A Reconciliation with the External World: Timothy Donnelly’s Chariot – Michigan Quarterly Review
The book cover for Timothy Donnelly's Chariot which features the word "Chariot" over a collage-like white background, laid over an abstract dark background with blue gradient in the upper right corner.

A Reconciliation with the External World: Timothy Donnelly’s Chariot

I used to think long poems—and books mainly consisting of long poems—were inherently more difficult than short poems and collections thereof. I thought that making one’s way through something truly long constituted a sort of badge of honor, if only a badge of perseverance.

But now I’m less certain that long poems are necessarily more challenging than shorter poems, something Timothy Donnelly’s excellent new collection, Chariot has underscored. But ‘challenging’ isn’t quite the right word. These poems are dense, elusive, impenetrable, clouded, thick.

After all, thick, intellectually knotty poems are Donnelly’s bread and butter; his previous book, The Problem of the Many, took its title from an essay of the same name by the philosopher Peter Unger. But where The Problem of the Many was 198 pages long and comprised 57 poems, Chariot is a slimmer 77 pages but contains 68. Though “collection rigor defined in part by the ratio of poems per page” is a silly way of looking at a book of poetry, the poem-per-page-ratio does give one a sense of how many poems one has to wrap one’s mind around when thinking about a book as a whole.

And in the case of Chariot, which has no long poems (The Problem of the Many had several), one must wrap one’s mind around quite a few distinct pieces. In fact, all of the poems in Chariot save one are exactly 20 lines. And that outlier, “The Bard of Armagh,” is only 24 lines (more on that later).

The result is that Chariot is a collection of brief, single-page poems that exist in tiny universes of their own, one after another after another; were I asked to describe Chariot in a single word, I’d probably use dense, but dense in the sense of compact rather than abstruse. But even if Donnelly is a very cerebral poet, he’s never struck me as unapproachably so. After all, one of my favorite poems from The Problem of the Many is titled “Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.”

That said, Chariot is marked by passages like this, the opening stanza of “Night of the Gowanus”:

The drum track refers to matter’s tendency to integrate
    while the notes that make up the melody assert themselves
as individuals, the way particles constitutive of wholes
    always do, recapitulating the dynamic equilibrium of the universe. 

Knotty stuff. Metaphysical ruminations on polluted Superfund Brooklyn waterways aside, there has always been a wry lightness, coupled with a thoroughgoing earnestness, to Donnelly’s elusive poetry, and Chariot continues that tradition. That somewhat off-kilter combination is one of the reasons I keep coming back to Donnelly’s work, and it’s a hallmark of his voice.

Examples in Chariot include “Heritage,” in which a trip to Stonehenge is illustrated by pop-culture references (“we climb / in silence to the stones, where for lack of any better idea we pose / one by one in front of them like the Night King from Game of Thrones.”), and the opening stanza of “All Vanishes,” which reads:

Old ocean, salty bachelor, when you roam
    the solitude of your realm, you are right to
grow boastful over the magnificence of what you are
    and give birth to, plus all that love you get from poets!

Until the stanza’s wry last phrase, these lines could almost be mistaken for a poem written in the 19th century (I think of Wordsworth: “for the sky and the sea, and the sea and the sky / Lay dead like a load on my weary eye”).

Donnelly’s tendency toward an old-fashioned earnestness comes to fruition in “The Bard of Armagh,” a retelling of the Irish ballad of the same name. The poem stands out from the rest of Chariot for a number of reasons: it’s the only poem in the collection that rhymes; it includes an honest-to-God refrain that’s an echo of the original; and as mentioned, “The Bard of Armagh” is the only poem in Chariot that isn’t 20 lines long. Here, for comparison, are Donnelly’s closing stanza and the ballad’s:


but one will keep you safer put. Death won’t embrace me
    frowning, or it might—but I heard a tune today, and felt an awe
only we who drift far from shore can, a beauty as if meant to save me
    in the currach of its moment, rowed by the Bard of Armagh.
    Irish ballad:

    And when in his cold arms Death shall embrace me,
    Och! lull me asleep with sweet 'Erin-go-Bragh',
    By the side of my Kathleen, my first love, then place me,
    Then forget Phelim Brady, the Bard of Armagh.

Though the style of “The Bard of Armagh” is striking, its theme is of a piece with the rest of Chariot (and Donnelly’s larger body of work): exploring with an inward gaze the “daze of my birthright as a person.” And by doing so examining the very experience of life, time itself, and “the total of what is, pulling us along / in its procession like a chariot,” as Donnelly writes the first of two poems titled “Chariot,” which arrive toward the end of the collection.

“How,” the speaker asks, “did we get here? Unclear if it matters; what matters”

is we stay—aloft in possible color, all the oil paints and pastels
	    that came to represent for the painter “a reconciliation
	with the external world,” as I just now read in a book, which is 
	    a vessel to chair the world, itself a vessel to chair all possible worlds. 

This is as close to a thesis statement as you’ll find in Donnelly’s writing: what matters is staying “aloft” in the face of being pulled “irreversibly deeper” into life by life, and the way Donnelly does that for himself and for us—helping to reconcile our existences with the external world—is with words.

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