This book’s title simultaneously draws one with its high diction and keeps one at bay and the first poem, “When in the Uterine Empyrean They Told Me” seemed to follow suit. Clearly, a poem that at once invokes Second Empire gowns, the King James Bible’s Song of Solomon and friends with benefits in less than a page is going to demand more of a reader than say, William Carlos Williams’s “This is Just to Say.”

These poems have something in them of Proust, not the page long sentences and superhuman paragraphs, but they contain a similar sprawl and hungry elegance. They are able to lyrically transport a reader from one strand of thought to the next or one image into the next and deposit he or she gracefully into an entirely new sphere. This refinement is carefully shielded from any kind of falsely sophisticated mordant commentary, (you will find no eye rolling here). The poems also edge back from the easy nihilism that seems to overtake much of contemporary poetry.

Donnelly’s fearsome intellect is placed in counterpoint to equally graceful and condensed Japanese Imperial poems. These seemingly disparate written gestures blend seamlessly. The author goes so far as to even fashion them together with his own work as one might build a necklace of dark stones across the perfectly raked sand of a Zen garden.  Donnelly says in the Notes & Acknowledgements, “I regard these versions of Japanese poems as ‘borrowings,’ because in a few cases…I’ve wandered further from the originals than…I would contemplate for a scholarly translation.”

These two worlds touch and intermix in other ways as well. The poem as “On the Lungs, the Liver, and the Blood,” carefully unfolds like a delicate paper screen with traditional Japanese scenes.  It is however, interspersed with modern life, “…in an open hut, with a woman / who checked her phone as one might gaze…” A reader manages to be surprised, but not taken out of the world that the poem so carefully creates and maintains. This gives the book what poet Chase Twichell calls, “…the spooky sensation that this was a book that had been unearthed from some ancient civilization uncannily akin to our own.” And it is in this distant, yet familiar world that readers confront desire and remembered desire from previous ages, in many cases Donnelly’s longing for his friends and lovers who were lost to AIDS.

The poem “Paradise on Black Ice” is a brilliant pyramiding of emotion. It toes the very precipice of sentimentality, but never spills over. All of its Aves and high church language (the quick and the dead) are balanced against the static popping of a gospel choir “half on and half off the station.” Donnelly knows how to use restraint to its fullest potential.

Nocturnes of the Brothel of Ruin is a book for the reader who won’t mind setting it down to let the poems wash over them, who is willing to bide their time and will give the language and imagery the space to billow out. These poems move in a great number of directions, but manage to hold together at a distance well. A reader will step back from this collection and behold a precise constellation that at once feels timeless and yet just built.

 


Nocturnes of the Brothel of Ruin
By Patrick Donnelly
Four Way Books
Paperback, 9781935536215, 98 pp.
April 2012



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  • Ron Fritsch

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