Issue 6: Joseph Donahue

Manhattan Shadows

Heaven’s light on

a leafless tree, hung with

fright masks, where a snake climbs.

It’s a streak of yellow across a black pool,

a first glow on the grass along the empty road,

in a misty field, by a fuel tank

that fell off a space ship,

dropped, like the chandelier

last night, and shattered.

It’s a wedding at New Years.

The moon is cut in half.

Guests in a line blow soap bubbles.

The couple leaves the church.

The soapy globes wobble . . .

A higher consciousness

lays its claim. There is no

place I go where you are not.

My parents would take us to the opera.

We were very small. We fell asleep.

A full moon floats like crushed gift paper

and loose ribbon in the blackness . . .

Who were the boy and the girl

once the kiss came to be?

Now age has cast me as an ogre.

Folded face, a failed inner life.

(This flick is called Embodiment.

Everyone is in it.) Tremble, traveler.

The hermit hut shines in the flowers.

Until this mountain peril our lives

had been exciting, but thin,

like a novel read on a treadmill.

A rabbit shivers in the tall grass.

Why not play Christmas carols?

Instead: A Whiter Shade of Pale.

Instead: Verdi’s Requiem.

The moon brushes the earth.

Next day, the sun’s just a gold hole

with a strip of cloud across it.

And the world is divided between

suffering and transcendence.

But really, there is only

the moment of death,

when many believe much

that has been thought has to be

rethought. And the words

with which thought will be

rethought, must they be alive

or dead? A hint would be welcome,

now that the abyss tips upward

and the heights are pouring down.

The stream rises, flooding the woods.

You knew me, even as I was

knit in the womb. A surprise,

a presence, a last back and forth

in a job interview: How long

does it take you to dress

in the morning?  Depends.

Would this be a hair-washing day?

The entire city is made of mud.

The waves simply dissolve it.

Dead bodies, floating deck chairs.

It’s like living on a hill in a city of hills.

It’s like living in San Francisco,

where I once made a dragon

from recycled Styrofoam.

Later, in China, I was told

to devise my own re-education.

I had muttered far too loudly

how Manichean Mongols

had skewed Buddhism.

Why escapes me: Why, that is,

we choose the slavery of this life.

But as the manual says, if the part

is faulty, the screen will go blank.

A simulation of my breath

blows a kite over the trees . . .

From here in space,

the island of Manhattan

looks much like the floor plan

of a Mayan temple complex,

but no altars, no buildings,

no plaza, no roads, no plants,

no Mayans, not any sign

of life, no animal or plant,

only stones, only Manhattan,

in a dream, like a close-up

of the moon. In the

grainy dispersion

of rocks far below,

shadows of what will be:

buildings, parks, streets,

the city of your exile, that

you love, not there, but there,

in the scatter of stones,

in the cast of gravel . . .



The Orchard

The wind, gentle

over the arm, the

face, across a continent,

into the head, blows, out of

what distance, some

scrap about Mary and Martha.

But I do not seem to be

in the thrall of Christ.

At most, a deva, my

physical therapist,

who’s gone, off to be

wed in the Himalayas,

far from this hospital

where all the wards

are named for apples:

Mac, Fuji, Granny Smith,

Yellow, Delicious,

Braeburn, Gala,

in this orchard

where morning is

so black only the gaps

in the leaves can be seen,

ward, orchard or

age when telepathy

was once rampant, this field

seared by a storm where

a beautiful girl walks

up inside a blue aura,

and we discover again

the bar in Woodstock

where Dylan wrote

Gates of Eden,

an empty mansion, now,

where I wait for your knock

so we can walk on the

path around the lake

a manifest miracle, since

outside the dream

both my legs are broken,

a tower, now, floating

on the ocean, I tip back, drop,

pink streaks, falling sun,

warmth of a powder blue depth  -

the dazzling coral reefs,

fish in their quick,

cloudy spasms . . .

Waking, there’s a lawyer

in a lemon-colored suit

sitting beside the bed

who says: Don’t dare sue us

for your misstep.

Or in some later orchard

or age, some epoch

or grove, some

ward or cage

when you’re not on

an  hallucinatory

and debilitating

regimen of pain-killers

we’ll take away all you own . . .

So what is my earthly estate?

The seven holes in my leg,

one for each steel rod of the “fixator,”

locking my bones in place,

one rod for each age

in this black forest where I dream

the sign for infinity in a neon coil.

(Other seats become visible.

It’s a theater or phase,

now, where a man hunches,

in death throes, a

notoriously reclusive

avant-garde filmmaker who’d

shoots for hours, the lens

on absolutely nothing

then scratches out

whatever happens.)

First frost. The world

is like the top of a cloud.

Such beauty comes from Paradise.

I dream my legs are healed.

I see the fields are flooding.

I see the restoration of a lake

no one alive has ever seen . . .

Surgical consults

about my walking grow

more nuanced. Lord, heal me,

for my bones are vexed

as are the pins, plates

and titanium screws

which some far off, future

crematory will no doubt

sizzle into brilliant

commemorative spatters . . .

In my next

orchard or age

I might just choose to be

a gardener, but only

if I could work

in arid places

where seeds must

take root amid rocks,

or perhaps a confused actor, an

Irish alcoholic wild man

who keeps getting cast

as a man of the cloth,

or what, in this entrance

to a stage I have frequent

occasion to play --

an uninsured

freelance carpenter

who stepped into the air

just beyond the roof . . .

My face aches. My lungs hurt.

Each night my body is

dipped in embalming fluid.

Sometimes in the afternoon I wheel myself over

to the pen across the parking lot  and

seek guidance from the llamas.

The llamas are my rabbis.

They say: in this orchard

or age we come to the end of the Torah.

We now must roll it back,

from one spindle to the other.

In this age all God

said is reversed. 

We must do whatever

the commandments forbid . . .

So then, later, I stroll,

in Albuquerque, amazed,

on the Alhambra, and

see, across the street,

on a wall facing

a window, a mural,

my face, but younger,

a fresh bullet hole blown

right in the middle of it.

The powdery gold-brown

grain of eroding clay

where much of my mouth

had been trickles

in the ink-blue breeze.

Then, I’m upstairs, in

what must be your bed,

drifting off, watching

the pit in my face

deepen in the desert wind,

in the mix of shadow and light

that becomes a sunrise

in which you appear

as beautiful as ever,

but for huge welts of

muscle on the left side of

your torso, all black and blue.

It’s not clear if you have

a left breast anymore.

You should be bandaged,

in a hospital, but you’re

nonplussed, love,

in a shimmering

blouse, now, off to

whatever job you have,

your last

kiss, tasting,

in this dream,

like chocolate . . .

Atlantis Shadow

                                          lawd low Atlantis shallow.
  -- Kathleen Fraser

And in the swirls of

a script still visible in those

words closest to what we secretly believe

when before us shines what we

could never hope might be,

evidence for Atlantis

in, say, a cloud, an Alaskan peak

where the wedding will be,

where we will taste a bread

made from a grain only

recently discovered,

though to our surprise

there are llamas here, and

goats and zebras by the lake,

a massive pig, motionless in the mud,

and a dozen or so crows

in a tree, singing:

“hope is the greatest

torture that exists . . .”


If only the snow

were in perfect union

with the sun, and would

gleam until the nation’s

great cities are under water.

If only an ecstasy fell upon you.

If only you could be buried

alive, then burst forth.

If only you could feel like

a flower noticed

after long grieving,

like hellebore so brilliant

the blossoms are the departed

who cry out: What does

not lead to liberation

is worthless . . .


We awake as part of a band

of adventurous girls, camp councilors

on a lark in the nineteen forties,

so confident they disappear

weeks on end in places without trails.

None has ever been further east

than Montana, because life

here is too magnificent.

No word does not become

the rushing of water over stones,

a language more marvelous

than any spoken on earth,

which is what the code

turns out to be in Babel 17.

The space captain wants to find

the source of  thoughts

never before encountered.

She uses her telepathic skills

and rounds up a serviceable crew.

To secure a navigator she must

enter the Discorporate Zone . . .

 (Last night you were happy,

though your new life was

not the one I expected.)


The rain falling

on the tent will be

inaudible until we are

an echo of what happens.

Words turn to light and dark.

The trembling in the sky

goes seismic. Then, as with

those ships with sonar

tracing the contour

of our catastrophe,

sounds will show us

reverberations of what is.

For the moment we are more

like an expectant mother

dangerously allergic

to the life within her,

wracked by her progress.

She finds the world sickening.

The senses are a torment.

She can’t go out, can’t stand

another human presence.

Birth finally happen.

The illness finally goes.

The child is beautiful.

The market is a joy.

And something new:

she can taste the fruits

of the future in the midst

of an actual bounty.


We need not sleep

under stars to receive

news of far away worlds.

Our souls flock to salvation

simply by means of

an instrument with strings,

an unusual scale

and novel fingerings

known only to the girl

at the party who

owns the instrument.

Other times and ways of life

are alive in those notes.

A boy in the crowd wants

to cradle the wooded hollow,

embrace the vibration.

The girl is reluctant at first.

(She wishes she had hidden it

before everyone arrived!)

But it is beautiful, a pleasure

to set in the hands of

another, and she is,

after all, the only one

who knows how to play it.

She ripples a chord, everyone

stops, stands there, quiet

and still, amazed . . .


As when Proteus still

ruled on land . . .



All this is true.

All this is nothing

so much as the marvel of

our skin. We are the envy

of other animals, though

on the sub-molecular level

whether any of us really

touches or is touched

remains utterly open.

Further, we can’t even say

the universe is alive. We only

know it is other than dead,

and that a field of clouds

can be too bright to look at

as they flood the gap

in the mountains like

a channel to the ocean

where the cities are. On

the peak an entourage of

insects vibrate amid

thousands of flowers.

They are your minions,

Dionysus. They announce

your arrival at a small green lake

ringed with receding wedges of granite.

Higher peaks float on the horizon.

This snow is the purest on earth.

Sleeping above the cloud line,

no evil dream can reach us.

One sees the skull as a small seed.

How hard it holds to the place it is,

on mountains that seem

to be floating on the clouds,

in lakes on the top of the mountains,

in a world above the world.

We breathe air that has

not yet reached the earth.

It passes through our mouths,

it completes us, then continues

down to other living things

so they may share our purity.

It flows until it reaches even those

last seen  riding a “chicken bus”

in Guatemala. Everyone is

crammed on tight. Some grip

the roof, cling to crates,

others dangle on the outside.

The bus never stops. It slows.

Would-be travelers run

and jump on, and later

an attendant climbs along

the outside of the speeding bus,

collecting fares, making change

as the wind whips his shirt.

When we got off we were

no longer what we were,

volunteers at a charity

devoted to children

who live in the dump.

During the day they claw

through heaps of trash.

At night they sleep

under sheet metal lean-tos.

So I went to see the volcano.

The ground grew hot.

Along a glowing red river

the black banks were smoking.

Heat fingered my face.

I spoke no Spanish,

so I had no answer to

where does this go, this

flow of molten stone?

Does it pool into pure

radiance, here where

no one denies the

world is burning?


Perhaps because we were born

at the end of a catastrophe

that left us in the trench of

an unprecedented hope,

we tend to define ourselves

by keeping true to what is not.

The world, as it now is, has a keen

interest in disallowing this

to be told, to be heard by any

who are yet to be, any who

were but have forgotten,

or remember but deny.

Though secretly everyone

longs to have it told, to hear

that history, the way the earth

longs to hear about the moon,

how it was torn away, cast out,

how its seas are pierced with beams,

how the heat died within it,

much to its delight, so that

its radiance could come

from somewhere else.

It is a fluke that there is

both day and night, and that

they trade places so gracefully,

that we fall asleep and dream,

that the dreams come at night,

and we have all day to get ready.

That red dot between the trees

is the demon star. It’s really

two stars, circling each other.

There is much in the sky

that’s hidden from us.

We need to either be on

the other side of the world

tonight, or to be here,

now but six months from now

without growing any older . . .


We are not in the sky,

but the ground is in the sky,

and it floats below our feet.

The Scorpion slips away,

and others, many with

Arabic names, or unknown

till now. One might be

you, the Secret Drinker,

your bottle a gift from

a woman in Brazil

who got it from her aunt,

a nun in Portugal, in

a convent where the nuns

were in the cellar repairing a wall.

They knocked out some plaster

and found a secret room

full of bottle after bottle

of an extraordinary vintage.

The nuns drank and talked

and decided to keep it

for themselves,

for  special times

or for the gloomy days

not unknown in Portugal,

and the nuns found, as have you,

New World recluse, that

the bottles were blessed.

Your bottle is blessed,

the wine never runs out.

The nuns told no one,

and you tell know one.

Who would believe it?

Each day, you take a few sips.

Splendor pours through you.

Beauty shines before you.

You cannot quite fathom

the thoughts in your head.

You may forget them,

but never the feel of them,

the feel of the heat of the sun,

of the cool of hidden roots,

never forget the feel of

the force that ties earth and sky.

It seems beyond belief

that such wine could be,

or rather, it seems,

on a cold evening

here in the mountains,

that the wine preceded

the world in which it flowed,

that the transformation

of seed and stem,

the miraculous vine,

is still bringing

the world to be . . .


As if we had reached the limit

of our ability to imagine

our own fulfillment,

or been caught

in a storm on a mountaintop

forced to take refuge

in a volcanic vent,

where the heat kept us

alive for days after climbing

the face of a frozen waterfall.

Last night our differences vanished.

We could no longer be mistaken

for people wearing masks

enacting the turn

of the Great Year,

though we still live

by the calendar, knowing

when to arrive for work,

when we have time to ourselves,

when to be sad, and when to hang

a piñata from the door.

But with each turn of the world

things got more awry, the way

the rhythm in minimalist music

changes according to a mathematical plan,

until the echoing, slightly aberrant beat

compels new devotions.

And so we start and end things

at never the right time.

The great cycles revolve

beyond our perceptions

and the micro-temporalities

where birth and death happen,

making our ceremonial life

a kind of gentle delusion,

a regimen we can only guess at,

like when will the sprinklers across the street

go on at night, those secret fountains

that cut an arc through the air

long before the golfers

drift in small groups

and bits of their talk

floats through the trees,

as if this were Versailles,

and rivers had been turned

from their courses,  and greenery

gathered from around

the known, ruled world,

to make the shade

more various for visitors.

But it brings peace to look at it.

You felt you had received

a commission from the beyond

just by imagining it

all shining and dark

in the sunlight

like something from

ancient Egypt, or found

on the moon in an old movie.

Last night a house rose

from the shallows.

Water washed over

the porch, clean

as the sea, but calm.

A house drifts ashore

at night, the lights on

as if guests were

to be expected,

and here you are.

It’s perfect. And your

father is here with you,

in the subtle drifting of

the floors and walls,

seeing the sparkle

of stones under water,

of distant lights,

of what must be

the far side of the bay.

Joseph Donahue lives in Durham, North Carolina. His most recent volumes of poetry are Incidental Eclipse (2003) and the first volume of an ongoing poetic sequence, Terra Lucida (2008), both of which are published by Talisman House. The second volume of Terra Lucida, titled Dissolves, is forthcoming in 2011, also from Talisman House.