Form and voice unite the lyrical menagerie of Chariot, Timothy Donnelly’s fourth collection of poetry. Each page offers newness, creating a self-contained experience, a capsule of insight or subversion; a poem in Chariot might reflect on the lived world versus portrayal on social media, or build from the scent of marigolds, a concept from philosophy, a French poet, or another fixation. Whatever inspiration, Donnelly offers an impressive knack for extending and complicating a concept. This style creates a varied reading experience that is challenging to convey in prose, which inevitably fails to capture the associative digressions and the swerves Donnelly takes, without quoting the poems in full. Chariot’s associative leaps often occur in contrast to what is literally being described, arriving through rhythmic or syntactical patterns. These poems are firmly lyric, eschewing narrative. With each poem undertaking a formal constraint of twenty lines across five stanzas, I found myself delighted to linger and trace Donnelly’s twisting syntaxes.
For example, one of the early poems in the collection, “Night of the Marigolds” begins with a winding sentence that stretches across its first stanza and into the second:
Look at how the marigolds in the darkness catch the lamplight
from inside the apartment and bounce it back to us, warning
that we come to be known by the way we respond to
what we suffer, which is to say by that we have suffered
and not by what we are.
Here, the image of the marigolds becomes a lens to show how perspective shapes perception. We are instructed to look to the marigolds, which become a reflection of ourselves and our suffering, an opportunity to obtain self-definition. Yet the poem suggests this knowledge is ever-changing and relative to how we respond. Here, the suffering seems rooted in understanding there is a distance between us and the world we witness, and as the flowers are bound to their planter, we are bound to the apartment.
The poem moves in a circular motion by returning to the marigolds, even as the structure also offers unexpected digressions, such as an allusion to Delacroix’s painting, Horse Frightened by a Thunderstorm. “Night of the Marigolds” negotiates centripetal and centrifugal force, pulling its reader outward from the marigolds and drawing them back inward in turns with the lyrical self in the center. The speaker concludes:
Now we are riding into the night. Marigolds towering over us
drop their scent in waves. Our breathing slows—the horse and I
are in complete communication. The matter of what we mean
embeds us like a warm Egyptian loam. There’s no disputing it.
The final sentence undermines the complexity of the poem while lending to open interpretation as to the conclusion of the dispute. I enjoy how this line introduces another seemingly disparate element—the “Egyptian loam”—just at the end, pulling us outward and inward for a final time. Perhaps the loam refers to a soil amendment to the marigolds which require significant drainage to bloom (I have recently learned this marigold fact this year in an attempt to grow them). At the same time, the diction also conjures Egyptian sand, Egyptian pyramids, and a sense of grandiosity that the marigolds and the speaker in this poem aspire toward, while yearning for the warmth of the marigold roots and certainty.
A unique quality of this collection is that these poems feel centered on urban and constructed environments. Just as the marigolds hover outside the apartment, nature is often encountered at arm’s length and with intellectual remove. In another poem, “The Cows,” the speaker approaches the landscape with self-consciousness, asserting, “A green this self-evident doesn’t need to be addressed bluntly / to provoke response.” The construction belies a skepticism that the green can be captured or described or that it even ought to be. As the cows emerge within the poem, the speaker reflects, “Afterwards, it can be a challenge to picture cows / among objects as ponderous as cows themselves, bodily // speaking, with typical examples being Volkswagens, / Christmas trees, and the leather couches of suburbia.” Thus, the figurative language of the cows, which are being corralled by humans, describes them through other man-made objects.
The twenty-line form Donnelly chooses goes beyond the sonnet’s fourteen; twenty lines feels long enough to offer a reader a foothold, but it also creates small enough of a room to require compression, inviting opportunities for several voltas. Meanwhile, quatrains offer stability and intriguing juxtaposition to the flighty subjects and rhetorical moves that characterize Chariot. Energy prepares to burst forward, and the containment and interiority of these poems work on numerous levels. In one of the two titular poems, “Chariot (II),” Donnelly begins:
Mark Antony broke
lions to the yoke, and was the first Roman to harness them
to a chariot. He did this to demonstrate how even the most valorous
hearts can be bent
If I envision poetry as a vehicle for expression, I am also able to imagine the chariot as a parallel vehicle for movement. The speaker of the poem continues, “As I write, I don’t want to be dead / any more than I want to see the breathing flower of our language suffer / into service.” This vision from the classical past into the present and future exemplifies some of the many strengths of the collection. Chariot rewards the slowing of perception, an appreciation for the subtle ways language can be moved to service alongside a humble distrust of doing so. Donnelly’s poems encapsulate many of the contemporary paradoxes of living and of reflecting life in poetry while of negotiating the world through various lenses. Some parts challenging, some parts self-serious, and some absurd, Chariot is a vibrant collection of poems.
About the Reviewer
Mike Good lives in Pittsburgh. Some of his recent poetry and book reviews can be found in Bennington Review, Five Points, The Greensboro Review, The Missouri Review, Ploughshares, Prolit, Puerto del Sol, Salamander, Terrain.org, Waxwing, Zyzzyva, and elsewhere. He has received scholarships from The Sun and the Sewanee Writers' Conference, and he is at work on his first book. Find more at mikegoodwrites.wordpress.com