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From alpha and omega in Joseph Donahue's Terra Lucida

Reading a new epic



Hailed as an "ongoing magnum opus," Joseph Donahue's most recent book of poetry, Terra Lucida, reads like an apocalyptic vision. Donahue, a highly regarded poet who is a senior lecturer at Duke University, published Terra Lucida earlier this year, but it's really the latest in a two-decade-long saga.

The book begins, "Rivers & cities/swept clear —/ all's coast, range, ridge, put,/ black dazzle, galaxies of white smoke," sounding at first like some charbroiled future Earth or even a possible parable of global warming. But then Aeneas crops up, setting the book's contemporaneity in conversation with ancient texts and suggesting we are reading a new epic, albeit one that carries with it the faded memory of the previous world: "Of that world, nothing/ persisting, only a// blank earth/ welling bent light."

All the poems in this collection seem to exist in flux between alpha and omega, beginning and end, referencing biblical characters or ancient Greeks one moment while prophesying a future that reverts back to the Garden of Eden in the next. One image seems like it could describe an ancient ritual, a present-day campsite, some postapocalyptic future—or perhaps all three at the same time: "Delight of children around a fire./ The year narrows. Light flees the day.// Worlds crackle in the eternal cold." At any moment we can be placed with Adam in hell and then, a few pages later, materialize in Cape Cod, 1961. The title of every poem is "00"—as if there's no beginning and no end, perhaps no temporal order at all.

While Donahue's subjects are continually grand, they are grounded by striking clusters of tiny imagistic moments. In a place as mundane as a Thai café, a man who has just attended a funeral considers "a ghost, a soul, /a mother//not yet not there," which is countered by a hint of flavor in the food: "a last taste,/what is/ that?// Tarragon?/ Garlic?// Flakes of/ lemon peel?" The juxtaposition forces us to read the search for that flavor as the search to define a newly departed soul.

Another of the book's carefully rendered moments describes the reincarnation of random objects: "Any minute you could be a lost spoon,/ or bones murmuring in the flowers:/ Some of us are in disguise, /& some of us have been eaten." Moments like this, where at once we inhabit the world of a lost spoon and jump to the voice of bones, surprise and haunt the reader. The speaker of a poem flits from object to object, mirroring the curious nature of the mind with the same dexterity that the entire collection moves through past, present and future.

Language figures as an important subject throughout the collection, which is written entirely in short couplets, providing a lot of breathing room for the words that occasionally flit across an empty landscape. Consider the metaphor "My life is a letter in a word rising/ on the unrolling white of the sky." Language becomes a symbol of a living thing, a notion that is reinforced when Donahue points to the vibrancy of language itself, as in the lines "Verbs are bright scraps/ in the euphonic dark." At times, the poems seem to occupy a landscape of the mind, where language is a native creature: "...the phrase// flew down, settling within the /would-be sleeper, so restless// beside the stream of images,/ craving dreams." But the reference to language isn't simply the problem of a poet grappling with his medium, but rather the larger question of how language survives from ancient texts through modern ones to now. Where does our collected history, our shared stories, go when the world burns? The book doesn't give us an answer, but the collection is a masterful and complex musing on the question.

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