in a loaf of bread, in a sparkler,
or in the rainlike sound the wind makes through
mulberry trees, not tonight. Listen to them carry on
about gentleness when it’s inconceivable
that any kind or amount of it will ever be able to
balance the scales…
I want to press my face
my face against the cold black window until
there is a deity whose only purpose is to stop this.
A glowing critical reception has focused mostly on the political bleakness of the book. While, clearly, this is a big part of it, there is more to this work than mere anger and satire. Donnelly’s poetry comes with a religious edge that almost all of its reviewers have overlooked. Only Stephen Burt alludes to it, but predictably terms it ‘Puritanical’. And indeed, the book’s final poem ‘His Future as Attila the Hun’ does seem possessed of a Miltonic impulse ‘to lay waste the empire’.
However, what distinguishes Donnelly above most of his peers is the sheer exuberance of his tone and line. As if working with Frost’s dictum that poetry should take as its subjects those things that are ‘common in experience and uncommon in books’, he locates weird versions of pastoral in the unlikeliest corners of 21C experience: debt, technology, globalization. Possibly the finest single poem in the whole book, ‘The Rumored Existence of Other People’ appears to be about accepting a takeaway delivery: a magnificent five-page meditation on the sheer strangeness of receiving and paying for, on your own doorstep, food made by other poorer hands. Disgusted by much of the stuff of our world, sure, these poems are nonetheless also half in love with the very corporate verbiage they seem to lampoon. At the core of this poetry lies a semi-Catholic pleasure principle that, by Donnelly’s own admission, owes much to Wallace Stevens.
While Donnelly is a more overtly political poet than aesthete Stevens ever was, he has clearly learned from Harmonium the value of that cadence that is as playful as it is serious, as breezy as it is grave. Donnelly’s title poem cogs its structure directly from Stevens’s ‘Sea Surface Full of Clouds’: the lush meandering tercets; the many sections, each with variations of the same first line. Donnelly’s volute dandyish titles seem intentionally familiar in structure: ‘The Malady that Took the Place of Thinking’ is surely Stevens’s ‘Poem that Took the Place of a Mountain’ recast for our age.
Since ‘malady’ is one of Stevens’s key words, you could say that the poem is as much a rumination on poetic influence as it is a satire of political apathy. In particular, Donnelly shares the epicurean delectation that Steven’s work seems to enjoy in its own terms of suffering. Take the concluding stanzas of ‘Partial Inventory of Airborne Debris’. Though prompted by the horrific images from Abu Ghraib and civilian connivance in torture, its concluding stanzas seem knowingly to take their cue from the final line of Stevens’s ‘Banal Sojourn’: ‘One has a malady, here, a malady. One feels a malady.’ What we get from Donnelly is a tongue-in-cheek amplification of the same riff:
…Actually I’m doing
much better now, maybe
a little, what’s the word,
soporose, I guess, I think
maybe I just needed to
work it through and now
in its wake I feel a little
what was it again, a little
soporose, that’s right,
that captures it in a way
no other word could ever
even hope to, I suppose,
I just feel soporose, so
soporose tonight, uniquely
soporose. You think
I should be concerned?
I can think of no other poet who would attempt, let alone pull off, such a comic turn on ground as dark as this. Is Donnelly having a sly post factum dig at Confessionalism, where the issue ultimately was never the news but the poet’s own neurotic solipsistic processing of the news?
In a review-essay of Don Paterson’s oeuvre, and referencing Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence, Donnelly has spoken at length about the poet’s ‘knowledge of self as both replicable and replica’. Perhaps our ‘malady’, in an age of flarf and found texts and degree courses in ‘Uncreative Writing’, is the sampling that takes the place of writing. Donnelly replicates whole chunks from such diverse sources as the Report of the 9/11 Commission and the novels of Charles Maturin. ‘Dream of the Arabian Hillbillies’, for example, one of the book’s funniest poems, is composed of lines from Bin Laden’s declaration of war on America and the theme song of The Beverly Hillbillies, ‘The Ballad of Jed Clampitt’. But Donnelly has such a gift for constructing original and often startlingly beautiful work out of sampled sources that his poetry, for all its of-the-moment postmodern chic, echoes Eliot and Pound and what we might reasonably now term old-fashioned Modernism.
Every generation has a default poem and, truth is, most of us who call ourselves poets do little other than mooch around in the margins of the default poem of our moment. Like or loathe his work, it is impossible to accuse Timothy Donnelly of that. Only time will tell whether or not The Cloud Corporation is as important as it presently seems. Either way, there is no denying the scope of its project. If ever there is to be a reconciliation in the poetry wars, between the tradition and the avant garde, it will happen creatively rather than theoretically, in poems rather than in discussion of poems. It may be that it has already happened.