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Book Review: The Cloud Corporation by Timothy Donnelly

May 19, 2012

In our modernist greed for novelty, we sometimes forget the essential role that iteration has played in all lasting invention. How many times did the same earth go around the same sun in the same way before the right amino acids stumbled across each other and life began? And for biological evolution to have worked as well as it has, each generation must receive its genes by-and-large intact from its parents, and enter an environment that is mostly the same as their’s was. If there is to be betterment, there must be a balance between the against and the again, between deviation and repetition. Poets, in particular, often lean upon repetitions in sound and shape to give them the freedom to be more experimental with ideas and metaphors.

In the eponymous poem of this volume, a version of the phrase “the clouds part to reveal [something] of clouds” is repeated at least nine times. The words start to repeal old senses of words and explore new ones. The pattern provides an axis around which meaning can be churned. With the phrase itself, the reader will think first of the book’s epigraph, from Act III scene II of the Tempest:

Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again: and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me that, when I waked,
I cried to dream again.

One might go on to remember Shakespeare’s use of the word cloud in demonstrating the way language might succumb to power, as in Hamlet (toward the end of Act III Scene ii, “Do you see yon cloud that’s almost in the shape of a camel?”). Or the way language might become power – unless you think it is Cleopatra’s beauty and not her rhetoric that brings Antony to this point, in Act IV scene XIV of their play:

MARK ANTONY

Sometimes we see a cloud that’s dragonish;
A vapour sometime like a bear or lion,
A tower’d citadel, a pendent rock,
A forked mountain, or blue promontory
With trees upon’t, that nod unto the world,
And mock our eyes with air: thou hast seen
these signs;
They are black vesper’s pageants.

EROS

Ay, my lord,

MARK ANTONY

That which is now a horse, even with a thought
The rack dislimns, and makes it indistinct,
As water is in water.

EROS

It does, my lord.

MARK ANTONY

My good knave Eros, now thy captain is
Even such a body: here I am Antony:
Yet cannot hold this visible shape, my knave.

Donnelly is struggling with precisely these questions about the dynamic between language and power, specifically power in its most important modern manifestation, that of the business corporation. From section six of “The Cloud Corporation:”

The clouds part revealing a congregation of bodies
united into one immaterial body, a fictive person
around whom the air is blurred with money, force

from which much harm will come, to whom my welfare
matters nothing.

And the efficiency of this modern economic system has crowded out the poet. She has been replaced (I suppose the narrator supposes) by the entertainer and the priest. From section four, which comes with a delightful bit of recursion:

The clouds part to reveal there’s no place left to sit
myself down except for a single wingback chair
backed into a corner to face the window in which

the clouds part revealing the insouciance of clouds…

In the Upanishads one also finds a symbol for the amorphous connection between language and world, but it isn’t clouds. From Chāndogya Upaniṣad 6.1.4-5:

It is like this, son. By means of just one lump of clay one would perceive everything made of clay—the transformation is a verbal handle, a name—while the reality is just this: ‘It’s clay.’It is like this, son. By means of just one copper trinket one would perceive everything made of copper—the transformation is a verbal handle, a name—while the reality is just this: ‘It’s copper.’

There is a crucial difference between cloud and clay. Whether Polonius calls the cloud weasel or camel (or rabbit or duck), we’re not inclined to think it will have much effect on the cloud. However, whether Aruni’s son calls the clay cup or calendar, we are inclined to think it will effect what that clay becomes. One metaphor encourages us to see language and world drifting around, quite independent of each other, if the latter is not entirely illusory. The other metaphor encourages us to see a dynamic between language and world, where change in the relationship between the two changes both. The clay parts to reveal the future of the clay.

I am perhaps too fixated on this one image. These poems deserve to be more generally celebrated. They are subtle, conniving things, which are no doubt at work right now subverting any interpretation I’ve made of them. But I don’t have it in me not to try.

Inviting comparison with Wallace Stevens’ “The Poem that Took the Place of a Mountain,” Donnelly’s “The Malady that Took the Place of Thinking” speaks as though the playfulness of art and religion is a distraction from, and not a preparation for, life. And it speaks as though thought were possible without music and the madness of a temporary solipsism:

If it looks like I’m thinking, I’m not,
I’m waiting, and I can wait forever to find out why.

If it looks like I’m sorry to look at that photograph
of women and children shot down by an American
battalion on a bright clear day in March, look again:

with no world to adhere to, there can be no photograph,
no women, no children, and certainly no battalion
shooting when there was nothing there to begin with.

But tellingly, the volume continues with “To His Debt,” one of its most unabashedly playful and silly poems:

My phantom, my crevasse – my emphatically
unfunny hippopotamus, you take my last red cent

and drag it down into the muck of you, my
sassafras, my Timbuktu, you who put the kibosh

on fine dining and home theater, dentistry and work
my head into a lather, throw my ever-beaten

back against a mattress of intractable topography
and chew.

Next is “The New Hymns,” which expresses frustration with (if I’m not mistaken, and I’m often mistaken about this sort of thing) the easy-going-ness of contemporary poetry, ending with a longing for the Abrahamic comforts of an omnipotent justice:

Listen to them carry on
About gentleness when it’s inconceivable
that any kind or amount of it will ever be able to

balance the scales. I have been held down
by the throat and terrified, numb enough to know.
The temperature at which no bird can thrive –

a lifelong feeling that I feel now, remembering
down the highway half-hypnotized in the
backseat feeling what I feel now, and moderate

happiness has nothing to do with it: I want to press
my face against the cold black window until
there is a deity whose only purpose is to stop this.

Perhaps it is Taoism that has come closest to discovering how to strangle violence to death without being violent. WIthin its elaborate system of contradictions, Taoism’s radical acceptance becomes passive aggressive. In telling the world it is not what it is, it is telling the world it cannot be what it is. It is demanding change.

I have only discussed the first third of this book, but the discussion has left me excited enough, I feel that if I go on, whatever I have left of coherence will break down. Ah, the problem with good poetry is it keeps you up at night. If you’d like to be kept up at night, trembling with knowledge of our emanating impossibility, it is Wave Books that publishes The Cloud Corporation, Timothy Donnelly’s second volume of poetry. He is poetry editor at Boston Review and teaches the stuff at Columbia and Princeton.

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