19 May, 2021

A Timothy Donnelly Poem Pulled from My Files


by Timothy Donnelly

Thereafter it happened there would be no future
arrangements made as the present had begun
handing itself over to then past with such vehemence
whatever happened already happened before
or stopped its happening the moment it began.
To look forward meant looking in where you stood
astonished to be looking behind you instead
into the distance where the water's surface split
and spread to a pane of undisturbed waters.
Arguments among half-thoughts could continue
then as now and did, scattering particles
of gray on more gray, an expanse pinned down
at the corners but taught by a sea-wind to shudder
nonstop. To stand an oculus among that sea's
gray arrangements meant scattering half-
thoughts to such astonishment that whatever
began to happen split, spread, and handed itself
over to a past where having happened meant more
being stopped. To look with vehemence
disturbed the water's surface as arguments
wind made of the future now shuddered
distantly behind you. To look forward back into
the expanse of such waters meant to want
momentarily not to continue, seeing as to continue
meant what it did, but thereafter already
even to want that bled to no particular gray.

* * * * *

This poem comes from Timothy Donnelly's breathtaking collection The Cloud Corporation, a book of poems I stalked through some time ago. (I use "breathtaking" in both of its senses, because Donnelly's poems often consist of long, sinuous sentences that writhe and wriggle wonderfully, like those by no other poet I've read, and leave out-loud readers who don't pace themselves gasping.) Even though my take on "Bled" is of a poem specific to a place and time – possibly written during, or soon after, a long, morose seaside contemplation of life's ultimate futility – its subject is time, or, more specifically, the speaker's remembrance thereof. This is particularly fitting subject, in light of my frame of mind in recent days.

Zen studies lead one to understand that emptiness is clear and transparent, without quarters such as north, south, east, and west, nor separate time periods of past, present, and future. And since emptiness, in the Zen sense of the term, pervades everything, the idea time itself can be said to be meaningless. (Most theoretical physicists, and Mr. Donnelly, in this poem, probably agree.) But here we are, human beings stumbling around in the phenomenological universe, and what've we got? Nostalgia, homesickness, worry, fear – a host of emotions tied to time, and not a whole hell of a lot we can do about it. Write a poem, maybe. Sit with yourself, quietly, for a while. There are things, not all of them equally effective.

I think that's what Donnelly is getting at, here. He comes off, at times, in his work, as a fatalist, and "Bled" certainly shows us that side of him. There's an almost audible sigh of futility in the poem's denouement, those last lines where he declares that, although making an effort in life is meaningless, wishing that things were otherwise is equally meaningless. I love this poem for its resignation to what Albert Camus called the Theater of the Absurd, and for its bitter-heart-on-its-sleeve honesty.

05 May, 2021

Back at the End of the Walk

While brushing my teeth with the teeny, tiny toothbrush I bought in the prison canteen, I notice a piece of paper reflecting from over my shoulder, in the mirror. I haven't noticed it there before now, yet it definitely isn't new. Its yellowing corners curl inward; the paper looks exhausted, as if it can't wait to turn in for the day. Although the words are bold and black, it's curled so much that I can't read the message.

A cell is a cell is a cell. Sometimes, though, you spend longer than a few months there and you settle in. You get to know, from wiping it clean every few days, the topography of a particular concrete floor. You learn the bumps and divots of certain walls, spots where paint was torn loose as someone ripped down a hook, a handmade shelf, or other contraband amenity. You come to know the steel desk's rust spots too well. Then the prison administration moves you – because someone in a wheelchair needed your bottom bunk, or because there was a classification issue, or because someone in power just got a big idea to restructure the housing arrangements... again – and you learn such details afresh, in another cell that's exactly like the one before it, except not.

I moved to 6-House two Fridays ago. This is my first bottom-walk cell in fifteen years, and only the second at the far end of a wing. We don't see a lot of traffic in the form of passersby, which is how I prefer it. Streams of visitors cramp my style. My new cellmate's not especially fond of them, either, thank goodness.

There's a lot to notice about a wing when you first move in. If you're smart, the people are what you pay the closest attention to. In criminal parlance, you case the joint. You want a decent picture of what awaits in your new digs. How much attention are the neighbors paying you? Is the attention simply curiosity about you, or does it seem aimed at the belongings you brought along – appliances, clothes, and canteen foodstuffs? Watch the watchers. After that, check the overall state of the place.

The day I moved in, waxed and buffed floors reflected the damp laundry draped over top-walk railings. B-Wing presents an interesting juxtaposition: a kind of industrial-chic-meets-scrubwoman's-hovel ambiance. There are worse places. At least I lived around half of these guys before, from my last stay in 6-House.

I found my toehold quickly enough, this go-round. As usual, this mainly consisted of establishing routines with my cellmate, the same little pas de deux one always does while getting situated in a room that's halfway occupied. A series of questions beginning "Do you mind if I..." and "Can you..." ultimately leads to either successful cohabitation or someone nursing bruises while he seeks out another abode.

By the time my mouth is clean and rinsed, curiosity has got the better of me. I swing open the cell door to investigate what turns out to be a Missouri Department of Health notice. "Wash your hands," it reads, and presents a nine-part set of instructions on how to do so. Most likely, the page got taped to the fire-exit door as part of the Department of Corrections' "aggressive strategy" for handling the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020: signs, hand sanitizer stations, a two-month mask mandate, and assigned dining-hall seating for half that time. "Aggressive," indeed. Whether my new cellmate read it or not, I can't say; he does know how to keep clean.

Take my sarcasm as a good sign. I'm able to notice absurdities such as this because I've reached the point here where I can let down my guard somewhat. My friend Luke was finally moved last night and ended up in a squalid rat-hole. He said that the corners of his cell had piles of compressed filth that required digging loose. He'll be on high alert for days yet. My coworker Gary, whom I mentioned in last week's post about settling in, moves today. I wish him the best, but I'm pretty sure, based on everyone else's luck, that I already got it.