Damien Donnelly’s “Stickleback” chapbook

The five poems (or “considerations,” as Donnelly calls them) in this short chapbook focus on five paintings (by Dali, Van Gogh, Kandinsky, O’Keeffe, and Chagall, respectively). Opening on Dali’s “Young Woman in the Window,” Donnelly makes it clear that the operative principle in this collection is a fusion of imagery and reflection. Dali’s painting shows a woman at a window “looking out from shadow to sea.” Outside the window is “distance … space … water.” It is the quintessential image to use as an objective marker of the subjective state of reflection.

There is something holographic about these poems, each like an index to the whole, or each like a pebble dropped whose waves ripple through the other four. I’ll take as my pebble just the first stanza of the second poem (keyed to Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers”):

Sometimes
I stopped by, to sit and wonder how you didn’t change
while I clung to the edge of the seat to keep myself
within the skin I was shedding like those petals hanging
onto your brush strokes, though they never met the finality
of their fate.

Note how quickly Donnelly gets to the meat of things. “Consideration” of art and artist absorbs the poet into its own ambiguity in a way that puts this poem in relief against the others. Take for example the second-person pronoun. “You” in the first poem variously references the painting or the figure within the painting, but not the painter himself (Dali). In the third poem (Kandinsky) it references the painting only, and it does not appear in poems 4 and 5. Here, though, in #2 (Van Gogh), the antecedent of “you” is ambiguous. Is it Van Gogh who didn’t change or the sunflowers? Do the petals hang from Van Gogh’s brush strokes or from the brush strokes of the painting itself?

The ambiguity is not just a curiosity. It opens a tension between the ephemeral and the eternal that operates at the core of the poem and perhaps less directly at the core of the collection. On the one hand, the image of a drop of paint hanging, awaiting the finality of the next moment, is as ephemeral an image as we can get. On the other hand, the image fixes the hand of the artist eternally on the canvas. Anyone who has seen Van Gogh’s paintings live will note the visceral presence of the artist in the topography of the paint, where you can see, for example, grooves where he pushed the paint around with the handle of the brush. To see the hand of the artist here, over a century later, to see that ephemeral movement of his hand frozen in time, conjures a sense, or a hope, that art can freeze the ephemeral into something eternal.

The tension between the ephemeral and the eternal is the same tension that animates Keats’s more famous “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” The young lovers depicted on the marble urn will remain “forever young,” and therein lies their beauty. But the truth is that they will never feel the warmth of the kiss, their lips forever an inch apart. Thus, in the final lines, Keats’s poem translates that tension between the ephemeral and the eternal into an ambivalence about the relation of truth to beauty.

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

Note that the quotation marks are Keats’s, not mine. The lines are attributed within the poem not to the poet but to the urn itself, and they express the urn’s point of view. But the poem is haunted by a sense that maybe beauty is NOT truth. The figures are beautiful but the truth is they will never kiss. Moreover, a kind of melancholy hangs over the poem, as the immortality of the figures contrasts with the mortality of the poet, and Keats may have already felt at the writing of the poem the tuberculosis that would kill him barely a year later. The urn’s beauty lasts forever, but the truth the poet must face is death – and very soon, in Keats’s case.

Turning back to Donnelly’s poem, ekphrastic in the same way as Keats’s, “those petals hanging onto your brush strokes” give us at once an eternal marker of the hand of the artist and reminder that he (Van Gogh), like Keats, was already suffering at the time of “Sunflowers” and that he too would die in a year’s time.

The remaining poems in the collection of five are each their own thing, but this spotlight on the Van Gogh poem hopefully illuminates one path toward them. I will just add – don’t overlook the playful imagination (as in #3, the Kandinsky poem, where Donnelly’s irreverent comparison of “La Ludwigskirche in München” to “a burst bag of skittles scurrying along the wall” rings amusingly true for those who have seen the painting – and, as usual in Donnelly, the irreverent humor is recaptured by something more deeply reflective by the end) and sensuality (as in #4, the O’Keeffe image “spread out, like sex, like sweet sugar / dropped into the milk and up comes the wave … white tongue tingles with emerald envy”).

Back to my keynote. These poems are compressions of imagery and reflection. Let yourself linger. Know that there are always more layers to them, like the “eager green stems” in the Van Gogh painting/poem, “holding hundreds of seeds,” like the “strokes of paint / radiating like halos to fill in the hole left after all the lights / went out.”

Disclosure. This book was a gift. I haven’t met Damien live, but he is in my extended circle, we have swapped poems and thoughts about poems, and I have been on his excellent podcast, which you should all link to below.

Damien’s “Eat the Storms” podcast site linked here.

Stickleback is a chapbooks series by Hedgehog Press. Damien’s chapbook (“Considering Canvases with Boys”) is number XX in the series, linked here.

My Amazon review of Damien’s other chapbook (the “Eat the Storms” chapbook) is here.

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Schematics in Mexico

Schematics and Assemblies of the Cosmic Heart now available at Librería Escalera in Guanajuato (Av. Benito Juarez).
Libería Escalera link HERE
Amazon link HERE

white stone, a cathedral of sorts, Medea
roiled a red and golden heat, the fleece gone,
and none left to bury the dead

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Make the room bright

From my new collection, Schematics and Assemblies of the Cosmic Heart.

After wine, after friends,
in your room pushing back
bedtime forever. You strummed
songs on your guitar, songs you had written

in England, Spain, Greece, Mexico.

I read you my poems.
You fell asleep, darkness.
I stayed awake as the last bits
of beauty smoldered and went out.

I stayed awake all night
and the darkness filled with all
the joys and sadness of my life, all here,
now, in your room, the smell of rose water
lingering on the ragged edge
of time, of our time.

I stayed awake until dawn began
and your body began
to move:

“Open the curtains,” you said.
“Make the room bright.”

Link to Amazon here

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Eat the Storms

I was lucky to have my poetry featured on Damien Donnelly’s Dublin poetry podcast, Eat the Storms. You can link to the episode (Spotify) here. (I’m at 33:05-41:40.) Or go straight to the podcast website and browse. You’ll find lots of good stuff from one of the great poetry cities of the world, hosted by the warm and friendly voice of Damien 🙂

Follow the podcast, say hi to Damien, and give him a shoutout for his efforts to give voice to poets of all stripes and stature.

Gary

Link to Amazon here

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Schematics and Assemblies of the Cosmic Heart

My new book of poems, Schematics and Assemblies of the Cosmic Heart (117 pages), is now available on Amazon (pap. $9.88, Kindle $3.91). Read it. Rate it. Review it. Pass it on.

Link to Amazon here

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Rise and Fall of the Bread Pudding Chef

The bread pudding chef

Three cups of sugar, four
eggs, I stir, and then
you approach: kitchen
becomes temple, stars
move, blood boils and beads
up, I try to concentrate.

Four cups of sugar, three
eggs, you do bring
in thrills a febrile
wild terror of sacrament
unknown or untendered
in safer religions. Stars
move, your glance meets
the window. Three
eggs, I stir, I take
it you are a witch,
my bright-happy blood
beads no amulet.

Picturing a small transgression

i remember
once
the moon
was sinking

and you pushed
it
up with
your hands

“witch” i said
and you kissed me

A fragment

Committing twice the intentional
fallacy, once the affective,
I offered an algebra of clover
and storms sweeping in
along the front range:
snow was in your hair;
you were puzzled.

The bread pudding chef’s lament

Three cups of sugar, four
eggs, I stir, and then
you retreat: kitchen
becomes empty, fruit
sours, cream curdles and dries
up. I try to concentrate.

Four cups of sugar, three
eggs, and the sun became
as sackcloth, the moon
became as blood, the stars
of heaven fell, mountain and island
were moved from their places. Fruit
sours, the center cannot hold.

Babylon the great is fallen, fallen,
and is become the habitation
of devils, and then was there
great weeping and wailing, saying:
alas, alas, that great city,
for in one hour she
is made desolate.

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#1, #2, or #3

Here are 3 versions of the haiku poem I posted last week. No need to read the original post. Just pick one of the 3 here 🙂

#1
a million falling
stars at once, filling the sky,
hands catch the hot ash

#2
a million falling
stars at once, filling the sky,
the ash they leave us

#3
what dreams may come

A million falling stars
at once, like angels they light
the sky against darkness, but some
thing is wrong. Unlike angels they burn.
Open your hands. You can already
feel, maybe taste,
the hot ash.

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A brief narrative interlude

Who was I to be working on a trail?
I know nothing of trails. But
I do know one thing. Trees
have no hearts. But
there it was.

A deformity, a fleshy blotch, something
primeval, excessive, root and stem, something
ludicrous, abhorrent, something that shouldn’t be there.

Raging, I tore at the thing,
the thing that could not be a tree, a heart,
that could only be a ghost of a thing, a word,
a high-sounding phrase said and stupidly repeated

(to correct it, I had
no other intent).

My fury opened a thin purple line, a drip,
then a flow, pumping out a silk road
of opulent red, cambering down
the broken skin of bark.

It seemed a thousand years
swept by, countless passings of moon
and stars, blood and bone, in their great cycle.

And the thousand years filled with weird
dreams of life being lived, food trucks
and book shops and dancing under
the steady moon on a small plaza
up high, with lights of a village
below, then of doors opening
downward into something
bottomless deep, then
closing.

I grew thin, I aged as I watched
the slight silky line of red now
trickling across the earth,
now into the earth.

Then the parched earth cracked,
a pain long forgotten pushed
its wobbly head through,
unsure of whether
to lean this way
or that.

I went back to my work
changed and satisfied.

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I have a bird to whistle

Review of Robert Okaji’s chapbook of poems, I Have a Bird to Whistle (Luminous Press, 2019, 27 pages), by Gary Gautier

Beautifully crafted, each poem is an uneasy marriage of image and concept, of fullness and emptiness. Each is suggestive without yielding a fixed meaning. Meaning, like the sense-rich images, follows geometric curves through space to the vanishing point. The logic moving through each poem is like an extended haiku concatenation, jumping from one discrete image or cluster to another sometimes unrelated one. So far, so good. But the discontinuity, suggestive as it is, is sometimes too much, and I wish Okaji had given us a more stable throughline to hang onto as we move across the flow of language. When I set these prose-poem paragraphs against Okaji’s pre-existing work (see his blog here), for my taste he flourishes better with the more traditional poetic line structure. Still, those who revel in the sheer beauty of poetic language, in the compression of image and concept, in this case coming in bite-sized, one-paragraph chunks, will be pleased with this short collection.

x x x

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