Timothy Donnelly
Wave Books ($16)

by Stephen Ross

Cloud seeding is a form of weather modification used to alter the type or amount of precipitation that falls from clouds. The procedure works by dispersing substances like silver iodide and dry ice in the sky, either by launching them in a rocket or dropping them from an airplane. Once deployed, these substances cause vapor to condense or solidify around them, possibly creating new weather. Numerous countries currently use seeding techniques to relieve droughts, to clean smoggy air, to prevent rain or snowfall (the Chinese government, for instance, took extensive measures to keep Beijing dry for the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Olympics), and even to dampen countercultural activities (the U.S. government allegedly seeded the skies over Woodstock, NY, in mid-August 1969).

Timothy Donnelly’s best poetry operates on a similar principle to that of cloud seeding. He will introduce a phrase, a song, a word, a government report—any metaphysical seed you like—where the mist of thought begins to coalesce around it, occluding it here, polishing it there. In time, the seed and the surrounding thought-cloud will undergo a state change and merge into something new, a “cross-fertilization of intelligence and cloud”. The poem that grows out of this encounter, like a seeded cloud, will carry inside it, at least figuratively, the taint of industrial, commercial, and cultural forces that went into its making, but it will also be a unique environmental phenomenon. The process feels something like

fluctuating on like a soft shifting mass, yielding
instantly to pressure and engulfing any object senseless

enough to have trusted in its surface, incorporating
whatever it can into the grand amalgam of itself
discovering itself and finding everything perfectly
indispensable and pointless . . .

Whereas governments send chemicals into the sky to increase crop fertility or to keep public events dry, Donnelly deploys a range of cultural matter—from Springsteen and Shelley to The 9/11 Commission Report and The Beverly Hillbillies—to spur the release of something rather more nebulous: “A silver line, a souvenir, a sieve of relation”.

While this cloud seeding analogy may seem a bit heavy-handed, something about reading and writing on Donnelly makes one want to overdo it, to partake of the head-clearing license he gives himself to run wild with analogy, metaphor, and the appropriated language of “non-poetic” disciplines (meteorology, in this case). While the debate around “organic” form in poetry long ago grew stale, the broad concept does speak to Donnelly’s methods of recycling or riffing on a set palette of subjects (elements) within a given form (system)—usually the vicissitudes of knowledge and selfhood within the three-line unrhymed stanza. Much like a weather pattern or a financial market, The Cloud Corporation, conceived as a book-length whole, operates on a cyclical logic of accumulation, solvency, and dissolution. But it also stands outside and reflects on these and the other systems on which it is conceptually modeled. It is a “grand amalgam” of biographical fact, emotional fancy, literary convention, and gently ironic reflection on the whole:

its foundation
made of clouds, an anchorage

in sinking down where to know
is to feel knowledge dissolving
into particles of pause, the many

stoppages and starts that shape
by sounding each possible maze

through a landscape of otherwise
perfectly nothing.

Donnelly’s great achievement is to generate, across dozens of poems, an insistent pathos relating to the systems (physiological, financial, natural) that govern our lives. He does this in part by literalizing the figurative language of everyday life—“the metaphors we live by,” especially that the mind is a landscape—and, alternately, by recasting the natural objects of the world in the figurative language of commerce, history, architecture, philosophy, religion, and poetry. This literal-figurative dialectic begins with the titular “Cloud Corporation,” a curious, incongruous coinage that, meditated on, gradually opens into a thousand possible meanings—“The clouds part revealing,” as Donnelly has it. With its focus on questions of collectivity, knowledge, and self, the book might easily have been titled The Intelligence Community(just the sort of horrifically banal phrase that Donnelly would take pleasure in recuperating). Another contender, had it not already been taken and had the book’s organizing conceit been earthy rather than cloudy, might have been Leaves of Grass.

At its best, Donnelly’s patois of the body, the heavens, and the marketplace wipes instrumentalized language clean of accumulated meaning, restoring flattened-out words and concepts to a state of prismatic three-dimensionality. In Donnelly’s usage, “corporation,” yoked to “cloud,” is allowed at least momentarily to stand free of the unpretty connotations it has acquired. In fact, the word must acquire new meaning, because the prospect of the weather itself becoming a corporate resource is simply too painful to consider. But then we realize that it already has:

The clouds part revealing an anatomy of clouds
viewed from the midst of human speculation, a business
project undertaken in a bid to acquire and retain

control of the formation and movement of clouds.

A “mature environmental aesthetic” (Buell, The Environmental Imagination), to borrow Lawrence Buell’s formulation, is at work in this book. If this aesthetic could speak, it would say: “Our selves, like our thoughts and our ethics, are nothing more than emergent properties of the things of this world. As a result, the degradation of the latter directly erodes the integrity of the former. Reflect on yourself reflecting on this.” On the subject of weather modification, Donnelly has some thoughts of his own:

It is no more impossible to grasp the baboon’s
full significance in Egyptian religious symbolism

than it is to determine why clouds we manufacture
provoke in an audience more positive, lasting
response than do comparable clouds occurring in nature.

Donnelly’s writing often wanders into the realm of what Terry Gifford has called “post-pastoral”: “literature [that] has gone beyond the closed circuit of pastoral and anti-pastoral to achieve a vision of an integrated natural world that includes the human” (Gifford, Pastoral). Donnelly certainly aspires to chart, or at least imagine, an integration (incorporation) of this sort, even as he is also prepared to admit that in most cases it is direly lacking. Regardless of real world conditions, he has invented for himself, in serial poems like “The Cloud Corporation” and “Globus Hystericus,” a formally robust line generous enough to swallow the whole world. In this sense, his poetry stands among other contemporary work that sports with, revises, and upturns the conventions of nature writing in the broad daylight of post-industrial modernity. Such work uses the experimental strategies of modernism—collage, intertextuality, self-reflexive meditativeness in the Stevensian grain—to recover the ethical viability and aesthetic potency of otherwise worn out modes of nature writing like the pastoral. For recent works of a comparable post-pastoral richness and maturity to that of The Cloud Corporation, one thinks of Lisa Robertson’sXEclogue and The Weather, Peter Gizzi’s Some Values of Landscape and Weather, Jennifer Moxley’sThe Sense Record, and Joshua Corey’s Severance Songs. “My green retreat,” Donnelly writes, “has folded, drawn into itself without me / in it”. Later he sketches a harrowing anatomy of modern nostalgia:

Already the present starts plotting its recurrence
somewhere in the future, weaving what happens
in among our fabrics, launching its aroma, its music
imbuing itself into floorboards, plaster, nothing can
stop it, it can’t stop itself. You will never have access
to its entirety, and you have asked how to calculate

what resists calculation, how to control what refuses
to cooperate, but know full well a propensity to resist
and to refuse is the source of its power.

The Cloud Corporation is not eco-poetry (it might not even be nature poetry), but it nonetheless occasions and responds to the sorts of questions that most concern eco-poets. It does so with a political edge, but without limiting itself to a strict political instrumentality. It points one of the more promising ways into the future of environmental writing.

Much more could, and hopefully will, be said about this subject, but for now I would like to conclude by quoting the most beautiful passage in the book, from “Dream of a Poetry of Defense,” in a shameless bid to convince as many people as possible to buy stock in The Cloud Corporation:

As infrastructure to the most invisible
indestructible flower. And infinite. As infinite as pleasure
apprehended through excess. As cross-fertilization

of intelligence and cloud. And as light, and as energy.
As all related instruments indispensable to choruses.
As being differently indispensable. As being harmonious.

As far as “being harmonious” is concerned, Donnelly has done nothing less than “yoke evanescent wonder”.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011