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.

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