Poetry by Michael Donhauser
Translated by Nick Hoff and Andrew Joron
Burning Deck , 2015
Michael Donhauser is new to me. An Austrian poet who lives in Vienna and began publishing prose, essays and poetry in 1986, Donhauser is a prolific and introspective writer. He’s a great discovery. Thanks to this new translation by Nick Hoff and Andrew Joron from Burning Deck press, Donahauser’s sensibility and words have been made available to readers in English.
Donhauser, who has been strongly influenced by the French prose poet Francis Pongé, presents a language of semantic density and palpable phenomenalism. The goal of this language is not refinement; the goal of this language is concretion. Each line pushes toward an aggregation of thingness in word and object, a moment of concentrated stillness in which a fusion of language and object can occur. “For only in stillness will the peach come slowly to language, to flesh: fills itself with juice),” writes Donhauser in “The Peach.”
Of Things is divided into three main divisions based on the seasons (“Winter: Spring,” “Spring: Summer,” “Summer: Fall”). There are three poems in the first, five in the second, and two in the final division. These are long poems. They develop variously, quizzically, probingly. One feels, while reading these poems, a process of deepening focus which seeks to purify perception of presumptive bias and penetrate to the essence of things. It’s what Alfred North Whitehead described as “perception in the mode of presentational immediacy.” This results in a language of syntactic compactness and vivid imagery.
In “The Thicket,” the first poem of this collection, penetrability and entanglement are presented as problems of language that are in no way negative but implicate qualities of plurality and interrelation. “That which is thought, as a web of relations.” The thicket becomes a vehicle for the unification of language and object, the fusion of conceptual feeling with physical nature. Contradictory sticks of thought enhance the semantic density: “Thus all movement is inhibited and engendered in it.”
Donhauser refers to a “transformation into sense” that echoes Husserl’s ideas of intentionality in phenomenalism. Husserl calls intentionality the “fundamental property of consciousness” and the “principal theme of phenomenology.”
Donhauser describes his process within the work. The qualia of the thicket - the way in which it’s experienced and conceptualized in consciousness - is integrated into the lines of the poem, into the anatomy of the work. “The thicket thickens…Together into a word.” An etymology follows: “Thick comes from Old English picce. Which means ‘dense, solid, stiff; numerous, abundant.” “Thus the thicket appears: thickened.”
“The transformation into sense intended throughout Donhauser’s thicket works by a “repeated multi-layeredness: multilayered repetition.” We get tangled in letters. We get tangled in syllables and webs of words. The poem works against the “tendency of language to initiate conversations that digress into groundlessness, that after just a few steps become thoughtless, hold forth unopposed.” This is what thicket does: it solidifies in resistance against a social reality that is now largely corrupted by inattention and superficiality. The technocracies of Europe and the United States have had an impact that have scaled upward exponentially in the last several decades since Of Things was first published. Print media has been switched to digital media. We live in an age of spectacle and celebrity culture. It’s now common to see the majority of people in public spaces engrossed in mobile phones, utterly oblivious to the world around them. Poets such as Donhauser present work that encapsulates a resistance: “I communicate my rebellion to the thicket,” he says. He ends on a euphoric note:
No Briar Rose.
A Briar Rose.
(I walked down the wide suburban street into the city under the glowing evening sky with its blackbird calls, along cars parked every now and then on the curb, and I felt an extreme lightness deep inside me, as if all my decisions were as correct as much as they were rescinded.)
As if the thicket
For a moment
Had cleared, lit up deep within.
In “The Marsh Marigold” (Sumpfdotterblume in German) Donahuser makes a pointed reference to the genitive case: “In language: in the genitive quality of things.” “I mean,” he states in a line further down, “poetic language in its relation to things.”
A genitive construction is a type of grammatical construction used to express a relation between two nouns, generally the possession of one by another, as in “Shakespeare’s garden.” The dependent noun modifies the head noun by expressing some property of it. In the phrase “marsh marigold” marigold is the head noun and marsh is the modifier.
Donhauer’s grammar has other idiosyncratic features. He likes fragmenting things in phrases, such as in the following lines:
I do not speak.
In order that yellow be like that.
Be that of the meadows.
In suspension over the meadows.
Concentrated at the meadow’s edge, at the edges of the meadows.
In the ditches, at the banks of the rivulets.
Concentrated in the shadows like that.
Beshadowed, off to the side, near the water.
Yolk-yellow, word for word, silent.
The effect of this is destabilizing. A fully formed sentence presents a fully formed world. This is not the intent here. The world is not fully formed; the world is in flux. We are confronted with a pluralistic metaphysics of process. We are given alternatives that are not conjointly realizable as fixed units but are, instead, fertile transformations of composition and decay. The phrases have a stripped down quality. They feel bare, unadorned. They’re often divided in the middle by a colon in a manner not too dissimilar from the caesura in Norse poetry.
This tendency is notably effective in “The Gravel.” Here it is stated variously, and contradictorily, that gravel “speaks multiple dialects: similar to rain,” and that the gravel does “does not speak: it does not articulate.” Gravel is defined as “a loose aggregation of small water-worn or pounded stones.” The key word is ‘aggregate.’ We all know what it is to walk on gravel, or hear car tires moving over gravel. There is a speech there, the aggregate sound of crunching. Donhauser (speaking on the behalf of gravel) presents a variety of ways of conceiving the material world. With a little time the gravel “makes us aristocratic. / (No reason to hurry now: we’re walking among words.) / It makes us aristocratic auditors of our steps.” “It tolerates all manner of mutuality, even the murderous kind.” “…gravel makes us self-forgetting: self-possessing.” “It sends us back to the materiality of our steps.” “Every step appears originary: every step.” “Language is an entertaining wasteland. / (My passionate entertainment: the gravel /… All syllables are similar and different. / (As well as mixed together with petals, cellophane, leaves.)”
Donhauer, like Ponge, intends a poetic by which the reader is implicated in the genesis of his or her world. To make us “aristocratic auditors of our steps.” “Though also fitted with a mute attentiveness. / (A sensibility that listens more than interprets.)”