‘The Cloud Corporation’ by Timothy Donnelly

cloud cover
  • PUBLISHED BY: Wave Books, 2010
  • REVIEW BY: Stephen Burt


“The suffering from which we had come to expect so much.”

For most of its extraordinary length The Cloud Corporation is the most abstract, the most inward-turned, and the grimmest of recent good books. Timothy Donnelly meditates on the very terms that make meditation possible—terms such as “knowledge,” “mystery,” “particular,” “mind,” and “will” (all occur on the first page)—and he makes the tough time we have pinning those terms down into one of his typical subjects. His kind of pessimistic introspection, cast in long sentences and in three-line stanzas, might remind you of late Wallace Stevens, the grey, chastened Stevens of “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven.” Stevens described “The Poem That Took the Place of a Mountain”; Donnelly gives us “The Malady That Took the Place of Thinking”:

There had seemed to be only one world to adhere to

but now I can see how there really isn’t any, just roads
with signs directing further, towards and away
from the same humiliating noplace you already are.

Yet Donnelly rarely sounds or feels like Stevens: Donnelly’s music is harsher, his bitterness decidedly up to date: his “cardboard city/ collapses around us; another beautiful document/ disassembles into anguish.” Donnelly’s questions about the futility of thought, the inaccessibility of souls, join up willy-nilly to contemporary questions of political economy. How much of the alienation he describes (so his verse asks) arises from the conditions of all human life, and how much arises, instead, from American lives overstuffed with commodities, based on unsustainable consumption, beclouded by corporate entities, propped up by intermittently visible wars? Had Stevens written anything entitled “The Rumored Existence of Other People” it would have been one of his late poems against solipsism; when Donnelly uses that title, it describes his guilt when he thinks about the ill-paid “people I would never meet or know,” who grow or manufacture most of our stuff. “Intuition stopped short of determining whether or not/ any of the objects kept in contact with their makers.” Half-buried by the shiny new products of alienated labor, we inhabit a new Atlantis, ripe for deluge; “to those who lacked the ability to see// through the radiance of things, the Atlanteans appeared/ to be thriving.”

When not economic, not weighed down by cloudy commodities, Donnelly’s vision of human life is positively Lucretian in its atomized meaninglessness—“Here is the river from which/ we crawl, there the next into which we one day dissolve.” When other people and their poems propose ways to palliate his sense of isolation, salves for his sense of futility, Donnelly simply knows too much to believe them. (He has read a lot of other people’s poems; Donnelly co-edits the poetry and the poetry criticism at Boston Review, where he has accepted, and improved, much of my own prose.) Some of the funniest, harshest lines in The Cloud Corporation show Donnelly’s alienation from other writers’ less incisive work:

…I don’t want to have to
locate divinity in a loaf of bread, in a sparkler,
or in the rainlike sound the wind makes through

mulberry trees, not tonight. Listen to them carry on.

(from “The New Hymns”)

Relatively consistent in attitude, in tone, Donnelly takes care to vary his rhythm, his line: some short stanzas owe less to Stevens than to Creeley. He varies, as well, the arguments in his complaints, the reasons he gives for feeling stuck, baffled, oppressed: it’s no fun to feel alienated from everything and everyone, but it’s even more disheartening, and morally worse, to feel bound up in the sort of collective entity (the United States, the Western world) that stands to blame for the atrocities at Abu Ghraib, for “what’s// done in my defense, or in/ its name, or in my/ interest or in the image// of the same.”

Short of resigning from Western civilization, short of devoting one’s life (as this poet could not, temperamentally, do) to a possibly fruitless radical activism, what on Earth should we do? Is there nothing to do? “I just feel soporose, so// soporose tonight… You think/ I should be concerned?” So ends his six-page poem about Abu Ghraib, “Partial Inventory of Airborne Debris. ” The subsequent poem, “Fun for the Shut-in,” begins as a scary tutorial:

Demonstrate to yourself a resistance to feeling
unqualified despair by attempting something like
perfect despair embellished with hand gestures.

What to do? “Embellish”: it’s useless, but so is everything else.The demonstrations in The Cloud Corporation stand out not just for their unflinching look at such sad speculations but for their intricate combinatorics: each long abstract sentence really makes sense, really says something about the course of a thought, something that could not be said in some other way. Donnelly can make a drawn-out music of self-attenuating introspection, or a self-resenting music of grinding, gnashing sounds, dissatisfied with every move in its repertoire: a villanelle, “Claire de Lune, ” says “We tire, we bore./ We revolt ourselves; we disgust and annoy us” (that second line is a refrain).

There is something disturbingly Puritanical about Donnelly’s introspective annoyance, as if tactile or gustatory or indeed sexual delight just deserved our suspicion: what’s wrong with liking 47 flavors of ice cream? why should abundance, in and of itself, make us cringe? But in eating all that ice cream, we are not just using the rest of the world for our pleasure; we are using it up, consuming lives and resources we can never replace, and we seem (at least collectively) unable to stop. No wonder Donnelly cannot stop worrying, not even when he tries to think about metaphysics instead. When he asks how to measure time passing, he proposes “a unit known as the snailsdeath”:

…the average length of time,
about 43 seconds, elapsing between the loss of the first
snail to toxic waters and the loss of the next, roughly

equivalent to the pause between swallows in a human

(from “Globus Hystericus”)

It is as if speech itself, ostensibly the least harmful of human activities, were killing off the Earth all by itself, one invertebrate species at a time.

Other contemporary poets—from Frederick Seidel to Joyelle McSweeney—have answered violence with violence, reacting to ecocatastrophe, to the metastasis of the corporation, with poetry whose aggressive imbalance seems to reject everything associated with ordinary (and therefore privileged) American life. Neither Donnelly’s temperament, nor his sense of how language works, can let him do that: chaos is for him less interesting and less attractive than a self-questioning, even a self-hating order. Not content to be merely chaotic, aggressive, “subversive,” averse to the writings that simply mime smashing things up, Donnelly has found a way to try to think about our imbrication in what he attacks, about the pleasure we get, the habits we have, and the parts of civilization—perhaps inextricable from baser pleasures—that we perhaps ought to want to preserve.

That way of thinking comes out in his intricate sentences, in his relentless introspection, and in his sour moods: he is—as I am—attached to an unjust order, an order that in its complex, “corporate” entirety can (so it seems in December 2010) neither be defended, nor replaced. The loneliness of a helpless spirit in space, unable to know other people’s inmost souls, and the helplessness of a sad citizen unable to stop consuming, are for Donnelly part of the same problem, the general problem of individual helplessness, and prompt the same sort of inquiries, the same baffled tones. It is a poetry in which (as Matthew Arnold said of his own early poetry, disliking it) suffering finds no vent in action: “the suffering/ from which we had come to expect so much/ remained mere suffering; the swamp due south… stayed water choked in excess life.” Donnelly wants to cut off (but cannot cut off) the part of himself that keeps discovering (in the economy, in his ontology) problems that cannot even be palliated, only chewed over and turned into art:

The times the thought of being pulled apart from
you comes as a relief have come now to outnumber
those it startles me like light from a hurricane
lamp left burning unattended dangerously near
the curtains of the theater we both attend and are.

That stanza sounds as if he were breaking up with a lover, or asking for a divorce, but he is not; the poem instead bears the title “Antepenultimate Conflict with Self.” Antepenultimate, outnumber, average, equivalent: the generalizing, philosophical or mathematical language that comes naturally to Donnelly sits just one chair away from the easily mocked word-hoards of the legal profession and the social sciences, and Donnelly knows as much, writing half-serious halves of poems in legalese:

And such proceedings shall be considered criminal:
amusement amendments, two or more individuals,
any dream proceedings which engage in the activities

indicating intention, love or other things of value…

(from “The Last Dream of Light Released from Seaports”)

Here the trick is to keep the tone neither wholly satirical, nor wholly exempt from satire. When the trick works—as in the writings of Donnelly’s Columbia University colleague Ben Marcus—we may be shocked to see how similar the supposedly deep and personal language of literary introspection and the supposedly hollow, or impersonal, languages of law, of economics, of sociology, really are. (Lines in this poem, a note says, actually take language from the USA_PATRIOT ACT and Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run.”)

It would be hard to create a whole book of poems—especially a long book, and this one is long—from such projects, and Donnelly does not try. Pithy illustrations, one-page, one-scene poems, become superb counterweights to the extended, distressed abstractions. Take “Montezuma to His Magicians,” here quoted whole:

If they are gods, if they have
divinity in them, then why

when we lay at their feet
garlands of quetzal feathers

and gold coins do they leap
upon the gold as dazzled

monkeys might and tread
on sacred plumage like dust?

Conquistadors are closer to monkeys, to base animals, than to their own immortal souls: they prefer the baseness of exchange value to the pleasure of the sacred, the precious-in-itself. Animals with such preferences are doomed, as the Aztecs were doomed, as imperial Spain was doomed, too; Donnelly accretes analogies between our own empire and the doomed civilizations of the remote past—Aztecs, Sumerians, Egyptians (“Advice to Baboons of the New Kingdom”), Rome (“Tiberius at the Villa Jovis”).

Donnelly’s pessimism never amounts to stoicism, to indifference—he likes the world, and the words in it, too much for that. Instead, it amounts to a kind of gray, faute de mieux aestheticism—he suspects that the greatest accomplishment words can achieve is to help us lose ourselves inconsequentially amid a merely verbal order:

Miraculous to find time to do nothing other than gather
dust like the mismatched furniture in whose slow company
my gratitude increases the longer I don’t think about me,
no cringe at what I’ve done, no wince at what’s to do.

(from “Explanation of an Oriole”)

At least, like the Earth in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the contemplation of still life, of dust on furniture, of words on paper, is mostly harmless. It may even lead to a quasi-Buddhist distance (much sought) from the desiring self, or else to a delight in baroque arrangements (as in the mesh of clauses above), whose very contours seem to lead him back to the “I” that worries so much, though he would rather be led, at last, away: “You wager too much, small self, on the way you feel. Nothing/ you have thought should last forever can’t be lost.”

And so Stevens comes to Donnelly’s aid again: not the discursive Stevens of that all-too-ordinary evening, but the earlier, slightly sunnier Stevens of “Sea Surface Full of Clouds.” The Cloud Corporation points back to that poem in its title and in its many oceans, lakes, ponds, seas, each of which stands (as in Stevens) for the contrast between an alluring surface and a monotony beneath: “Looking out on the water in time we came to see/ being itself had made things fall apart in this way.” Stevens’s “Sea Surface” delights in variations on its underlying Thing That Will Not Change. In Donnelly’s seven-part, eight-page title poem, that Thing could be our all-American class system, with its half-hidden privileges, its half-hearted meritocracy, whose surface churns like “a mythology of clouds” while down below the foundations of power remain. The Thing could be, instead (in a neat reversal of Stevens) imagination, delusion, wishful thinking, the human faculty that starts and continues “wars/ to keep clouds safe”: we like to imagine that

whatever is desirable will come to pass, a caressing
confidence—but one unfortunately not borne out
by human experience, for most things people desire

have been desired ardently for thousands of years
and observe—they are no closer to realization today
than in Ramses’ time. Nor is there cause to believe

they will lose their coyness on some near tomorrow.

The Cloud Corporation toggles between the two modes of pessimism that Donnelly’s self-scrutinizing sentences explore: first, the private-introspective-philosophical, the poet lamenting entrapment in his own head; second, the public-economic-political, the poet sad to be trapped in our civilization. On the one hand, the attempt to conclude “a single, half-articulate drama/ about the self and the wearing it must suffer”; on the other hand, the attempt to account for “the infinitesimal portion of the blue/ planet’s mass that answered to my name.” Both attempts seem ultimately futile, and yet perversely beautiful, in Donnelly’s long lines.

And yet he does not end his book on a note of futility: instead he finds ways to imagine a return to the social, and to the concrete, a fictive resurrection that will bring him “back to you, World, wholehearted for the real.” “Chapter for Not Dying Again,” the penultimate poem, marks the end of the “private” book: Donnelly sees himself as an Egyptian spirit, able to return to life, “counting the hours/ until the plover carries me back in pieces in its beak.” Death and bodily resurrection in fleshy pieces: a happy ending, as such things go.

But that is the private, domestic (with “tuna fish and breakfast flakes”) ending to The Cloud Corporation. The very last poem provides a “public” ending, a final take on “the cloud of food-court/ breakfast,” “the shopping center… escalator… up to the story/ intended for conference space.” Having spent much of the volume identifying himself with the civilization that will fall, the Babylon of seven-syllable words, corporations, and food courts, he can finally, ironically, quietly, imagine himself instead as a barbarian at its gates. So Donnelly concludes by envisioning “His Future As Attila the Hun,” coming to the shopping center as it were from the outside, finally ready “to lay/ waste to the empire now placed before me at my feet.”