The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2020

All Issues
JUNE 2020 Issue


Cape Verde

Sometimes I think
horses are immortal,
and that I live
in a barn on
Mt. Olympus,
that my body is
pure mind, and minds
are dreams whirling
within a derelict
infinity: Last night,
for example,
I had sex with
a powerful partner.
I, too, was neither
man nor woman.
Under the billowy
satin we both
explored our
mutual dearth
of genitalia.
I awoke as
happy as after
a great ravishment

Without Rent or Seam

A heap of cinderblock at
sunset, the derelict mall is
now other than what thought
can bring about. Soon, this
dusty basement will be
the primordial canopy
where the last birds alight
Soon, universal forces
will concentrate in Jane,
seen, by chance, on local TV,
an inadvertent extra, on
the street, as beautiful
now as, years back, at
her wedding, when the
water rose over the pier,
then dropped so low that
by evening the river
had disappeared

Without Rent or Seam

Would this were Mercury,
deathly heat on one side,
freezing dark on the other,
a planet more honest
than earth, where
the mist before dawn
merely hides a herd of deer
by a former tuberculosis hospital
now a boarding school
atop an outcropping where
they once hung people
On Sundays, my dad,
with a vanload of state
hospital mental patients,
drove here from the city
I romped the wilds
with them, adored the
black and white dairy
cows in a green dell
I will remember that
happiness forever,
even in my grave of
canal water, black, shining
much as since the days of
the paddy camps,
when glory shone from
the faces of our ditch-
digging ancestors

Without Rent or Seam

Little of your day to day
is enviable, yet you prefer
not to die only seeing the
hell of it all, only glorying
in the many mirrors of
your own mayhem. This
might be a reason to dream of
a deer carcass with chips
of white granite for eyes,
that seems about speak
with a warmth often
denied the un-addicted
But then, an envelope
full of the ashes of other
envelopes is in your hand.
You put it down, just a second,
and now it has mingled
with shadows and
can’t be found

Without Rent or Seam

Noon feels like night

The fragrance of tobacco bales
intoxicate a non-smoker

Each soul gets a chance to
not accept Creation

A lake breaks across a dock

Dizzied by beauty I cut my hand

A nerve disturbance

causes those who live
in the blue hills

to see them as red

The last of the green yellowing
in the crease of the last leaf

A marsh aflame
at sunset,

a black boat

At the bakery, a girl

on tiptoes,

on her bare thigh
a bruise, or a smear of

bicycle grease

As When Icecaps Fall Back

    (Such deliberations
    as come to hospice nurses
    when the dying object: no more
    consults! No more
    options! Don’t show me
    one more test result.
    Show me only
    a pyramid of
    martini glasses,
    and, beside it, a list of the
    world’s greatest gins)



A world’s edge seen
through heat, through wavering,
bursts of purity rising
back towards the sun, from
this place, mountains
rising around, chalky stripes
sloping upward where the two,
(he having just exclaimed
“I don’t know you at
all, so what can this
intensity mean?”)
were about to fall in love,
heedlessly, and forever, her face
the outward form, in all
its beauty, of some
resolved tragedy,
turning towards him, away
from the untrammeled stone
and glittering pools, the earth
having taken millennia of
poisons within itself,
and nullified their effect,
the earth being too
magnificent to abide
defilement. As if looking
at the earth, there, had ended
some pain for her, and now she
was ready to kiss him, a kiss
that, in that place, seemed
the opposite of other kisses,
those where pleasure pours in
from the mouth, wells up behind
the eyes, dissolves all thought,
cascades down the throat,
bringing the body from
death to life. With this kiss,
long, intense, subtle in its pulse
and pace, the ecstasy is
radiating outward from
bones into flesh and skin,
drawn, at last, to the mouth,
a kiss so long those with them
on this journey into the desert
gasped, recognizing this
kiss as unlike any ever
given before, a kiss
about to begin some vast
transformation, of the
place and of those in it,
as if the kiss was not the
result of this mysterious
journey, but the cause,
so that all could feel a joy
none had any idea existed, rise
into them, as if from the earth itself.


When mortals ascend, St Anselm said,
they join with those aspects of
the Godhead that are on the far
side of the perceptible, that
can barely be grasped by
the mind at all, so deeply
embedded in Paradise as
these souls now are. The
sensation is not of rising, but of
falling, as when icecaps fall back
into the sea, or so we are free
to infer, now that kayaking is,
again, possible in rivers so low
they seem shut down for repair.
Expiation had long been of
no interest to you, yet it seems,
amid intense snowfalls, that
entering higher forms of
thought will only arise
after a heart-felt expostulation
upon the seven sacred wounds.


Lord, may even just one some-such wound
quietly ruin me.

May I, finally, crawl up

onto the cross,

hug the suffering Christ,

and cry out to my

failing Lord:

“Through me, feel

what ray of light striking

your skin has travelled the farthest . . .”

Absynthe Cake

Birds sleep during the day
My mind is almost as
small as theirs so when
I say I have a lot on my
mind it’s more like
a kind of singing,
a vanishing point
not on the canvas
but within the viewer,
like a glacier that washes
over a mountain, shimmer of
pine needles rolling
over chunks of ice
that slide down
becoming a stream
where, in the distance,
an icon is held up to a blaze
that flashes the village to ash
Finally, in despair, a priest
flings the icon into
the intensifying fire
with a rebuke: “Well if
you won’t help us, see if you
can help yourself!” So
I woke to find my room
full of chains, and
the tennis court flooded
Everyone lies, but the lie shines
with its own glorious truth,
a pillar of flame before
which Brahma
becomes a goose,
flies up, but cannot find
the crest of the roaring
Vishnu, a boar,
digs into the earth
for a 1000 years and
cannot find the
lower limit of
the conflagration
Then the flame opens
Siva, inside the niche
of incandescence
reveals himself as
the lord of all
and prophecies:
“This life is like
a present from the
madhouse gift shop,
a contortion of wire
piercing the heart of a candle,
the wick, inexplicably,
juts from its side
The mangle of
script on the card
seems to say:
‘Not to be burned
till the end of
the world,
till the morning
a bird is only
incidental to its song
the notes happening by
at the moment
a throat was needed’ ”
Then came a joyous yelping from
the kennel at the end of
the street as day rises
into the sky
over the Japanese
fountain on the
former slave
plantation where,
when a girl, all would
gather for morsels of absinthe cake
on my birthday, back
when my father made
an effort to translate
whatever was said
But now, back in Poland,
among his siblings,
he doesn’t do that
He doesn’t want to
be my father anymore
He just wants to be
in the world in
some older way
It made sense,
but it startled me,
that our roles in life
are only that, and
that they end


Joseph Donahue

Joseph Donahue’s most recent collections of poetry are Wind Maps I-VII (Talisman House) and The Disappearance of Fate (Spuyten Duyvil).


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2020

All Issues