PRINT December 2019


Douglas Crase

Timothy Donnelly’s new collection, The Problem of the Many (Wave Books), arrives with one of its constituent poems already a classic. “Hymn to Life,” which appeared as a chapbook in 2014, praised life by singing a hymn to extinctions instead, especially those that have occurred while humans were intent on self-referential trivia. The question has been whether Donnelly could live up to his masterpiece; the thrill is that he clearly has. And then some. The title of his new book derives from an issue in philosophy (some say metaphysics) that arises in the case of an object, such as a cloud or even a human being, whose demarcations are so indistinct that it seems impossible to tell where its identity ends and another’s begins. A poet doesn’t have to solve this problem to extend it metaphorically, meaning that one soon feels from Donnelly’s poems how there are no absolving demarcations between humans and their evolution, their history, their tyrants, or the glyphosate their corporations cause them to ingest. By writing from this inclusive but unsentimental perspective, Donnelly can avoid didactic piety and embrace the pleasures of our perfidy as well as its perils. In lines of such sensuous amplitude that they must be sustained by love, he advances an attitude to meet the times. We never needed to like the world more, as Wallace Stevens observed during a different emergency. Donnelly, who apparently reasons likewise, has become, in this compelling book, a Stevens of the Anthropocene.

Douglas Crase is a Macarthur Fellow. His volume of collected poems, The Revisionist And The Astropastorals, was published this past fall by Nightboat Books.