Timothy Donnelly

Winner of the Alice Fay Di Castagnola Award in 2014

Traveler

 
Admittedly, there have been times, as after antihistamines
     and a lager at the aiprort bar, when I can make like

I belong here, minding my own carry-on behind me
    like the nonchalant, bouyed through a mount in cheer

or cheerfulness I can't call false, or can but just plain
    don't, my fixity dissolving like some paper boat on blue

carpet scrolling down the gate and aisle, shoulders brushed to
    others' gently, neighbor-like, and often, and as if I

hadn't noticed, but I do—it is my task. A sudden flash of
    what might happen when it did, but days ago, and then

the rope of calm around my neck again, I settle in my seat,
    a window in the back, and pray to what I pay for,

which is an empty sky, or else a cloud in what appears to be
    the center of the sky, to feel the fade of what I only

recently eased into, this lack of history between us
    making it all the easier. (I think I hadn't expected life

to be kind to me, not in light of the pounding of it, so I must have
    thought I could trick it, lead it into thinking I wasn't

really there. Later on, I think I changed my mind, but by
    then it was too late.)            
                                           Gone forward, pulling it off

but awkwardly, timed as if time's artichoke had wept
    in front of me in the white kitchen, or on a pond on which

intoned a lotus, then a moon; greased in plenitude, up to
    and including—then all its little hands, which knit

their lifework out of hours, days; centuries unstuck like yellow
    vinyl from the tabletop, the noise of it so common-

place we didn't notice it, or when we did, we let it pass
    by tactitly as nails until all the landscapes they held up

were taken into custody—and now it can't be heard again.
   Or say the flatness of the tabletop were the known

universe, all of it, and I'm just a random smirch residing
    in the northeast corner, comparable to the other smirches,

nothing special, until I vanish from this flatness into another
    layer of it, into depth. We might think of it as traveling

under the table, but the smirches, who only experience
    flatness, know no under. They only know that I was there

and then I wasn't. And when I resurface in an instant
    somewhere in the south, it's still just an instant to me,

but to them, who are nowhere to be found, it was an instant
   three hundred years in the past.

                                                                 White birches lean

through a mist like plastic drinking straws, the same
    kind a tribesman from Papua New Guinea once drove

through the hole in his septum in lieu of the traditional
    wooden spoke or bone. The anthropologist in the back of

the room cried. She had seen the documentary many times before
    but still cried. She sensed in this image the collapse

of a culture, its unstoppable tumbling into the corporate
    fastfood abyss. I could see this. At the same time I couldn't

look up into his face and make myself see anything less
    or more than a person, one with the capacity to choose

or choose not to do what he had done. I knew I had to
    be wrong. I knew I should want him not to chose what

he possibly only appeared to have chosen, meaning external
    forces might have compelled him to take up the straw

instead of conventional materials, but I couldn't distinguish
    between wanting this and wanting to preserve him

in time like an object, even if to do so meant denying him
    his ability to choose, permitting him only to do to his face

what left Baltimore comfortable.    
                                                                       
                                                                Anyone moves through
    days less than completely, the washing of dishes

start to finish, water half-scalding the hands so the feet
    don't remember events that the land underneath

them supported, a hope for gain so consistent in the humus
    it becomes for us an unavoidable drink, the whole

crow family chuffing overhead as we trust our taproots
    to skirt the bad aquifer. Anyone oftener in the soft-

scented borders abuzz beside museum doors will anchor
    thoughts elsewhere than in insects on whose loud labor

we depend unendingly. As for me, I like to think of myself as able
    to function at a certain level, equipped to walk among

a company of bees at ease with my place in an ancient
    relation, a live participant in a pattern whose longevity

is a thing of beauty, admiring our symbiosis in Sunday
    sun as an abstract love with benefits, but then I think

we'd cloud them in a stink of toxins if they didn't pollinate
    the fruit we ate or vomit honey, and they don't think

of us at all, they're too busy, or aren't eqipped to, or don't
    see the point, if there is any.

                                                          Half-aware in the dark

air above New York, a common swift, known to doze in flight
    the way a dolphin does through the sea, one hemi-

sphere of its brain set to slow-wave sleep while the other
    maintains vigilance, the inner eye of us widening

as it beams back and forth godlike across the soft office
    floor of our experience, the outer and inner divisions of it

parted by a cleft that looks from this height like nothing
    but a papercut, I drop in on red activity filed in the fourth

quadrant outer division, labyrinth of mismanagement
    as far as the eye can see, its index cards alone the size

of antlers on Irish elk, which is to say so large they prevent
    successful completion of "the normal business of life,"

I've heard it said, or else it was just some idea I had
    once about futility in a bathtub, but when I reach out

to grab the file, having been lowered down to the air-
    space just above it, the antiquated suspension system up

and reverses, hauling me backward through the element
    I belong to, torn as if from the hand that would spare me

the burden of remembering.

                                                       Nothing to be afraid of but
    nothing now, a light-absorbing liquid tucked behind

a dam constantly wanting to unknit itself, thinking to fail by plan
    might be better than to succeed for a stretch through

violent worry, only to fail in time anyway, you sat beside me
    on the green chair, birdlike, fidgeting in your girlhood

as we read together from a magazine, facts about the lives
    of honeybees, nothing to be afraid of: to generate,

on average, a single pound of honey, a colony has to draw
    nectar from two million flowers, or enough red roses

to send a dozen red roses to every resident of Columbia, MO.
    And to visit all those flowers, the colony has to fly,

collectively, fifty thousand miles, over one fifth the distance
    from the earth to the moon, which holds our thoughts

in place if we have nowhere else to place them, as when
    we read the average worker bee, in all its lifetime, will only

produce one twelfth a teaspoon of honey, meaning that I
    have stirred the lifework of a dozen bees into my teacup

thoughtlessly, a devourer of lifeworks, this present only
    one example, I turn my head away.

                                                                         Awake again

in underbrush, scrub pine and sassafras, an earth beneath
   my hooved feet elastic with its mosses, I walk out

to the human clearing, late winter, under a surplus of stars.
    Gently, neighbor-like, my animal ear upheld against

the wigwam, the stripped bark sides of it like the surface
    of a rumored planet, discernible at last in the late winter

sky that appears, as noted, invested with more stars
    than necessary, although necessity would seem to have

no place in the matter, and it must be I who has imported it.
    In the firelight the colonist feeds the dying sachem

fruit preserves with a blunt English knife, nursing him back
    to health, and it's my task to determine, through

the tension of the wigwam, whether he performs this
    kindness out of love, strategy, or else some mixture of

the two, and if this last, I am asked to determine whether
    the two feelings stay distinct in the mixture, or if

they fuse, and if the latter, what known apparatus might
    best take the measure, or what new one might we devise,

and is it love-strategy then, or strategy-love, is one half
    always stronger, or is it not like that at all.

                                                                                        When I fly

back to where I'm from, or feel I must be, will I be thought
    a failure to the others there, because I am, but only

in the strict sense, having failed to accomplish what I felt
    I had been asked to, which was to undertake what

can't in fact be done, not the way we had been made to
   think we might be able to. That was our mistake, if we were

more than one. If not, then it was mine. I worry that
    I won't be able, in the strict sense, to make the others

see the beauty of it, all of it, which I admit I can only
    see in part, even after lifelong travels, and then I think,

this must be what they want, for me to return incapable,
    brokener, insisting on the beauty of what can't be

understood, not the way we thought, and they, if more
    than one, will welcome me, nodding in time like the holy

entities on a diptych, and if otherwise, I will be there
    to becalm myself, and to be the ship I wait for, and the ocean

will be ocean, no matter how I cross it, and late winter
    sky will still be sky, until there's no ship left to wait for.
 
line

Erin Belieu on Timothy Donnelly

In Ancient Egypt, there lived powerful magicians who could cast something called a binding spell, an enchantment that tangled a person in invisible restraints, bending them to the supplicant's will. A form of sorcery known as sympathetic magic, it is one of the oldest spells known to humankind.

So when I say that I find Timothy Donnelly's poems charming, I mean to describe them with all the authoritative resonance this secondary definition musters. His poems are slyly incantatory, wrapping the reader inside their syntactic complexity. They captivate with the three dimensional quality of their illusions.

They are also charming in the more traditional sense, salutary, welcoming, funny, precise, vulnerable, appealingly neurotic on occasion. They have a flirtatious quality of mind and eye that draws their reader inexorably. Again, I want to qualify that to flirt doesn't mean to make yourself entirely and boringly agreeable. Donnelly's poems are willing to antagonize as necessary, understanding those essential energies opposition brings to a poem. With their intellectual sinuousness, they weave a complete and very particular consciousness around their reader. Donnelly's poems sound like a very specific and especially vivid someone made them.

Donnelly's poems are also not afraid to bang on your door. They're not self conscious about asking for the attention they require. They have a lot of important stuff they need to talk about. But as is the case with the very best raconteurs, when listening to Donnelly's poems, you're likely to forget about the other urgencies calling to you. It seems there's no where else we need to be once we're inside of them. Keeping in mind that poetry is—or should be—another version of magic, it's a great pleasure to be bewitched by such a confident, generous, and singularly-voiced poet.

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