Each Cell Has Its Fingers Crossed: On Timothy Donnelly’s “The Problem of the Many”

October 27, 2019   •   By Kevin O’Rourke

The Problem of the Many

Timothy Donnelly

AT THE RISK of stating the obvious, most books of poetry are short. This is a function of how difficult they are to write (and read), and also a bit of tradition. The numbers back this up. Based on National Book Award winners and finalists since 2010 (for a single collection), the average length of a poetry collection is 107 pages. Indeed, a random check of my own books bears this out: Berryman’s 77 Dream Songs is 84 pages; Forrest Gander’s Science and Steepleflower is 88; Look by Solmaz Sharif is 93; and Charles Simic’s The World Doesn’t End is 74 pages long. Just look at your own bookshelf, dear reader. Cast your gaze across the spines taking up so little space; for every George R. R. Martin volume stuffed with banquet descriptions, you can fit at least five good poetry books.

So Timothy Donnelly’s tremendous new collection, The Problem of the Many, is an outlier. At a hefty 198 pages, Donnelly’s latest is a brick, both in terms of its size and content. Obviously, The Problem of the Many’s size doesn’t matter per se, but, as in music reviews, length is worth noting when it falls outside the norm, and for what that duration means for the music within (or in this case, poetry). For example, one extreme is the Smashing Pumpkins’s messy, two-hour 1995 album Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, which, though it featured a handful of solid-to-classic rock songs, was marred by bloat. The Problem of the Many, meanwhile, distinguishes itself by being both long and consistently engaging.

And the collection’s length is also worth discussing because Donnelly’s work is so intense. The Problem of the Many is not 198 pages of light verse, or prose that happens to be broken into lines and as such reads breezily. Instead, the book is made up of moments like the following, from the collection’s final poem, “Hymn to Life,” which begins:

“Hymn to Life,” a 16-page meditation on time and attention via cleverly linked, restless, upsetting lines about the extinction of an array of flora and fauna, was published both in Poetry and as its own chapbook by Factory Hollow Press. And rightfully so: the poem is almost a book on its own. It’s a fitting end to The Problem of the Many, acting both as a sort of exclamation mark to the book and as a summary of its various themes and modes: “Hymn to Life” is conversational; its logic masquerades as being discursive but is in fact deeply planned; pop culture references appear suddenly and are used with unapologetic abandon; leaps of logic are frequent. As a successful long poem that manages to make one’s hair stand on end across repeated readings, it is the sort of ideal bright, shiny object all poets strive for.

Feeling new, or at least current, is another of the collection’s strengths. Being current is dangerous ground for poetry, because time has a way of making once-vibrant, current-affairs-engaged work seem dated. But Donnelly manages to avoid that trap by approaching things obliquely, deftly using pop culture references (as above in “Hymn to Life,” with Bon Jovi) that may identify a certain time without dating the book.

So were I asked to describe The Problem of the Many in a single word, I’d say it’s removed, but without being distant or cold or any of the usual negative (emotional) connotations associated with that word. You could say at its driest the collection shares a tone — and a title — with the philosopher Peter Unger’s famous 1980 essay “The Problem of the Many,” which uses the example of a cloud’s borders and constituent parts — specifically, how every cloud is composed of millions of droplets of water vapors — to illustrate the problem of the many, which “concerns the number of entities, if any, that exist in actual ordinary situations and in counterfactual or hypothetical situations.” Donnelly, following Unger’s lead, discusses cloud borders at length in the title poem (as a metaphor for understanding life, making distinctions, et cetera), but here’s how he begins the “cloud” (or second) section of that poem:

This is sensitive and sympathetic stuff, but it’s hardly worked up. For one, there’s no “I” here — though the first person does appear frequently in the book — and the mention of the speaker’s “tearfulness” is just that, a mention. The poem mentions it as a fact and then moves on: it’s got a lot of ground to cover and cannot linger.

Another example of Donnelly’s detached humanism, as it were, is “All Through the War,” from the poem’s first section. It is as good an indictment of the Trump era — and living through the ongoing War on Terror started by Bush II — as any I’ve read:

On average 130 Yemini children died each day last year

of extreme hunger and disease. A Saudi blockade on seaports

stops the ships delivering aid. These are the casualties of war.

The instant the technician’s needle found a vein, the seascape

on the wall rattled uncontrollably. She whispered the clinic

used to be a funeral home. Trump showed the prince posters

of the assorted planes, tanks, ships and munitions his oily

billions might buy him like an infomercial in the Oval Office.

The speed and ease with which Donnelly switches between modes and subject matter is typical of The Problem of the Many. Indeed, this shifting of gears becomes a familiar if fundamentally destabilizing strategy the more one reads.

In the opening poem, “What Is Real,” a sort of prologue, appearing before the collection’s four sections begin, Donnelly reflects on the truly big idea of existence — and “whether to go on / regardless of what it might say about our moral sense, / regardless of what it might cost us in the end, / or whether the time had come to surrender” — via a reference to the 2012 movie Prometheus. Prometheus! A truly bad, corny, flawed movie!

Specifically, the poem references the movie’s opening, when a “towering alien humanoid” sparks life on Earth by drinking a cup of “animate metallic ooze that quickly disintegrates / its all too pale flesh, unleashing new organic matter / into the ecosystem, strands of DNA unzipping.” This image — of a godlike being sacrificing itself to create new life — ultimately sets up the poem’s affecting ending:

Tonight we’re diving in. Tonight we’ll find the bassline

      subatomic-style, let particles of us entangle

           knowingly with those of a gold encyclopedia

in the ruins of Vienna or an ear of teosinte across

      an open border, a common source of being, before I

            die — let us be, let being be, continuous, continuous.

As noted, Donnelly makes cultural references frequently throughout The Problem of the Many. And he makes no distinction about what he’s using, or how it might fit into a book of occasionally abstruse intellectual poetry. In other words, he’s no snob, and everything is fair game. “What Is Real” includes references to both Prometheus and Jean Baudrillard’s America right next to one another. Elsewhere, there are poems named after products (“Diet Mountain Dew,” “Smartwater,” “NyQuil”), numerous classical references (Alexander the Great’s encounter with Diogenes in “The Problem of the Many,” Pliny and Socrates in “Cursum Perficio”), and references to Toblerone, Pringles, and something called a “Fritos Taco Grande BeltBuster.”

The theme of food recurs throughout the collection, doing all of the work that references to food usually do: reminding us of bodily needs, health, and the universal experience of eating. But Donnelly’s use of food is not for the purpose of nostalgia. Instead, a poem about a search for “cyan Powerade” leads to the speaker nearly being “plowed over // by an ardent garbage truck.”

Here’s the entirety of “Flamin’ Hot Cheetos,” which uses its title to full effect:

When I sensed I might

belong, I drew

the cotton duck drape

that hung before

the patio door

to the residency’s

clean white space

to seal me in, to seal

me in,

but my hand had been

where it had been

and the stain it made

is blazon of my house.

In this case, the food — the immortal Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, to be exact — is a stand-in for shame and secrecy, and highlights the speaker’s furtiveness. But who are we to judge? Who among us has not had orange (or red) Cheeto-fingers?

Nonetheless sadness, even in the presence of Cheetos and Diet Mountain Dew (“A green like no other green / in the dale, indelicate green or / green indecent”), pervades The Problem of the Many. And though death isn’t necessarily the book’s prevailing theme, it’s never far off. A sense of dread and grief, and dread of grief, one of the very worst varieties of dread, connects many of the book’s poems, captured succinctly by the final lines of “All Through the War”:

Some days I know the strongest feeling is grief

but I believe it must be love: it has to be, has to be, has to.

Some days I feel each cell in my body has its fingers crossed.

It is therefore apropos that The Problem of the Many ends on “Hymn to Life,” which I’d argue could easily be the collection’s title. By closely examining the minutiae of life, such as a cone “from the eastern white pine,” or the steps to the speaker’s apartment, or his dead friend’s “scented shirts in an appliance box,” Donnelly is in fact praising them.

Moreover, that the collection’s final poem ends on a household chore is itself a form of hymn. What is life but the myriad small moments that fill up most of our days? Specifically, “Hymn to Life” ends with the most familiar sort of chore, an unfinished one: despite promising to put away the dishes, the speaker doesn’t do so, and per the poem’s last line, “when there was time to put away the dishes, they were gone.” Few things remind us with as much banality that life goes on as housework does. “Life,” to quote Jeff Goldblum’s Dr. Ian Malcolm in Jurassic Park, “uh, finds a way.” The Problem of the Many is an incredible book.


Kevin O’Rourke lives in Seattle, where he works in publishing. His first book, the essay collection As If Seen at an Angle, was published by Tinderbox Editions. A member of the National Book Critics Circle, he is an active literary and arts critic.