Timothy Donnelly’s new book, Chariot, is a genius sweep of quatrains—almost all of them consist of five stanzas, long-lined, sheer music. Donnelly’s sensibility has always gathered its strength at the point where essay and lyric meet, where philosophy shades into beautiful brilliant torsion-rich talk, something you might dream of hearing at a dream party in a better world than ours. If artifice has made a comeback in poetry in recent years, Donnelly is likely one of the reasons why. If you’ve ever had the pleasure of hearing him read, you know that he makes that artifice audible in a mesmerizing way, but his lines on the page are just as mesmerizing, just as luscious and gripping. They refuse easy settling—on anything—but rarely seem cynical, even as satire and buoyant irony are one of the great underwater lakes they rise up from. Late in Chariot, between a poem called “Reality Hit Me” and another called “The Material World,” there’s a poem called “Instagram”:
What if I was uttered into existence through the teamwork of cultists
and not, as I take it, born of a human woman
under standard conditions: songbirds affirmative, war flickering
apart on television, rhubarb raising its arms up from the patch?
Would I catch any difference between memories implanted
into me only yesterday, or whenever it was I was
spanked into action, and those I picked up over time like a janitor
inching his push broom of consciousness into winter in Wisconsin?
Critics often comment on how much Donnelly’s poems include, how much ground they cover, in a style so different from Whitman’s you almost forget that he’s the progenitor of such a mode—listing, flourishing, inviting—in part because Donnelly’s work is more overtly engaged with symbolists like Odilon Redon or Wallace Stevens. Here, then, is a poet of moods and atmospheres. And Chariot may be his finest work yet. Compared to some of his earlier (often brilliant) books, this one reads as if Gerard Hopkins had allowed some of the unstressed syllables back in, or as if the poems of Marianne Moore and the poems of André Breton had had a child. “Instagram” continues:
Reality, he thinks, has holes in it, and another oozes through
like spaetzle from a spaetzle maker, little sparrows of dough
canoodling in the pot’s hot storm, skimmed up gently
and tossed in a bowl with butter, cheese, and caramelized onion.
But it is likewise the soil, the wheat, the clay, and the spinning;
the grass in the mouth of a cow, the secretion; delayed shipments,
sunsets, and rainfall on advertisements; the unprotected labor
and Christmas bonuses; every substance and action prior to, after, during . . .
Donnelly shows his cards in the fifth quatrain. The cheerful irony is painful. Not only does he reflect back the simpleton’s spiritualism we’ve partaken of in this golden age of technology, but he shows us its teeth. Which are, at present, devouring us:
Eat, they say. You have been kept too hungry. What is set in front of you
is. The road was long due to technical issues but together
we will triumph. Photograph your food. Let everyone you know
know you know now what your meal is; you know now what’s real.
JESSE NATHAN: What is thinking? I’m curious how you imagine your poetry—particularly in Chariot, but also generally—addressing itself to, and making use of, thinking.
TIMOTHY DONNELLY: Let’s say there are two basic modes of thinking: one the practical, goal-oriented reasoning of the workplace and laboratory, which is also used in everyday problem solving, and the other more like letting the mind off its leash to pursue its own movements, like a dog set loose in the park—chasing squirrels, sniffing trees—exploring its situatedness in, and responses to, the world. I hear Heidegger in your question, and would align these two modes with what he calls “calculative thinking” and “meditative thinking.” Both are activities of the mind, processes whereby conceptions are born, developed, and entered into relation (and refuted, revisited, refreshed, and born again), and both call for a heightening of attention—the first more obviously, but no less so the second. To think is always to feel like you’re on the scent of something, even if you don’t know what it is. We tend to think of it as verbal, but thinking can also be mathematical, visual, kinetic, and so on. Also, both modes of thinking are necessary, and complementary—they complete each other, and shouldn’t be pitted against each another, although they often are.
As for myself, I feel my thinking most acutely when I’m walking, when my mind’s movement correlates to that of my body through space. The working of my mind seems to interleave with the reality of the world as I perceive it, tempering and redirecting my thinking, and making it feel anchored in the world, like it’s part of the world and not pitted against it. I might be exaggerating to get the point across—it isn’t always exactly like this. To think is messier than any account of it, and wilder and more complex. It keeps changing! And of course, like everyone, there are plenty of times when I can’t be said to be thinking at all, when my mental activity is too feeble, unfocused, or distracted (deliberately or not) to be called true thought. Times like these can be necessary for refreshment, but they can also be a total waste, and woeful, and the enemy of life. Hypertrophied calculative thinking can also be life’s enemy. Moreover, these two forces often team up together, with the world’s calculators exploiting the woefully distracted, but I don’t want to say too much about that now.
What I want to say is that I live in the city and don’t have a car. Therefore, I do a lot of walking, which is to say a lot of thinking. That this has been the case for as long as I can remember is somewhat beside the point. The point is that the poems in Chariot were written from the beginning of the pandemic through last August, a period during which I walked even more than usual, mostly in six or seven neighborhoods in Brooklyn, interleaving my mind with the world, something that has always seemed to me inseparable from the experience of life—or at least, half my life, if not more, has been spent like this, in this hybrid of thought and the world. And like life itself, but more immediately, this experience evanesces, passes through us, and leaves no permanent trace. Enter poetry. For me, poetry more than any art form accommodates the feeling of life as I have lived it; it is the lasting trace of having lived, of having been alive, and not so much because of the facts it might document about the world or about myself or anyone in it, although these obviously make a poem specifically what it is. But it’s because of how it moves, and how it weaves together—this is why I read poems and why, when I am worthy of the word, I call myself a poet.
Jesse Nathan’s first book of poems is Eggtooth.