August 10, 2020

The Senses and the Sea: A Review of Timothy Donnelly’s The Problem of the Many

Donnelly at the 2019 Kingsley & Kate Tufts Poetry Awards

The 2012 winner of the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award and this year’s head judge of the Awards, Timothy Donnelly, released a new book titled The Problem of the Many (Wave Press). This collection of poems engages with global destruction and aptly filters atrocity through the anxious American psyche of one living through the Trump administration. In this way, Donnelly’s newest work takes on a surrealistic and almost psychedelic tone at times. This is particularly evident as he depicts his relationship with the sea in “The Stars Down to Earth” and “All Through the War.”

“The Stars Down to Earth” begins by juxtaposing nature and music. Donnelly writes, “The sea is pewter gray with green in it like music, / The green is lit in places where the waves begin to rise.” With this, the reader’s senses are immediately blurred as one looks to the sea as sight and sound. As the poem continues, the traversal across the senses only intensifies. By the end, one feels as if they are being sucked into a dream. As Donnelly writes, “The sea is indistinguishable / from the sky now” the reader is transported from their place into a new time-space that blends the stars and the sea as well as time and being. This kind of feeling is further explored and transposed upon an overtly political backdrop in “All Through the War.”

Cover of The Problem of the Many (Wave Books, 2019).

In this poem, Donnelly returns to the metaphor of the sea and how this type of vast openness yields itself to the ponderance of time. In writing about a piece of lapis lazuli purchased from Afghanistan, Donnelly writes, “as for a time, I didn’t / always feel right with it, especially when alone especially / by the sea, where time widens to include more of itself, / partly because of the motion and partly because of the sound, / which is also motion.” Once again, the poet shows how the senses amalgamate to create sensational emotion. To further emphasize the intensity of our current moment, “All Through the War” discusses the Trump presidency, the American occupation of the Middle East, the Saudi intervention in Yemen, as well as the horrific famine that has plagued the region. The extensive poem brings the world—and the world at war—into one, personalized setting within the poet’s own daily experience. Donnelly, as he discusses the viciousness of the situation in Yemen, also shows how Trump and the uncertainty of American existence play a roll in the perpetuation of destruction. Donnelly is brilliant in his ability to juxtapose the global with the specifically American in a way that explains the devastation of both. In this way, The Problem of the Many explains just that as he takes on problems both massive and minute. As a worthy follow-up to the award-winning The Cloud Corporation, this book is a great work that addresses these precarious times with unexpected humor, temerity, and sensuous exhibition.

—Jordan Wheatley

P.S.: Foothill Poetry also interviewed Donnelly in our 2016 issue. You can read it here.