Jeanne Heuving

Anaxagras proposed the existence of seeds: extremely small portions of everything that exists in the visible world. These seeds were never created or destroyed, but they constituted all material and formed new materials when mixed or separated.

--Cathy Cobb, Creations of Fire

And with certain others their consciousness is “germinal.” Their thoughts are in them as the thought of the tree is in the seed, or in the grass, or the grain, or the blossom. And these minds are the more poetic, and they affect mind about them, and transmute it as the seed the earth.

--Ezra Pound, “Psychology and the Troubadours”

the words earth, fire, ocean, lightning

change the speaker who chooses them

--Joseph Donahue, Monitions of the Approach

If Western liberal democracy has a major blindness, it is its belief in analysis--the sense that everything can be broken down and that the inductive percepts that lead to or are produced by this analysis are akin to reality itself. As such, the thing itself, whether fact, word, or figure, is relatively insignificant and can easily be substituted for something else. While I have never fully acceded to this analytic spirit, I have been greatly imbued with it--and I have responded to the world often enough with disbelief and skepticism. My preoccupation with poetry, no doubt, has had much motivation in the impasse between analysis and the often hidden, entrenched powers of “things.” And because of this impasse, I often studied poetry rather than wrote it--and I turned my attention to poets whom while much dedicated to poetry also distrusted it. There was Marianne Moore, with her famous statement about poetry, “I, too, dislike it.” And Laura (Riding) Jackson, who denounced poetry itself, declaring all art to be “phallus-proud,” “men’s private play with [women] in public.”

Joseph Donahue, in moving to Seattle in 1995, affirmed this negativity in me--not as a critic or as a theorist--but as the writer of my then inauspiciously titled manuscript, Jeanne, which eventually became Incapacity. His interest in and bemusement in this writing, and his sense of, of course, why not write just the very piece you are bent on writing, did much to enable me to carry through on a project, always threatening to break down--if not to cancel itself out. I was initially surprised by his generosity toward me as a writer, because his own work was not marked by large, potentially flattening gestures of negation. Joe’s negativity was embedded in his work--a reverence wedded with irreverence--an accreting sensuousness excoriated with intellect: “Black jag: the air / breaks into pure altitude.” His poetry seemed to arrive as a collection of seeds, or monads, as Leibniz would have it. Or, as Giorgio Agamben conveys: “Language itself has captured in itself the power of silence . . .in the negative capacity in the very heart of the word.”

For Donahue, as his 1995 book title suggests, the World Well Broken is just that. The “world” is “well broken” because it isn’t broken at all, although it is made up of discrete elements, furiously expending energy in apposition to one another. To belabor that it is broken would be to impose precept, analytic induction, on what in all its ongoing phantasmagoric animation contests such sentimental unification. Esoteric beliefs punctuate these pages--but importantly, esoteric beliefs, not mouthed by experts, but often by slighted persons who in mispronouncing rarified concepts, re-create them, give them the heft of their fear and desire:

My parents were gone. Only next door.

I didn’t know that. I hid myself. I thought the

Rapture had happened, and I had been left behind. . .


I gave my heart to Jesus in 1989.

I don’t have destinations


And while for Donahue, the multiple voices that appear throughout his poetry not only disclose the possibilities inherent in language, language in any one person’s mouth can become an imploding signification--a cosmic tautology binding a speaker’s language to their impossible missions:

I was fine

until I really

wanted to be fine,

then all hell broke lose. . .


Pain dispossessed me,

the exile said. (TL, 55)

While Donahue’s work is shot through with indivisible voices that are a kind of testimony onto themselves, inassimilable stories and myths appear and reappear in his works--stories that as Benjamin commends reject explanation: “the art of story telling [is] to keep a story free from explanation as one reproduces it. . . .the most extraordinary things, marvellous things, are related with the greatest accuracy, but the psychological connection of the events is not forced on the reader.” One of the stories Donahue revisits again and again is of the lover met at a party who for the sake of deceiving another lover pretends to be with the poem’s speaker, and then, much as Ovid would have it, love starts for real: “often [s]he who feigns begins to love in reality; often [s]he becomes what [s]had started out pretending to be.” Only this lover decides to suicide, or at least attempts as much, and wakes up in “Arcadia or / Intensive Care.”

Then there is the repeating story of the girl “with a gift of blood,” the adept whose visions create visions in others:

A girl with the “gift of blood” kneels at

a gathering. The Ghost speaks through her . . .

Later, in the woods, a schoolboy awakes.

The streams have turned arterial.

The trees are made of flesh.

Some of the underlying figuration of this story finds its way into a recent section of Terra Lucida, in which the poetic speaker recounts how “ 3 State Oil gave you a house / sent you to Christ the King / Elementary School”; “3 State Oil gave you a pool / at the country club,” and in giving “you” many other of life’s necessities and amenities becomes today’s blood on the streets: “In our moment, capital flows like / blood across altars of lost cultures.” And this, in turn, is related to how “mystics see in flowing // blood the sign of ultimate love; / God draws close to the lips// of an open wound.”

In Donahue’s works, words and figures exist as seeds, as he avoids direct moral or political statement. While many of the voices in his books of poetry might be characterized through the phrase, “the sublime of intense sociability,” the voices that predominate in poems published in the Terra Lucida chapbooks are often given over asociability--states of isolation and of the absolute. For example, in “With Lulu at the Beach” in World Well Broken, there is the sublime sociability of a voice that humorously presumes that all devolves into a “fallen” existence: “The Reverend Shannon / has retired from Blake’s Tours / He sits with Ava Gardner / overlooking the sea.” In Terra Lucida, an asociable voice makes absolute, and bleak assertions: “Black sky, stars. / Glitter of ice & mud . . . // A world dark as anthracite / & lit by flames of an invisible war.”

Now, well into his second decades of creating Terra Lucida poems, Donahue would seem to be opening them up to thorough going sociable as well as asociable voices--and as such the combined work begins to remind of Pound’s Cantos. (While I hesitate to make the comparison between Pound and Donahue, for reasons of their very different social visions, their shared preoccupation with extreme and fantastic figures draws them together. Indeed, if Pound’s sense of how cultural figures are inseparable from the cultures they inhabit lead him to a fascist politics with Mussolini type leaders, Donahue’s preoccupation with figuration has taken him toward a sense of disenfranchisement of nation states and the “girl with a gift of blood.”) In a recent Terra Lucida poem about “Nadab & Abihu,” Donahue explores the possible significance of a religious conflagration in which two brothers go up in flames, apparently in the process of offering a sacrifice to God. Donahue speculates about the story: how the brothers may have been usurpers and that nearby elders extracted their revenge. Or how the brothers might have carried an “alien fire,” and were punished by a God who retorts, “You brought me impure fire / But I have slain you / with a pure fire . . . “ The poem expounds that the brother’s might have been “suicide bombers,” concluding triumphantly with its own lack of conclusions: with the possibility that the brother’s forsaking of “mortal life,” their drawing “near, the Lord,” may be “just a way / rapture happens.” About this mystery, Donahue whimsically adds how “Tradition” brings its own fantastic “flourish,” “threads / of white fire shooting up // their nostrils.”

Giorgio Agamben in The End of the Poem suggests how the only true poetry of our time may be a poetry of the esoteric. Although he does not expound on this particular provocation, I take this preference for the esoteric to be a rejection of formulations derived through analytic induction, providing the poet with the very possibility of an inceptive speech, of an unmitigated intention to signify--so many angels dancing on the head of a pin. In Language and Death: The Place of Negativity, Agamben relates his preoccupation with speech to Eleusis, a much hidden and obscured ritual beginning in ancient Greece, in which, as most accounts tell, the seed or seeds of life and death predominantly figure. Agamben comments, “The ‘sacred law’ of the Goddess of Eleusis, who . . . prohibited the initiate from revealing in words what he had “seen, heard, felt” during the night, is now subsumed by language itself, which has the “divine nature” that prevents Meiniung from being put into words.” He concludes that “mystical ecstasy, in its turbidity, was nothing other than pure Notion” and that Eleusis is little more than the condition of language itself: “the negativity inhering in any meaning.” In Donahue’s poetry, this negativity is replete: “a blank earth / welling bent light.”

For the several years that Joseph Donahue lived in Seattle, he entertained my self-canceling writing directives. His tenderness and commitment to the foibles of creation of any and all kinds, to the thing itself, extended itself to my work and me. During this time, I came to write the book, Incapacity--a capacious holding of my own blank earth.

Giorgio Agamben, Language and Death: The Place of Negativity.

Leslie Scalapino quotes this passage from Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations in her essay, “Murasaki Duncan, in How Phenomena Appear to Unfold.

Ovid, Remedia Amoris, in The Love Poems, ed. A. D. Melville.

I take this phrase from Shawn Alfrey’s The Sublime of Intense Sociability: Emily Dickinson, H.D., and Gertrude Stein, although my use of this phrase differs from his.