Thursday, January 11, 2007

Joseph Donahue's Terra Lucida and "Jewish" Poetry

At the risk of this blog becoming a mutual admiration society, I’d like to recall a passage in Eric’s essay “Shekhinah In American,” which he and Jonathan Barron include in their Jewish American Poetry: Poems, Commentary, and Reflections. At an important point in the essay, Eric discusses Allen Grossman’s call for Jewish American poets to engage in deeper study of traditional texts (back to the sources!), including kabbalah, in order to escape the parochialism of ethnicity. For Grossman, “Judaism is an ahistorical religion” (a truly contrarian notion), and the return to the texts he calls for will, as Eric puts it, “make every Jewish age simultaneous.” What would this retooled Jewish American poem sound like? “Might such a poem sound something like this?” Eric asks—and then, in a brilliant move, quotes “What Do I Know of the Old Lore?,” the opening poem in Robert Duncan’s Roots and Branches!

I often think of this moment when I reflect (as I have interminably for many years now) upon what makes a poem “Jewish.” Eric’s point is well taken: the Jewish knowledge (more—the Jewish wisdom) of Robert Duncan—gentile, theosophist, syncretist, gnostic—makes “What Do I Know of the Old Lore,” among a number of Duncan’s works, into an uncannily “Jewish” poem. So if you don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s rye (oh, the subway ads of my lost youth!), maybe you don’t have to be Jewish to write a Jewish poem.

This is a matter which deserves much further consideration in itself, but I raise the issue here as an opening into Joseph Donahue’s serial poem Terra Lucida, which he has been publishing in magazines and chapbooks for over ten years. I’ve always been an admirer of Joe’s work, which tends toward a post-New York School apocalyptic fluidity (see, most recently, Incidental Eclipse), creating in turn a fractured, comic, even crazed sensibility (not “voice”) which, to use the title of another of his serial poems, is that of “A Servant of God Without a Head.” But Terra Lucida is composed in a different register. Written exclusively in terse but flexible couplets, its engagement with the sacred, and with theological discourse, is more direct. Donahue draws from a number of religious traditions, and part of the poetry’s strength lies in the intertwining, sometimes conflicted patterns of allusion, a kind of overdetermined revelation that is actually hidden by an overabundance of truths.

In In This Paradise: Terra Lucida XXI-XL, this sense often arrives with a particularly Jewish inflection. Here are two passages from XXII (in this paradise):

The souls left in the Garden
roam at every full moon.

They bow before the towers of
Jerusalem, bathe in that radiance.

They return to the Garden, and go out.
They fly at night, and wail before

the gates of the fallen cities.
They see the bodies of those

suffering in punishment.
They push on, remembering

The agony of all they see.
They fly back to Eden.

They tell the Holy One, who
grieves there, in the Hall of Illness:

The world is a hollow,
a ghost of water in a ditch...


Orders, Songs, Laws,
have been hidden away.

We must try to find them.
We must, we say, go find them.

But we hide, even more deeply,
clinging to an unreal glitter,

as these perfections
struggle to reach us...

Perhaps someone more deeply read in kabbalah than I am can identify the imagery in the first passage, though my guess is that, as in the case of Duncan, Donahue has assimilated and transformed kabbalistic discourse, creating a vision of loss and exile that is perfectly in keeping with Jewish mysticism’s—and Donahue’s own—gnostic impulses. I am moved by the pathos of the Holy One grieving in the “Hall of Illness”; the idea of the Almighty’s helplessness in the face of human wretchedness and cosmic disaster is expressed with wonderful tact and restraint. The second passage, with its vision of ambivalent students of the Law, reminds me of the great debate between Walter Benjamin and Gershom Scholem over the status of tradition and transmissibility in Kafka. Benjamin asserted that Kafka’s “students are pupils who have lost the Holy Writ,” while Scholem countered that these students “are not so much those who have lost the Scripture…but rather those students who cannot decipher it.” And then there is Kafka himself, who, in “An Imperial Message,” imagined the dying Emperor sending a messager to “his pathetic subject” through the incalculable distances of the Imperial Court. “But you sit at your window,” the parable ends, “and dream of that message when evening comes.”

The suggestiveness of Donahue’s work, its invitation to metaphysical speculation and religious hermeneutic, is in productive tension with its sheer audacity. Terra Lucida XXIX (The Adoration of the Sign) conflates Jewish and Christian apocalypticism to give us a vision in which “God has leased the world to Satan / …A world dark as anthracite / & lit by flames of an invisible war. XXXIX (secret Jews), appropriately enough, draws on the unsettling historical phenomenon of the crypto-Jews of New Mexico, with their hidden Jewish practices and their ritual of washing away the Catholic baptism when a child turns twelve. XXVI is a probing midrash on Cain and Abel, in which the dead brother speaks “deep within the sleep of Cain.” And XL ironically celebrates Esau, “Denier of Denial / Patriarch of Craving.”

Donahue is obviously interested in the frightening underside of religious experience—heresy, nihilism, mystical infatuation. Yet there is also great charm in Terra Lucida. Again, from XXII:

In the shade of a tree children
string nouns to verbs.

The earth's all burs, flowers, and hills.
The children go wild with words.

Sky and earth are about to be
bound, are bound already,

in the shade of a tree,
bound in a sentence where

children will read about the letters
that spell the world: fire & water, earth & air

will dream a book with a picture
of the field where they are.

Tree of Life, Tree of Knowledge; Book of the World, World of the Book. Donahue puts yet another spin on Tsvetayeva’s “all poets are Jews.”

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