It sometimes seems that cleverness is the sine qua non of contemporary poetry—the tie that binds Kay Ryan and Kenneth Goldsmith, Charles Bernstein and Billy Collins. And if that’s the case, then Joseph Donahue is not a contemporary poet.
But with Terra Lucida, a book that revises and extends a cycle he’s been publishing since 1998, Donahue stakes a wager that poetry doesn’t have to play to our inner Jon Stewart. In place of superficial ironies and satires, he offers an abiding gravity that colors his work from vision to tone. This deep (but never dour) seriousness is most evident in the poems’ elevated pitch, which Donahue sustains whether he’s describing Adam in hell or a dinner party. Even a pill overdose comes in for the high style: “My body, crumpled in our dormitory. / My body, a body among bodies . . . / Two days, transcendent.”
What makes Donahue’s wager even thinkable is his prodigious craftsmanship. Along with an outstanding ear, he has a fine talent for assembling couplets as irregular and exact as an Incan wall: “Nothing breeds or dies. / There is only land splitting / into peak & pit; air, into light & dark; ocean, into crest & trench; fire, into aspects of itself . . .”
It helps, too, that Donahue has faith in poetry’s vatic possibilities. This conviction, however unfashionable it surely is, locates him in a tradition that stretches back to Robert Duncan and Ronald Johnson and forward to Pam Rehm and Peter O’Leary. So does his frankly religious vision, which reveals itself not only in the orthodox sense but also—more fundamentally—as a form of mythopoeisis: “Every true image / continues the Creation / Every scrap & tatter of a true image / proves the world has never yet been complete.” Poetry like this obviously isn’t for everyone, and it certainly isn’t for anyone allergic to too much gold or God in their verse. (If the title isn’t enough, consider it telling that glitter and glittering appear at least nine times in Terra Lucida.) And even those of us who appreciate this kind of thing should admit that there are times when all that cosmic pressure causes Donahue to stumble. When that happens, his poems most often collapse under the weight of their own earnesty or become so rapt in their ecstasies that they sound mannered to earthbound ears.
But it’s worth waiting out lines like “Old books speak of / many heavens, many / hells” to get to “The upward plunge / of lightlessness over the sea.” Likewise, I’ll gladly forgive the too-precious-by-half “fish-line spider web / handmade, trembling” if a poet will only deliver me here, as Donahue does: “Of that world, nothing / persisting, only a // blank earth / welling bent light.”
For me, at least, the wager is won.