Prac Crit

The Last Dream of Light Released from Seaports

by Timothy Donnelly

Essay

by Oli Hazzard

The USA Patriot Act – or, ‘The Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001’ – is, among other things, a ‘backronym’, a phrase inreated to fit the letters of an existing pre-chosen word, a form indistinguishable in everything but name from the acrostic. Many acrostics are also love poems, in which the pre-chosen word running along the vertical axis of the poem is the name of a loved one. Those that take this form must strike a difficult balance between the powerful forces of explicit technique and explicit sentiment; though naming the subject or addressee can seem excessive or cloying, the technical obligations of the form distract from the directness of this naming gesture, and the consequent tension can result in something which seems quite naturalistic. The opening of Frank O’Hara’s ‘Edwin’s Hand’, for example, is a brilliant performance of awkwardness within the constraint of strong feeling, of a desire for fluency which precludes its realisation: ‘Easy to love, but / difficult to please, he / walks densely as a child / in the midst of spectacular / needs to understand’. The name-constraint is ‘easy’ to identify along the vertical axis, but the syntax which holds the poem together along the horizontal one is ‘difficult’, a conflict between shape and shapelessness; what is going on with the word ‘needs’, for example? Does Edwin have multiple needs, or are O’Hara’s own needs to understand included by it? This drama between formal principle and its fulfilment suggests by analogy that loving (from a distance? as an ideal?) is easier than the difficult work of making someone happy. The ability to shuttle between two perspectives, one of ease and one of difficulty, is what makes acrostics trivial and serious, absurd and moving, and therefore particularly appropriate for thinking about the most intimate relationships between people, which can change with frightening speed from one state to the other, ‘in the midst of spectacular / needs to understand’. All of which makes it such a weird thing to do with a collectively-authored government document: why have ‘USA Patriot Act’ mean something other than itself? What is the point of its trying to mean along vertical and horizontal axes simultaneously? Awkwardness has a different valence here. The dialectic between ease and difficulty which O’Hara’s acrostic foregrounds is what this backronym attempts to conceal; the bungled syntax of the phrase, its near-tautologies, that authoritative-but-restrained ‘appropriate’, convey a spectacular need not to understand. Rather than complementing, illuminating or substantiating each other, the name of the Act and its subordinate phrase are mutually embarrassing, since they pretend to be comprehensive and cohesive. I’ve spent the past few minutes trying to memorise ‘The Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001’ and can’t seem to do it; I keep getting stuck on ‘Required’. It’s as if there’s something about it which resists or reverses the mnemonic function acronyms are supposed to have; it’s like an acronym which helps you forget.

*

Last week I read for the first time Milton’s Comus, a work which is also known by two names, the other being A Mask presented at Ludlow Castle, 1634: on Michelmas night, before the right honorable, Iohn Earl of Bridgewater, Viscount Brackly, Lord President of Wales, and one of His Maiesties most honorable privie councill. Comus falls in love with, casts a spell on, and abducts a chaste Lady he finds in a wood, in the hope of corrupting her with various temptations. Back at Comus’s palace, the Lady and Comus have a long exchange, during which her ‘reason’ is shown to triumph over his ‘sophistry’. The Attendant Spirit who later comes to rescue the Lady finds her transfixed in a spell-induced state, and asserts that ‘without his rod revers’t, / And backward mutters of dissevering power, / We cannot free the Lady that sits here / In stony fetters fixt and motionless’. (The ‘rod’ is gone by this point, so in the end it’s only through the intervention of Sabrina, a river-goddess, that the Lady is released.) The note in my edition informed me that the Attendant Spirit’s proposed solution of ‘backward mutters’ is derived from similar examples in two earlier texts, The Faerie Queene and Metamorphoses. In the latter, the spell Circe has cast on a group of sailors, achieved through a mixture of drugs, wand-waving and utterance, is reversed by her speaking her own words backwards. As the counter-spell is enunciated the figures are returned from their lowly animal state to upright human form:

We were sprinkled with the more virtuous juices of unknown herbs, our heads were stroked with the wand reversed, and the words she had said were pronounced with the words said backwards. The more words she spoke, the more we stood erect, lifted from the ground. Our bristles fell away, our cloven hoofs lost their cleft, our shoulders reappeared, and below them were our upper and lower arms.

These linked instances of spoken texts enacting changes upon the bodies of those who hear them – drawn from works in which words and syntax retain a magic, performative relation to the physical – are helpful for thinking about how the USA Patriot Act relates to Timothy Donnelly’s 2004 poem, built in part from it, ‘The Last Dream of Light Released from Seaports’.

*

‘Dream proceedings’, Donnelly’s poem tells us, ‘which engage in the activities // indicating intention, love, or other things of value’ shall be ‘considered criminal’. The poem is a hybrid text, written using words taken exclusively from the USA Patriot Act and Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born to Run’, though the latter can hardly get a word in – one per line, to be exact. The first tercet draws on page 1 of the Act for its vocabulary, the second page 2, the third page 3, and so on. It is an implicitly dialogic poem about ‘two or more individuals’; about the points where dreams and waking life meet; and what happens when changes in the law are enforced physically (‘the enactment of documents // along the northern border’). It’s a masterpiece of nonsense verse, arranged with great formal deliberateness. Though the poem’s higher-level regulatory system operates smoothly according to its limited criteria, the more complex localised systems of syntax go haywire, producing a diverse range of errors:

If removal is unlikely, they shall take the sentence,
the beach facilities, and the foreseeable future into custody
and charge all with a criminal offence not later than

seven days after the commencement of such strap
from physical officers, offenses to the hide, such striking
dismantling electronic surveillance, wild highway!

The poem has the texture of sense without making it; the connective parts of the sentence appear to function properly, but the elements being connected do not. David Herd has written that the language of John Ashbery’s poem ‘The Tennis Court Oath’ doesn’t work because democratic language at the time of its composition wasn’t working; even more troubling, Donnelly’s poem appears to work but does not work, operates in a disorderly fashion under a semblance of order. The rhetorical fluency of the poem itself becomes suspect, semantic and grammatical ‘offenses’ occur unstoppably and unremarked upon, the poem races down the ‘wild highway’ of itself oblivious. Many words which possess clear local meaning lose referential stability – ’sentence’, ‘hide’, ‘striking’ all seem agitated by the competing claims of their multiple available meanings, the possibility that they might be wrenched in one direction or another to serve a particular interpretive purpose. The syntax seems to be subject to a series of potential amendments, kinking off in unexpected directions at the hinge of a seemingly innocuous change in a word’s function in a sentence.

*

Of what is this poem ‘the last dream’? Just ‘light’? Or the more exact ‘light released from seaports?’ The opening lines of The Cloud Corporation (‘After knowledge had extinguished the last of the beautiful / fires our worship had failed to prolong’) foreground Donnelly’s preoccupation with the near extinction of certain types of (imaginative, spiritual, communal) light, and how the bodily effects they evoke can be prompted by more contemporary light-forms. In ‘By Night with Torch and Spear’, for example, it is ‘Vegas brightness’ which ‘excites’ Donnelly ‘up a biochemical peak’. Here’s the beginning of that poem:

That fire at the mouth of the flare stack rising
          more than three-hundred feet above the refinery
contorts as it feeds on the invisible current
          of methane produced by the oil’s distillation

process like a monster, the nonstop spasm of it
          lumbering upwards into the dark Newark
night like a sack made of orange parachute fabric
          an awkward number of gorillas get it on in.

I would worship it.

In seeking to ‘worship’ this ugly, gaseous scene, Donnelly is responding to the most debased stimuli with a salutary error of perception. This in turn leads to a startling consciousness of his body, a sharpened awareness of the histories of which his sensations are made; in this way, he employs images which would seem to deny his residual desire for spiritual experience in order to affirm it. These encounters with ‘bad’ light, unbeautiful fires, seem to me one way of thinking about why Donnelly would look hard at the language of the USA Patriot Act and see in it not an opportunity for the confirmation of despair but a weird, wavering image of possibility.

*

Light is everywhere in The Cloud Corporation, resembling other things or being resembled. Three more examples from the collection: ‘arachnid light, a light too / truant from its source to reflect a compact back / with fidelity’; ‘I like to see amber light from the pages / of the book I’m not reading’; ‘the thought of keeping still made us want to throw / ourselves like light on the river’. Though he sees in bad light the possibility of its reversal, Donnelly scrupulously registers ‘the written scream / that produces new agency’, doesn’t deny the smallness of those activities ‘protected by the united light of mirrors’. His ‘disturbances that ask to be likened to weather’ remain unaltered despite the trivial and ineffectual gesture such likening represents. The poem’s redistribution of the language of the USA Patriot Act might be seen as something along the same lines, a deliberately archaic and ineffectual form of textual response to a political disturbance, which positions itself as an almost superstitious gesture, a counter-spell of sorts. ‘Counter-spell’ because there’s something strange and spell-like about a document which changes the law and immediately alters the conditions of reality for those under its jurisdiction, bringing into being invisible forms of constraint. Donnelly’s poem doesn’t reverse the language of the act – it doesn’t want to be a simple form of opposition, ‘unbearably right in attitude’ [Ed.: see Frank O’Hara below] – but circulates it, changes its order, alters its meaning, turns it at least, at best one wrong side out.

*

Released as a vinyl LP in 2007, The Bruce Springsteen Born to Run Glockenspiel Addendum is a record by Cory Arcangel, which provides original glockenspiel backing to the five songs on the album which don’t already feature the instrument. This means that during the song ‘Born to Run’, Arcangel doesn’t play a note. In ‘The Last Dream’, Springsteen’s song is overrun by the text of the USA Patriot Act, but I’ve been playing it on repeat while reading the poem, tuning in and out of the points of contact between the two pieces, and have found that when I get distracted or space out when reading Donnelly’s words, which I do regularly, the song floods in to return me to it. I get the feeling the poem intends the song to be its soundtrack, playing on an endless loop (Donnelly has said that he played it constantly while writing), and this virtual circulating track corresponds at times to the ways in which the poem loops in on itself as well. There are repetitions of thought and syntax which suggest the loop is contracting, which begin again without having being entirely completed:

…transcending platforms with certain maritime girls
during dangerous velvet, beyond wrecking trains,
beyond staff plastic and the sudden injury to buildings

provided for the placement, the procedures for taking
the liberty of fingerprints, chrome updates of extracts…

*

From Frank O’Hara’s poem ‘Joe’s Jacket’, which Donnelly read at the O’Hara Poetry Festival in July:

the incessant talk of affection
expressed as excitability and spleen to be recent and strong
and not unbearably right in attitude, full of confidences
now I will say it, thank god, I knew you would

an enormous party mesmerizing corners in the disgathering light
and dancing miniature-endless, like a pivot

Pivoting, changing direction, opinion, or behaviour is most exhilarating, liberating, seems most like a gift, when someone encourages and accepts it; conversely, there’s little more frustrating, that prompts greater outrage, than when its occurrence is denied (‘This development is amended / each place it appears. Each place it is amended, it appears // again, appointing frauds of rearview…’). Pivoting is what often happens in the syntax of Geoffrey G. O’Brien’s ‘Metropole’, which, like Donnelly’s poem, is an unpredictable, perilously unstable reading experience. O’Brien’s role as the generator of the constraints of ‘The Last Dream’ is important, as the poem is partly about friendship, what friendship can mean in a time of general instability, how it permits disassembly and recombination, allows for wrongness and change, and how this salutary form of alteration increases the contrast of the questionable moment in which it occurs.

*

‘…seaports, suicide, and the individual dream’ is an abrupt way to end, which is apt, considering how it’s a shapeless poem confused by the improper formality and conviction of its execution. Donald Davie once wrote of F. T. Prince’s poem ‘Epistle to a Patron’ that ‘there is no reason why it should ever stop’; a similar thing might be said about ‘The Last Dream’. Getting to the end of it, I just want to press repeat, until the beginning and the end become indistinguishable (the poem begins with ‘And’, after all). In concluding, however, ‘The Last Dream’ necessarily achieves a kind of completed form, for better or worse, though in some respects the poem seeks to deny it. Dispute over conclusion reminds me that this poem was written during what O’Brien has called the ‘endless middle of the occupation of Iraq’, the weightless betweenness of which time is dramatised dizzyingly by the poem. It seems right that in order to understand the experience offered by ‘The Last Dream’ we have to turn to another Donnelly work, ‘Bulletin from Under the Bed’, surely one of the great short poems of the new century:

Then it all starts seeming like a terrible mistake
          but to turn back now would only serve to make

matters evens worse, bringing as it would the very
          seeming of the first condition into finitude, hastily

plastering it in history, and thereby giving shape
          where shapelessness has so long worked to our advantage.

          

The Last Dream of Light Released from Seaports

by Timothy Donnelly

And such proceedings shall be considered criminal:
amusement amendments, two or more individuals,
any dream proceedings which engage in the activities

indicating intention, love, or other things of value;
a safe house, a biological boulevard, communications
that demonstrate the actor plans to commit rips

in new material, transfer funds, have everlasting vision.
Wendy, a sadness shall take effect on the specified
streets until the real is removed together with the findings.

If removal is unlikely, they shall take the sentence,
the beach facilities, and the foreseeable future into custody
and charge all with a criminal offense not later than

seven days after the commencement of such strap
from physical officers, offenses to the hide, such striking
dismantling electronic surveillance, wild highway!

The broken may be released on a table of contents,
except in the circuit where hands are provided,
mandatory madness, or the enactment of documents

along the northern border, where huddled personnel
trap adequate undercurrent, make criminal history,
and waive such intelligence as necessary for the purpose

of transcending platforms with certain maritime girls
during dangerous velvet, beyond wrecking trains,
beyond staff plastic and the sudden injury to buildings

provided for the placement, the procedures for taking
the liberty of fingerprints, chrome updates of extracts,
a lookout for persons seeking to confirm a cost-effective kiss

fully integrated to soul points and a privacy database.
Wendy, carry out provisions to limit the authority
upon terms consistent with the feasibility of enhancing

clandestine telephone matter, the length of service,
and small activities protected by the united light of mirrors.
Headquarters are in the field the first night it appears

in such mist as issued under the jurisdiction of harbors.
Acts dangerous to human life occur primarily within.
Any person who conceals in good faith has legs to believe

in domestic possession, a likely subject, the written scream
that produces new agency, a consistent sweat paragraph.
Center the lonely secretary in accordance with such guidelines

as defined by the dream engines, or by striking the engines
and inserting machines, a firearm, the town weapon,
or other device found on wanted tramps of prominence

who pose known threat to the amended bones of heroes
and higher education. This development is amended
each place it appears. Each place it is amended, it appears

again, appointing frauds of rearview, affecting deputy
and primary duties, committing unauthorized camera sadness,
counterintelligence, false access to disclosure mansions,

sprung local liquid, acts of text assault, and distinct verbal gas.
Wendy, stand in the wake of events, stand resolutely
vibrant in the worship of the possible, the fullest human hands.

New obstacles shall be established by the chairman of failure.
Authorized language drones shall implement and expand
written combat, chance procedures, and the day period, while the night

force shall determine public and personal want and want-
removal with a program of general sense regulations, preventing
any means of notice, including but not limited to the light

released from seaports, suicide, and the individual dream.

From The Cloud Corporation (Wave Books, 2010). Reproduced with permission of the author.

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