Monday, December 21, 2009



Terra Lucida by Joseph Donahue
(Talisman House, 2009)

Joseph Donahue’s Terra Lucida is a braided, poetic breviary of a book, an awe-inspiring volume of three sections which arrange its various explorations into the physical and spiritual world as achieved catechism and cataclysm. Words haunt and redeem, regulating a portal of consciousness where through one is at witness to the articulation, disintegration, and reinvention of autobiographical, biblical, mythical contours of shimmering, often terrifying, ontological inquiry. Donahue’s scope is vast, documenting the myriad strands of thought which ignite and disperse their vaporous contents with a fugue’s keening and joy’s unhesitant breath. Hope expectant and murdered, tracing an arc of recovery and loss which is memory’s jurisdiction but also the world at large, is the heritage and projection of poems which, independently or en masse, seek fidelity of vision in a world where apocalypse and creation are simultaneous, synonymous.

It is an imposing, rightfully cumbersome assemblage of poems, an archive of textures in which words grope for “possibilizing” (my woeful neologism) language into being signification of event and prognostication, a marriage of dualities and dilemmas for which tension is a symptom of a relentless reckoning of the illuminated terrains on which the poet sets foot. George Herbert, William Blake, William James, Jacques Derrida, and Nathaniel Tarn (for whom a poem is dedicated) come to mind as fellow questing spirits but Donahue seems to evoke no forebears or align himself with any movement, muse, or creed in his efforts to align language with the infinitude of its sources in culture, history, religion, and myth. His vision is spectrally multiple, casting in and out the structures of thought and meaning which attend to the building of worlds and words.

The lines of these striking poems move antiphonally, weaving the commodious arcs of deliberation for which Donahue strives to understand the world. Materiality of text and flesh, physicality and illuminated, spiritual presence are constant concerns. Notice how he is able to merge the codex of corpus and nature into a seamless entity of mutual self-making:
My life is a letter in a word rising
on the unrolling white of the sky.

But here is the greater
miracle: that these flashes

are legible, as vines are,
as the winding sunlit leaves

where I read the sweetness
of the fruit that will be.

The lushness here is dependent on the gesture of thought evoked, not any kind of meandering, prolix congestion of words and lines. He is an economical conservationist of meaning and proliferating contexts, not content to spill words in hoping they will sop up some filaments of revelation. ‘Revelatory,’ in the case of Donahue’s poetry, would not judiciously describe the end-point of any of these poems’ investigations with the visible, invisible, self-invented, or hoped for; rather, it is a term that can satisfactorily encompass the reader’s sense of the sheer scope of his investigations. Terra Lucida is antithetical, often self-cancelling, in locating as a crucial universal trope the gestating, transformative, and transcendental beside and against the dying, static, and dissolving. Regardless, the categorical imperative of these poems, even those which visit the extreme calamities of experience and vision, always settle bird-like on the bright possibility of hope:
The thought of
a hoped for end

of hope, a presence
yet to be present,

& a thought
of shape

persisting like
the hope before

any thought of hope.


Jon Curley teaches literature in Newark, New Jersey. His first book of poems, New Shadows, was just published by Dos Madres Press.

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