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”):
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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