APRIL 26, 2011
TIMOTHY DONNELLY’S SECOND BOOK of poetry arrives with considerable fanfare. The Cloud Corporation is a scary bedtime book, one that sometimes slips into a gothic mood, sometimes rehearses an idyll, and sometimes toys with the apocalypse. It’s not above a little mischief and can become by turns grotesque, mawkish, “chill,” deliberately inelegant, and really funny. A nasty compound of slapstick and terror grips the reader without apology in the few poems that are fully appropriated from external sources: one a pastiche of Bruce Springsteen lyrics and the USA Patriot Act, another a mash-up of the Beverly Hillbillies theme song and a manifesto of Osama bin Laden. But Donnelly’s style does not generally yield the pace or the pitted surface of the mash-up; instead, it models itself serially after the meditative lyric of Wallace Stevens; the feigned awkwardness of Thomas Hardy; the metropolitan (but also provincial) decadence of Frederick Seidel; the speculative heights of Mallarmé or Percy Shelley; the abject humor of Samuel Beckett.
The Cloud Corporation has also stirred in some readers a complex of untraceable, or perhaps unnamable, feelings. To borrow the theorist Sianne Ngai’s taxonomy, these might be described as “ugly feelings”: discomfort, annoyance, contempt, but also envy and a kind of bashfulness. More disconcerting was the fact that the feelings experienced reading this book seem not to be one’s own, feelings difficult to manage precisely because their origin and significance are obscure. Or perhaps that is the point, that none of our feelings are really our own? Here’s a little taste of the pretty toxin (called “Clair de Lune”):
We revolt ourselves; we disgust and annoy us.
The way we look at us lately chills us to the core.
We become like those who seek to destroy us.
We push ourselves into small tasks that employ us
unrewardingly on purpose. We tire, we bore.
We revolt ourselves; we disgust and annoy us.
The feelings aroused by such passages are partly a response to an ambient sense of imposture and rarefaction. These bad feelings-not jarring but creeping-emanate from a series of counterfeit locations, doctrines, and sensations, counterfeits that appear throughout the collection. Some of the corrosive feelings go away, replaced by more familiar pleasures, but their polarizing effects are nevertheless crucial, I believe, to the synthesizing powers of Donnelly’s book and its ability to act upon the reader.
Donnelly’s poetry produces pleasure in knots, though its experimental designs are adept at undoing every kind of knot-including its own knots of pleasure-a polarizing movement experienced by the reader at times as a kind of verbal, or virtual, hazing, which nonetheless can bring to mind the term eloquence. The text’s purgatorial maze of feeling, like its ethical concerns (reflections on death, for example, or on ecology), build their effects, one must emphasize, through a decisive experiment in prosody and poetic diction. Here, for example, one is stopped dead in one’s tracks by a discursive mirror returning the reader’s hesitant gaze:
It falls upon us then to build up our resistance to
the lure of such reversal, letting what has seemed
plow ahead with its seeming without interruption,
lest we find ourselves sent on the infinitely more
lamentable mission of having to confront what what
began in mere seeming has managed to become, or-
(“Bulletin from Under the Bed”)
Donnelly can also drop some old-fashioned poetic bling out of nowhere:
…I name the bees
sun’s diplomats to an embassy of flowers
whether neighbors want me to or not.
Latest clouds in apricot coach my lips
through wordless chants against a purr
fuming from the nearby textile factory.
(“Chapter for Removing Foolish Speech From Mouth”)
The gradual harmonizing of these disparate notes (over a span of 150 pages) occurs inconspicuously, without nodding or winking, without mugging. Donnelly’s book signifies a new maturity in American poetry, not simply a ripeness of dissonant affect, but a bold exploration of poetic diction. In addition, Donnelly’s rigorous, deadpan prosody intervenes decisively in the current impasses of poetic experimentation. The traditional stanza operates in Donnelly’s prosody like an Oulipian constraint; poetic form can be said to occupy the language like a stealthy ordeal. Donnelly is no stranger to innovation-see, too, his choices as poetry editor of the Boston Review-but this book casts innovation not as an end unto itself (as so often happens) but as a means to an end. The apparatus of experiment in The Cloud Corporation is subsumed by a poetics of allegorical expression: cloudy things (and artificial feelings) are simulated through the artifice of form.
The Cloud Corporation, as its title suggests, addresses and even ventriloquizes “a congregation of bodies/ united into one immaterial body, a fictive person/ around whom the air is blurred with money”-that is, the mandarin class of money managers we hear so much about these days, sequestered in the glass hives of corporate culture:
The clouds part revealing an anatomy of clouds
viewed from the midst of human speculation, a business
project undertaken in a bid to acquire and retain
control of the formation and movement of clouds.
As late afternoons I have witnessed the distant
towers borrow luster from a bourbon sun, in-box
empty, surround sound on, all my money made
in lieu of conversation….
(“The Cloud Corporation”)
One could reasonably claim that Donnelly’s book is the first major poetic work to inhabit verbally and imaginatively the recent disasters of global finance. The book recalls the epicurean and coiling metaphysical conceits of Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho-sans the grisly murders and misogyny. One repeatedly overhears in The Cloud Corporation a neo-confessional voice deprived of any sort of interiority, or perhaps a complex yet empty interiority: a philistine inside an epicurean enveloped by ambient violence:
the trick of thinking through infinity, a crowd of eyes
against an asphalt wall, my vision scrolling
left as the crowd thinned out to a spatter and then
just black until I fall asleep and then just black again,
past marketing, past focus groups, past human
resources, past management, past personal effects,
their insignificance evident in the eye of the dream
and through much of the debriefing I wake into next.
(“The Cloud Corporation”)
These lines update the standard corporate dialectic of abjection and sublimity. Donnelly undertakes this project not, as one has come to expect, by methodically appropriating corporate jargon, or by importing theories of social economy and dropping names, or even by mounting a poetic critique of corporate hegemony via pop culture. Rather, he takes a much riskier path. His work implicitly rejects the possibility that American poetry can produce artifacts, events, or safe “positions” that somehow transcend, or enjoy immunity from, the greater cultural and economic malaise of which he writes. The language of our poetry is itself therefore always and inescapably a carrier of the virus of meaninglessness and disaffection, a kind of verbal gadgetry, at once mesmerizing and malefactory.
Technique is poetry’s way of thinking and of registering historical experience. This book’s prosody and its manipulation of tone, its twisted braid of affect and thought, work through “a topology of catastrophe” and reveal a correlation between excessive “leveraging” in finance and a dizzying expansion of the principle of “credit” in verbal expression. Triggered by “lying in the bygone style,” the book’s grand experiment resides less in its elaboration of semantic, thematic, or even rhetorical elements-though these are formidable-than it does in its control of syntax, stanzaic design and, most compellingly, diction. The book’s rendering of the “cloud corporation” in all of its manifold significance inhabits, at first glance, a fairly consistent prosody: blank verse, with lengthy dactylic or anapestic lines. Most of the poems are written in tercets, or less commonly sestets, with occasional quatrains and couplets. One is impressed by the rigor of the book’s stanzaic structure, perhaps because it is continually challenged by enjambment:
… All this calculating
exactness of modern life, one result of our monetary
economy, shares an ideal with the natural sciences-
namely, to transform the world into a math problem.
The air feels so different, one can smell the privilege
emanating from a battery of pine-one must build
a fortress of it, all the best people, one gold afternoon
unraveling through sleep into another: some visitors
complain of nausea, vertigo, chills, feelings of dread,
confusion, but it’s so beautiful here….
(“Dream of the Overlook”)
The book’s stanzaic hegemony produces certain ambient effects, so that one ends up feeling administered by it, in a manner that replicates the punitory environment of corporate existence. The reader’s internalization of these metrical constraints in turn renders, or expresses, a sense of “life” sustained not by desire but by prohibition-and more precisely, by failed prohibition: a sense (to borrow a phrase from Julia Kristeva) of “something rejected from which one does not part.” Donnelly thus sets in motion (in slo-mo) a 21st-century purgatory of verbal simulation.
Although one begins to feel anatomized, or even monitored, by Donnelly’s prosody-there is a totalitarian aspect to it-one is also moved and dazzled by its virtuosity, by sentences of some 20 to 30 lines splayed like an espalier across the book’s syntactic trellis. As with the sublime fate of the object in Mallarmé’s poetic regime-ineffable, marooned in a labyrinth of syntactic anomie-poetic form in Donnelly’s work becomes a kind of exquisite symbolisme for the 21st century, elegant and sometimes brutal, routine yet unaccountable, binding yet untenable.
The book mounts its lyrical critique through poetic diction, or tone, which as I’ve suggested becomes the primary theater of Donnelly’s experiments, as well as the matrix of his virtuosity:
Another hour on standstill and I’m almost able to feel
entangled in exchange with much more than necessary.
To notice wind incite the branches to interact in a manner
mistakable for happiness when happiness has stopped
seeming so implausible….
(“Explanation of an Oriole”)
Poetic language (and poetic form) becomes a narcissistic and unrecognizable echo of what Donnelly calls in these poems the “commonesque” or the “mutual voice”-that is, the false tone of the abject. In most of these poems he subverts present avant-garde expectations about tonal composition, which favor the palimpsest, the mash-up, the cento; the diction of The Cloud Corporation is distinguished instead (for the most part) by its purity, its smoothness, its unnerving consistency, its eloquence.
The sense of inevitability and indeed coercion exercised by these poems allows them to effectively evoke the neutered, and neutering, speech of institutions and, at the same time condemn it:
What’s more, I said, you are amiss in this ad hoc quest
for origin and purpose. Whatever destiny it is
you are meant to aspire to before you retire to
that soup-bowl of oblivion such figments as we
expect to find final rest in couldn’t possibly be
contained in these boxes. AND AGAIN-no contest.
(“To His Own Device”)
In a tone simulating and fusing the administrative, the colloquial, the archaic-what Donnelly elsewhere calls “a stunt-like communiqué in the loop-the-/loop”-passages such as these induce all sorts of “ugly feelings” in the reader. Yet these medusal and purgatorial effects also resemble the binding properties, the rituals of seduction and delusion, common to consumer culture. For it is precisely the potentially bewitching substance of tone and diction that poetry shares with the verbal simulations of spectacular culture: ad campaigns, propaganda, the commodification of jargons and idioms. Ultimately, The Cloud Corporation raises the prospect of a radical transvaluation of the concept of kitsch-a prospect whose aesthetic and political implications are vast (and perilous), requiring consideration well beyond the scope of the present review.
The Cloud Corporation produces “a vortex of summons and repulsion” (to borrow another phrase again from Kristeva) and places its own poetic integrity at risk by acknowledging, in formal terms, poetry’s relation to the language of the bubble economy. Donnelly encrypts this humbling and potentially subversive admission in the central trope of the “cloud corporation,” in the rhetoric of meteoric substance and its ambiguous objects, in the “atmospheric disturbance,” the portraiture of weather, “the “national vapors” of the corporation, which are also simultaneously the “immaterial body” of the poem. As a “blueprint of the clouds,” the poem therefore bears within itself, inscrutably and irresistibly, the inert and inexhaustible speech of corporate “life.” Donnelly’s poetry strays into the “third person,” activated by some kind of homing device, descending to Atlantis (as the poet suggests) like a zombie, at once clueless and formidable, paralytic and turbulent, decrepit and impossibly vital.