Twenty-seven Props for a Production of Eine Lebenszeit

Timothy Donnelly

Grove Press

2003

Sunday, July 13th, 2003

1. The land of Amazon is a foolish place, where foolish things are said. As the documentation indicates, Senator, I have no problem with committing foolishness to print; what I find objectionable, however, is foolishness girded with zeal. Of the thirty-nine current customer reviews of Timothy Donnelly’s Twenty-seven Props for a Production of Eine Lebenszeit, only a lone voice offers a smattering of stars neither dismissively One nor exuberantly Five.

2. What’s so unlikely about the possibility that Twenty-seven Props for a Production of Eine Lebenszeit is just . . . okay? Fine, worthy, neither infernally evil nor beatifically good? The crisis of critical inflation has less to do with relative boosterism than it does with our community’s conspicuous lack of nuance. What is it about contemporary poetry that perpetually calls for a savior, or a voice of the generation? Would our agitations be so violent if we were not in a perpetual panic that the wrong person (wrong as determined by whatever criteria we have at hand) will enjoy the anointing? And if that event does come to pass . . . ?

3. In his introduction to Twenty-seven Props for a Production of Eine Lebenszeit, Richard Howard writes "This poetry is as vigorous, as fresh, and as authoritative as any new work I have seen since Ashbery’s third book." As of this writing, marine biologists have yet to identify the approximately forty tons of organic matter recently beached on a Chilean shore. Regularly referred to as "long as a school bus," the mass may be a section of whale skin, or something spat up from a whale, or perhaps a squid, or octopus, or even an enormous colony of aggregate plankton. It is my hope that John Ashbery will one day be viewed as the literary equivalent of this mass: large, mysterious, fundamentally and essentially anomalous, inspiring in that he proves that the world is still capable of proffering the weird.

4. Here’s a word you rarely see attached to any contemporary poet: eloquent. We have, at our blurbological disposal, a wealth of ways to describe diction or language or rhetoric. Why not as "eloquent"? Donnelly is unquestionably eloquent. If eloquence is the language equivalent of general physical dexterity, then why resist the genuine thrill of Donnelly’s powers? He can perform fairly extraordinary feats:

5.

The trains we will take will to take us down, to the sea
long sick with its suction of mollusk, its glares, its nausea

ours and no slip for returning, past spindled and torn.
A corn dog enters the mouth setting flares of nausea

off in the bellies that begged it, whiskey-and-soda
to slug them to sleep, then thirds then affairs of nausea

wash from the day’s damp bedding, or rather, pretend to:
strung out drying in vibrant air, there’s our nausea

6. From "Nauseous House," section 2 of "The Spleen’s Own Music"

7. If you want to read Timothy Donnelly’s poetry, you must accustom yourself to section, subsection, headers and asides. Whatever is worth saying is worth over-saying, at least in that this is a poetics inspired by the acceleration of its eloquence; all language here suggests even more language.

8. That isn’t necessarily a problem, is it? The fear of eloquence is actually a fear that only grandiloquence exists, a suspicion that eloquence is insufficiently inviting of anything greater than its own ability. We would rather that the proof of eloquence not be its only point. But why? Isn’t eloquence also its own intelligence?

9. Many poems suffer from knowledge of their own endings. The tedium that constrains the poem that too clearly predicts its own conclusion cannot be concealed; think of the frequency with which you skip to the end of a poem, not just to confirm the suspicions invoked at the start, but also to end the exercise, to save yourself the burden of purely architectural language. This perversion of forward-thinking is a feature Donnelly’s work happily lacks: his poems reach forward, backwards, into dimensions superior, associative, adjacent and imagined. This isn’t random by any means; it’s just fast, as flicker-quick as the associative act itself.

10. Thus, Twenty-seven Props for a Production of Eine Lebenszeit is unencumbered by a sense of destination. This creates opportunities for pleasure, but with the obvious consequence of not communicating anything but the gifts of the trip itself.

11. Somewhere someone has mentioned that there are rhymes and forms in this book the likes of which haven’t been seen since Swinburne.

12.

What wanderlust has wrecked your skirts?
They’ve ceased to swish that certain way,

that distingué, the way they did days halcyon,
what goings-on have been going on, keep

going on, that flounce’s flown, that fringe’s fled,
once chestnut brown went chestnut red, and now

it’s rust, Philosophy, and rusted skirts, they just don’t swish.
Your chestnut skirts—

better to keep quiet. Corrosion starts
which can’t be stopped in the hidden parts—

in the joints, the folds, the seams, the borders.
Carnation, lily, lily, rose. The cloister’s moister

than the monks suppose. What grows there rots,
what rots there grows. Carnation, lily, lily, rose.

13. From section 3 of "Sonata ex Machina"

14. It’s no accident that certain folds of language have fallen out of use since Swinburne. Many of these crenellations sound absurdly musical—ice cream truck-musical—to the contemporary ear. In so noting, I neither valorize nor damn the contemporary ear. This change in plausibility of pleasure in music is purely evolutionary; like the process of evolution itself, it has no point, no agenda.

15. If Donnelly can make use of both these forms and his intuition of the modern response to create something that productively plays one against the other (and I believe his poems prove that he can), then why shouldn’t he?

16. Does his doing so manifest an anxiety that the act is no more than display—display of aptitude, display of museum-class referents, display of intelligence? Isn’t the act of display somehow slight?

17. Of course, now that I’ve queried us into a corner, let me proceed to ask of Twenty-seven Props for a Production of Eine Lebenszeit the question that truly haunts me: can brilliance without corollary substance have merit? I believe it is this question that has forced the Five Star Freaks from the land of Amazon to find profundity in these poems where there is perhaps only skill; it is this question that also has invoked the clinched and hateful paranoia of the One Star Wonders, they who—in the fear that their may be no wizard behind the curtain—refuse to acknowledge the beauty, craft and prismatic spectacles of design of the curtain itself that may very well render that question moot.

18. Before I attempt to answer the preceding question, let me note that the interior design and page layout of this book does no service to Mr. Donnelly or to the aesthetic sense of the sighted reader. With whole generations of Quark and PageMaker-savvy adolescents flooding the market, one would imagine that recourse to a font and layout style evocative of a junior high school quarterly newspaper circa 1985 would be unnecessary, yea impossible. I don’t normally mention these things, but in this instance the style choices hurt Donnelly’s case, because the amateurish quality of the design lends weight to the apprehensions of those who find this work adolescent already. Shame on you, Grove Press.

19. Light opera is no less difficult than opera proper, or what I wish I could call hard opera. That it is light indicates not merely an inferior subject matter in a dramatic hierarchy; it just as equally refers to the nimbleness of the material, the way in which it can skip from trope to trick and back again. Light opera, in that sense, is merely opera with less fidelity to the pondering thematic schedule of hard opera. It flits by choice, and not because it requires any lesser degree of athleticism. I hereby admit that there are moments in Twenty-seven Props for a Production of Eine Lebenszeit that remind me unerringly of The Mikado, which is an insult only if you think Gilbert and Sullivan a disgrace to the likes of Wagner. And if you do so think, I have two responses: you try it, and http://www.amazon.com.

20.

The reign of the floor,
the necklace of lozenges
spindled and strung
on radiant wire, the scepter perfected:

No limit to what
he could make himself.
His orb the mantle
of a popped balloon.

A day and a half
devoted to the crown, its drying,
and the glitter’s
appointment, the ceremony of making it

fit to the head
where the trumpets flourished,
where it all began
and kept beginning.

About his kingdom: There was no higher

site than being, seated there.
About his palace: There was no door, until the famous
tolling ripped one out.

21. "The Monarchy of Papier-Mache"

22. If this is indulgent, then I wish more of Mr. Donnelly’s contemporaries had these faculties to indulge.

23. Can brilliance without corollary substance have merit?

24. Of course it can. Detonated fireworks, the Aurora Borealis—the weight of these things cannot be hefted to the shoulder and measured on a scale that usefully links their splendor to their "substance." Substance, in this sense, is a distraction. It refers to a pre-poetic freight, cargo waiting to be loaded on the train, while poetry is neither the cargo nor the train but the motion itself. Donnelly’s poetry moves; the frequency with which it moves within form only elaborates the dexterity of the poet. That dexterity is inadequate to the leadership of a generation, but the generation doesn’t need leadership. It needs writing that proves the breadth of the possible.

25. And let us not forget: though thought of as ephemeral, it is not an incidental effect of both fireworks and the Aurora Borealis that they illuminate.

26. "Was this review helpful to you?"

27. Signed anon.

Have comments about this review? Send a Letter to the Editor

See comments by readers about this reviews [3]

 

3 Responses to “Twenty-seven Props for a Production of Eine Lebenszeit”

  1. Michael Catherwood Says:

    What wanderlust has wrecked your skirts?
    They’ve ceased to swish that certain way,

    that distingu

  2. Noah Raizman Says:

    Just wanted to say that that was an extremely apt review. It captures exactly what I felt when I first read Donnelly in the Paris Review and then what I felt when I saw him give a “virtuoso” reading a few months ago at the small book press festival or something like that, but could never have articulated so well.

    I think I concluded that brilliant skill and dexterity without substance was not so worthwhile, but then again, I think I was just jealous.

    I remain jealous.

    Good review.
    N .

  3. Christine Says:

    I know I’m a few years behind here, but I couldn’t agree more with you. It’s such a mixed collection, and I had the same reaction when I read the Amazon reviews. If I took anything away from Twenty-Seven Props it was that Donnelly is an incredibly *skilled* poet, who unfortunately chooses to write about subject matter that either 1)only he can understand or 2) no one would care to ponder.

Leave a Reply