Monday, July 14, 2008

Patrick Donnelly, THE CHARGE -- Poetry of the Unexpected

I don't know how I managed to shelve this book when it came out in 2003, without exploring it first. But I rediscovered it last month, and have been prowling through Patrick Donnelly's rich and surprising poems ever since.

THE CHARGE (Ausable, 2003) is Donnelly's first collection. A poet and teacher of poetry with a well-rounded career, Donnelly is also an associate editor at Four Way Books and at the time of publication was curating and assisting at two different reading series. I mention this as background because THE CHARGE doesn't read like a "first book." It's drenched with cries and prayers to God, mostly the Islamic version but also the Jesus sort. Woven across these outcries are the hard residue of a father who couldn't show his love ("My father gave me a stone / and I ate it."), the continuous shadow of illness and death from HIV within one's own body and among one's friends and lovers, and, fresh green miracle springing here, amazing poems of love and of the bewilderingly beautiful discoveries of young passion.

Here are images that dance in a delight that I don't think I've ever seen in man/man love poems before. From "His Café Con Leche Hands":

Immaculate white apron, tied low
around his supple Little Cuba hips,
like the Guadalupe over the counter
without stain or spot of any kind
(though God knows I long to spill
something of myself across that almost-altar,
stumble into the snowfield of his sheets)--

Yes, this is why it's so hard to draw a line around Love and make it into something holy, when its roots are so often in the teasing pleasures of the flesh. In the Sixties, before the HIV epidemic, there was a short sweet time when sexual liberty seemed safe and delicious and almost accepted. And then... Ah, wait a bit, let's not move so quickly into the shadows. Donnelly takes his time getting there; he offers "Prayer After the Baths" in celebration of another lover, one who takes off his baseball cap "to rub his buzzcut along my belly, / murmuring under his breath a baritonal 'Sweet,'" -- a moment of intimacy that Donnelly braids directly to God, to worship, and to martyrdom.

There are also tender explorations of prayer in Muslim form. From "Baba":

Baba has three small moles
on the left side of his face.
When he prays, we see
the bottom of his socks are dirty.
He says if you're very quiet
you can hear a sound inside
like crickets singing, then sleeps
with his head in my lap.
a circle always gathers to ask the hard questions:
what about abortion, what about gay people,
what happens when you die?
In the silence before he answers
I know the stories about Jesus are true:

but Baba, Baba, I can hardly keep up--
my heart runs after you
with my soul in its hands.

There is an expression that we use here in Vermont, where green-furred ridges rise deceptively softly around us, undergirded with granite. It's a saying that came from "out of state" with some of the visitors who bought little farms and hung prayer flags and contributed chocolate cake to the church dinners: "One mountain, many paths." Donnelly's paths are peopled by both Jesus and Baba, by casual one-night flings and gratefully held long-term partner, by "amen" in a sigh, and "Bismillah," Arabic term for "in the name of God (Allah)," in the same breath as it returns.

The book's title comes from its centerpiece poem, "Consummatum Est" -- the Latin phrase translated as "it is finished" from Jesus on the cross, but equally a description of the final portion of a sexual interlude. In this case, Donnelly plays against the mythic certainty of knowing you're "with child" -- a gathering in of Mary giving herself to God's plan -- and he places with great care against this image a similar certainty: of the moment when, being cared for by a lover, the infection of the deadly virus of HIV/AIDS moved into his life:

Yes--certainly I felt it--and broke
into a sweat, the exact moment
the charge leapt from him to me.

Blessings to the book designer, who also took the erotic electricity of "the charge" and issued a cover with a dark green thunderous sky broken by jagged lightning.

The mingling of lover/brother/life/death in this collection is scented with humor as well as sweat. I need more copies, for the dear friends I want to share the book with.

As an added pleasure, I found a more recent set of poems Donnelly is forming into work on and around his mother: Also in the online version of The Drunken Boat are some Buddhist poems that Donnelly with Stephen Miller translated from the Japanese imperial anthologies (

I thought I came to taste a bit of bread, a cup; I found an exceptional meal.

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