(spoiler alert: Donnelly is a fantastic poet)
First off, I’d like to take a moment to pat myself on the back, firmly but gently for making it through the quarter and having stuck to this whole reading a book a week deal. While for some this may have posed no challenge, it was a huge turnaround from the months prior to starting grad school wherein I’d only make it through a book every month thanks to a mess of distractions that were rarely enjoyable (Facebook, Wikipedia, binging on 90’s Nick cartoons on Netflix. Fine, that last one always is fun to do). I’m also really pleased by how much I enjoyed the majority of the books I read although as I’ve pointed out recently, the majority of the authors were American white men, which for whatever reason fills me with something akin to dread.
Now a brief confession before I get to the part you’re all here for- the intricate descriptions of another writer’s work and the impression it left on me. I only realized today that I have never read an entire book of contemporary poetry by a single author. I’ll even throw in another confession here just because I cannot lie to you, intrepid reader, I decided to read this poetry book because of all the unread books in my apartment this was the shortest and therefore the teeny math part of my brain stated that we’d be able to get through it despite the call of Thanksgiving turkeys and final papers. Before you blast me for this assumption though, allow me the chance to defend myself.
I believe it’s really, insanely I’d say if I were prone to even more hyperbolic language, difficult to write good poetry. My first forays into writing were poems that I wrote as a teenager because I wanted to express my feelings, but didn’t want to invest much time into doing things like coming up with a plot or characters. Now I can confidently say that those poems were shit, and it’s not only a result of me being a very sentimental chap who can’t talk about feelings without saying the word feelings. The major reason is that since I didn’t have characters or a plot, assessing a poem’s completeness came down to whether or not things were grammatically correct or that there was some sense in the metaphorical language. When I got to UH and met poet poets, I was glad that I had moved to writing fiction because they seemed to operate on a different plane altogether in their crafting process. Somehow though, my appreciation for the difficulty in writing poetry did not transfer itself to an appreciation for the difficulty in reading poetry.
So before I go on too long without discussing Donnelly’s book, let me first say that I failed as a reader. As I had mentioned a few weeks back when reading Stuart Dybek’s similarly intricate writing, somehow I was not able to give these poems the attention they deserved. My mind drifted to potential Christmas presents, final papers, grading, and my disdain for Greyhound buses with alarming frequency. After reading a stanza, I’d go back and read it again once I realized I had not taken in a single line. In addition to my own mental distractions, I had lagged on reading until Saturday on my return trip from Seattle. Because of that I had the task of reading almost 150 pages of poetry before the end of today’s workday.
Through a late-night reading session last night and ignoring a final paper earlier today, I succeeded, but often after reading one of Donnelly’s poem the only feeling I was left with was the guilt of having no clue about what I had just read. And it wasn’t lack of clarity on his part or uninteresting or sensually unprovocative writing. I was just reading these poems way too fast, treating the text like prose and looking for characters or narrative arcs that could push me through for the next couple lines. Not surprisingly the poems that did manage to make an impression were often shorter (such as “Montezuma to his Magicians” and “Dream of the Overlooked”) and written from the POV of a very specific person or archetype. However, I did remain captive during the entirety of the awesome “Globus Hyestericus” that you should check out over at Paris Review.
I had originally planned to give this book to a poet friend who I thought would enjoy Donnelly’s work, but I intend to give it another slower read in a few months’ time. Donnelly’s poems deserve better than what I gave them.
Read this book if you have read poetry books before. Read this book if you want to learn how to read poetry books. Read this book if you like visually engaging books.