March 25–31, 2013
Timothy Donnelly is the author of Twenty-Seven Props for a Production of Eine Lebenszeit (Grove, 2003) and The Cloud Corporation (Wave, 2010; Picador, 2011), winner of the 2012 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award. With John Ashbery and Geoffrey G. O’Brien he is the co-author of Three Poets, published by Minus A Press late last year. His poems have appeared and are forthcoming in such magazines as A Public Space, Fence, Harper’s, Harvard Review, Iowa Review, the Nation, the New Republic, Paris Review and Poetry London, among others. He is a recipient of the Paris Review’s Bernard F. Conners Prize and fellowships from the New York State Writers Institute and the Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. He is the poetry editor of Boston Review and teaches in the writing program at Columbia University’s School of the Arts. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and two daughters.
His Future as Attila the Hun
But when I try to envision what it might be like to live
detached from the circuitry that suffers me to crave
what I know I’ll never need, or what I need but have
in abundance already, I feel the cloud of food-court
breakfast loosen its embrace, I feel the shopping center
drop as its escalator tenders me up to the story
intended for conference space. I feel my doubt diminish, my debt
diminish; I feel a snow that falls on public statuary
doesn’t do so sadly because it does so without profit.
I feel less toxic. I feel the thought my only prospect
lies under a train for the coverage stop. Don’t think I never
thought that way because I have and do, all through
blank October a dollar in my pocket back and forth
to university. Let the record not not show. I have
deserted me for what I lack and am not worth. All of this
unfolds through episodes that pale as fast as others
gain from my inertia: I have watched, I’ll keep watching
out from under blankets as the days trip over the
days before out cold on the gold linoleum behind them
where we make the others rich with sick persistence.
But when I try to envision what it might be like to change,
I see three doors in front of me, and by implication
opportunity, rooms full of it as the mind itself is full
thinking of a time before time was, or of the infinite
couch from which none part, and while the first two doors
have their appeal, it’s the third I like best, the one
behind which opens a meadow, vast, and in it, grazing
on buttercups, an errant heifer with a wounded foot,
its bloody hoofprints followed by a curious shepherd back
to something sharp in the grass, the point of a long
sword which, unearthed, the shepherd now polishes with
his rodent-skin tunic, letting the Eurasian sun play
upon it for effect, a gift for me, a task, an instrument to lay
waste to the empire now placed before me at my feet.
–From The Cloud Corporation, Wave Books, 2010.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
This is the last poem in The Cloud Corporation and it’s also the last poem I wrote to make its way into the book. Coincidentally, the book’s first poem, “The New Intelligence,” was the first poem in the book to get written. Everything else is a jumble, dates-wise. When Wave Books accepted the manuscript for publication, it ended with what’s now the book’s penultimate poem, “Chapter for Not Dying Again,” but I knew in my gut that it wasn’t the right way to close the curtains on a long and often dark book. The last sentence was too wry, too flip. I tried to write a new last poem, but kept falling short—I was too self-conscious about what I was trying to do, too freaked out by my sense of its importance to the book as a whole. The pressure was too much. Finally I gave up, convincing myself that “Chapter for Not Dying Again” was an okay way to close the book after all, and what I really needed to do was write a poem that better prepared the reader for what “Chapter” was up to, that better set it up. This I could do, and did—and later, shortly after I was done, I realized I had tricked myself. I had written the new last poem after all—one of me faked the other out, but for our own benefit. I showed the poem to my editor at Wave, Matthew Zapruder, and he agreed that “His Future as Attila the Hun” was a far better way to bring everything to a close, and even though the book was already in production (this was in spring 2010), he made it possible to fit the poem in. Thanks again, Matthew!
The poem picks up the previous poem’s determination not to die by asking what it might be like, instead, to live, specifically to live “detached from the circuitry” of our corporatized and consumption-crazed society. I’m indebted to Deleuze and Guattari for the word “circuitry,” which (with “circuit”) appears often in their discussion of “desiring-machines” in Anti-Oedipus. Here they consider desire not as a local urge to redress a specific lack, but as an ongoing mechanistic and productive force. I imagined separation from that circuitry as an ascension up an escalator at a typical shopping mall, but I had in mind specifically Providence Place, back in my native Providence, with all its many open escalators that rise at odd angles and call to mind the tunnels in an ant farm. I wanted the speaker, who is more or less a speculative version of myself, to reach a non-retail floor of the mall—I half-remember seeing a conference room on the top level of Providence Place when it first opened, but I’m probably making it up. In any case, I thought if the speaker could take himself away from all the aromas and hubbub he might be able to experience some kind of revelation, or at least encounter a sustaining delusion.
At the time, I was really struggling financially, living paycheck to paycheck, which is doable enough when you’re just starting out but at this point I was in my late 30s and married and we had a daughter and another on the way. I had enormous credit card debt, tons of student loans to repay, the cost of living was ridiculous and I saw no end in sight. Part of me was constantly eaten-at and unhappy. I remember watching April snow fall on the cast of Rodin’s The Thinker outside Philosophy Hall on Columbia’s campus and thinking that I should be able to see the beauty in it but I was so constantly consumed in financial shame and dread it seemed to me like just another worthless endeavor. On the subway platform I was haunted by the idea that if I fell onto the tracks then my life insurance policy, my “coverage,” would leave my family better off. And all the while I couldn’t get it out of my head that I was working myself death, or to death-in-life, while other far less work-exhausted people, even among my colleagues and friends, people I respect and like, were being asked to do, or were being made to suffer, much much less and were making, monetarily, much much more. Melodramatic, I know, and self-pitying, but there was more than a little truth in it, and a lot of people have found and keep finding themselves in the same place. And there are times when the self deserves its own pity, requires it. I love this, from Hopkins:
My own self let me more have pity on; let
Me live to my sad self hereafter kind,
Charitable; not live this tormented mind
With this tormented mind tormenting yet.
Anyway, the summer before I wrote the poem I had read an anecdote about Attila in Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Apparently one day Attila was presented with a sword that led him to believe his victory against the Empire was pretty much guaranteed. It seemed to me that that’s what I wanted to give to my speaker. I wanted him to have a moment in which he’s presented with the “instrument” that might change things in his favor. I should quote Gibbon, because I borrowed from him fairly heavily. He writes (in vol. VI, ch. 34):
One of the shepherds of the Huns perceived that a heifer, who was grazing, had wounded herself in the foot, and curiously followed the track of the blood, till he discovered, among the long grass, the point of an ancient sword, which he dug out of the ground and presented to Attila. That magnanimous, or rather that artful, prince accepted, with pious gratitude, this celestial favour; and, as the rightful possessor of the sword of Mars, asserted his divine and indefeasible claim to the dominion of the earth.
Attila died shortly thereafter (a severe nosebleed did him in) and without ever claiming that dominion. My speaker wouldn’t really want what Attila wanted, but he wouldn’t mind a moment of feeling in charge of his own destiny, a feeling that must, I think, come with great exhilaration and, if you’ve felt powerless for ages, relief. At the same time, it seems to me that this sense of radical self-rule depends on a little madness, or at least on one’s blindness to the multivariable complexity and unpredictability of life, as well as a willfulness that can hint, as here, at a kind of latent violence and megalomania. So even if there is a sense, as I hope there is, of hope and even triumph and odd grandeur at the end of the poem, I also mean to suggest that that triumph comes in the form of an elaborate delusion, a commercialized game-show version of the will to power that, if indulged in too often and unself-critically, might only serve to dull one’s appetite or aptitude for making actual changes in the real world.
What are you working on right now?
This interview! Also, albeit slowly, poems towards a manuscript with the working title The Problem of the Many, which is a term coined by the philosopher Peter Unger for a trouble one faces when dealing with unclearly demarcated entities composed of like particles.
What’s a good day for you?
Staying home with my family and getting things done. Or just hanging out around the neighborhood, running errands and going to Chipotle on Montague.
How long have you lived in Brooklyn? What neighborhood do you live in? What do you like most about it?
I lived with my wife (the poet Lynn Melnick) in a one-bedroom in Cobble Hill on the corner of Degraw and Clinton from 2002 to 2005. In 2005 with a baby on the way we moved two blocks south and one block west and it became Carroll Gardens, where we have lived to this day and where we expect to stay for the foreseeable future. I love the amazing architecture and the sense of history in these neighborhoods. I have a lot of personal history here, too—we got married at Borough Hall, our daughters were born here, this is where we lived when we wrote (for the most part) and published our books. I love that I live between a bakery and an old-fashioned redbrick library, too. I love the sound of the nearby church bells, the relative uncrowdedness, the linden trees, the birds, the smell of salt in the wind off the harbor, and that my kids’ schools are just blocks away. Red Hook is just blocks away, too, and I completely love it there. And I love my neighborhood grocery store.
Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad or in between.
I guess I shouldn’t pick an experience that’s already been mentioned or alluded to—like getting married, the births of my daughters, hanging out at home or going grocery shopping. So I’ll go with my book party for The Cloud Corporation. It brought so many people I love together and it celebrated something that took over six years of obsessive cloud castle-building and hair loss to finish. The party was held at the offices of A Public Space, thanks to Brett Fletcher Lauer, who helped out so much with planning it and pulling it together, and also to Brigid Hughes, the magazine’s founding editor and publisher. It all coalesced really nicely and a ton of people came and we ate a whole lot of Utz cheese balls and drank exactly five cases of wine and four cases of Stella—everyone said I bought way too much, but I knew I knew what I was doing. There were 100 white balloons and the poet DJ Dolack made a really terrific video of the event for Coldfront and it has a determinedly Brooklyn ca. late 2010 feeling to it.
Favorite Brooklyn poet(s), dead and/or alive?
Hart Crane, Marianne Moore, and Walt Whitman. No surprises. And I’ll limit myself to the dead because there are too many terrific poets living in Brooklyn right now and I wouldn’t know where to draw the line or how to get myself to draw it.
Favorite Brooklyn bookstore(s)?
BookCourt on Court Street. It’s a perfect neighborhood bookstore and if I can’t find what I want or need there (I almost always do) there’s a big chain bookstore I can walk to up the street in Brooklyn Heights, but I go there pretty much only as backup.
Favorite places to read and write in Brooklyn (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
I’ve never written anywhere other than in my apartment, usually on the living room floor, late at night, or in my head, wherever it happens to be at the time, which is usually in my apartment, hovering a foot or two above the living room floor, or walking towards or away from my apartment, preferably the former, and quickly. I read there, too.
Favorite places to go in Brooklyn not involving reading or writing?
The Brooklyn Bridge. Met Foods on Henry Street and Union Market on Court Street. The Brooklyn Art Museum, especially the Kevorkian Gallery of Ancient Near Eastern Art with all its amazing Assyrian reliefs. The Brooklyn Botanic Garden, especially the Cranford Rose Garden. The Promenade. Valentino Pier.
Last awesome book(s) you read?
I recently read Carolyne Larrington’s translation of the Poetic Edda and I got a pretty big kick out of that. I’m poking through Hollander’s translation of it now, which is weirder and wilder but also a little stiffer. I also recently enjoyed Go Giants, the forthcoming collection by Nick Laird, whose diction and rugged sense of form I love, as well as a book by another Irish poet, Charles Donnelly, who died at the age of 22 while fighting in the Spanish Civil War. I had never heard of him until recently when Paul Muldoon mentioned to me that I must be related to him. He was from Co. Tyrone, like my father’s family—and like Nick Laird, too, come to think of it. I recently picked up a cheap but really decent Taschen book on the work of Bruegel by Rose-Marie and Rainer Hagen. It’s easy to read that one on the plane and the pictures are beautifully reproduced. Obviously I am very fond of Lynn Melnick’s book, If I Should Say I Have Hope. I’ve also been rereading Edmund Burke’s amazing book on the beautiful and the sublime and reading, for the first time, slowly, Being Singular Plural by Jean-Luc Nancy.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate what I can’t not
call my love for you,
and what I can’t not call
the midnight sun, you should
know it’s gonna come
shining through, for every
measure of distance im-
posed between my person
& yours’ll be erased
posthaste in the hybrid
heat of these whatnesses—
our separateness van-
quished via fiat of wet-
ness certain to be issued any
minute now and through
the portals of our pores—
unstoppably, and if im-
properly, nonetheless as
still seems meet, i.e., from me
as good as from you.
Cf, and with apologies and thanks, to Peabo Bryson and Roberta Flack.
Where else? Sheboygan?