Friday, February 10, 2012

The Solvation Of Salvation

Dissolves: Terra Lucida IV-VIII, poetry by Joseph Donahue
Talisman House, 2012

“It has always been to poetry that this world has turned in the past for light,” wrote William Carlos Williams in The Embodiment Of Knowledge. Light, which is synonymous with wisdom, knowledge, divine revelation and understanding, is the central theme of Donahue’s long serial work Terra Lucida, of which Dissolves represents sections IV-VIII.

And Williams is wrong. People rarely turn to poetry for light. At least in the 21st century. People turn to the Internet, television, and methamphetamine. Gossip, tattoos, and Dr. Phil. Twitter buttons, not Tender Buttons. But this is only because we are passing one of those ugly periods in human history called the Dark Ages. Williams is correct in the broader sense. Those truly in the know do turn to poetry for light.

Donahue’s fascination with light has a distinctively Christian flavor. He alludes occasionally to other world religions, Islam especially, but his focus seems primarily Christian. Gnostic, one might also say Augustinian. “For this queen of colors, the light,” wrote Saint Augustine in his Confessions, “bathing all which we behold, wherever I am through the day, gliding by me in varied forms, soothes me when engaged on other things, and not observing it.”

The very tenor of Donahue’s poetry has a gentle, reflective, and ruminative quality, a mingling of reverie with reverence, devotion with trance. It is not pious. But it is unabashedly romantic. Donahue has a knack for seamlessly combining religious and philosophical allusion with everyday realities, the domestic with the abstract and exotic. It is informed by collage. The same poem may contain imagery of the drab, impoverished, everyday world with divine revelation and allusions to archaic bodies of literature. For instance, in the second section of dream, we find lines combining Godhead with an old oil drum, a “courteous archon” with the Boston Strangler:

weekly trash,

poking the cartons,
the plastic, the newspapers

slowling imploding
into carbon

inside an old oil drum
sunk in the snow

flame at the
steel rim,

and Mr. Ryan,
dropping by,

the last and lowest
emanation of the Godhead.

During the week
a guard at

Walpole, a quiet,
courteous archon,

now and then
he’d share

tales about work,
maybe what


The Boston

up to. . .

Donahue writes in couplets throughout Terra Lucida. Short lines running in parallels, like a ladder with durable rungs.

The couplet is an eminently readable structural device. It organizes the attention in a manner that both presents and compares ideas, images, and words. And it does so in small, easily digested doses. The mind is able to absorb one situation before moving on to the next circumstance. One feels as though one is participating in the evolution of the poem as it develops in fragments, stitch by stich, threading its way toward a sleeve of meaning, pocket of keys, or a hole in the air.

Couplets also maximize the sense of space. There is a feeling of light emanating from the whiteness of the page. The words are gathered at the center. The ongoing, essential theme of the poetry declares itself mutely, in the silence of light between the couplets and at the margins. Surrounding, engulfing, feeding.

In chemistry, ‘dissolve’ refers to solvation, the dissolution of a solid into a liquid. In Donahue’s work salvation rather than solvation is a more accurate determination. Everyday solids dissolve into divine solution. “The man lets / go of the gate, // turns, walks away / into a thin white fog…”

In film, a ‘dissolve’ refers to the fading of a scene. There is in all religious works, plentiful references to the ephemeral nature of mortal being. The Godhead is light; mortal life is dark. “a chill in the air, into which / you have faded,’ Donahue writes of the passing, I am guessing, of his mother.

In the penultimate section of Dissolve titled line of light, Donahue assumes a rather uncharacteristically expository speech in a short meditation on Simeon The New Theologian, a medieval Byzantine Christian monk and poet who was the last of three saints canonized by the Eastern Orthodox church and given the title of “Theologian,” which does not refer to a figure of theological study, but meaning someone who spoke from personal experience of the vision of God. Simeon, whose writings are included in the Philokalia, a collection of texts by early Christian mystics on contemplative prayer and teachings on how to attain theoria, or direct experience of God, was the first Byzantine mystic to freely share his mystical experience.

If theologians have
discerned both increate

and created light, which is
it shining when we step out of

these glowing zones, when we pass
through the veil of soft strokes?

In church, for forty hours,
men of the parish keep watch.

One or two, kneeling, hands folded
and on the altar, the ciborium

the gold sunburst, the white
center where the Host is held,

the eye of God watching
our world, so white amid

spikes of gold, the eye of the
miraculous, the transfiguring

glance, so distant, and yet
energy pours through it,

the monstrance, eye of
Jesus, not the Jesus

who died, but the Jesus
floating in flame beside

Moses, beside Elijah,
light beyond light,

within the gold,
but not of the gold,

a light no prism
can pry apart,

light before the light
that brought the world

to be, the very light that
dissolved the cell of Simeon

the New Theologian,
the air bright as snow,

he felt his body quit the
things of this world.

Sweetness filled him.
His insides turned to fire.

It astonishes me that a contemporary poet, a poet of the 12th year of the new millennium, can write so unabashedly of deep Christian feeling at a time when Christianity, for many, has either regressed into fundamentalist dogma and superstition, or is flat out distrusted, even despised, by atheistic and agnostic progressives. While most contemporary American poets write with tongue-in-cheek irony or distance themselves from any intellectual commitment, writing instead with a displaced subjectivity , uncertainties, uneasiness, and self-doubts, Donahue writes with a feeling of deep sincerity, a candor and intimacy that has a calming influence as one proceeds from line to line. Donahue’s is not the bright, harsh light of the film studio, or the sterile light of the office, or the dim light of the posh restaurant, but the soft luminous inner light of the soul.

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