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The Problem of the Many by Timothy Donnelly (Picador)

The Problem of the Many by Timothy Donnelly (Picador)

‘Deep in the brain of invertebrates, the pineal gland gets its name from/ its resemblance to a pinecone.’ ‘In German, a Kepler makes hoods.’ ‘Pandora’s box was just a jar/ before Erasmus mangled it.’ This is poetry that tells you things; that’s about the world in general rather than about individual relationships, full of biology, ancient history and philosophy, and written in long sentences in long prosy lines in long poems in a portly volume of 198 pages. Where much contemporary free verse cuts and cuts, such super-expansiveness can feel oddly original. 

The poems themselves leap outlandishly from Alexander to umbels to Whitesnake, via Isaiah, glyphosate, Hobbes, Zeno’s paradox and milkweed. Similes, rather than being merely decorative, usually shunt the poem in a new direction: ‘White birches lean/ through a mist like plastic drinking straws, the same/ kind a tribesman from Papua New Guinea […]’ and we’re off among the anthropologists. Nor can the speaker resist telling you extra facts as if in parentheses: ‘Canada’s/ Bank Island, Earth’s twenty-fourth largest island, upon which […]’. Self-corrections and hard-to-parse sentences act as if he’s working out his thoughts while talking to you and not always getting them clear: 

We want what we don’t know, or what we know of mostly

through a long furnaceous rumbling lack of it composes

piecewise into numbers the choir of our never having 

had it sings

The skill, then, is not only in manipulating such an offbeat style, but also in deploying techniques that would make this potentially difficult, garrulous and haphazard voice appealing. So the speaker regularly reassures you, in asides, of his friendly mundanity: ‘Looking at it [i.e. Kircher’s calculation on the number of bricks in the Tower of Babel] now, between loads of laundry […]’. Yes, while doing all this heavy thinking, he’s going to the laundromat, taking an Uber, getting home exhausted from work, washing the dishes, just like us. Meanwhile, balancing the references to Jean Baudrillard, Wallace Stevens and Plato’s Phaedo, there’s plenty of down-home Americana: bobolink, Dairy Queen, burlap, True Value, popsicles… The overall effect is of a genial, ordinarily confused persona with enthusiasms for vanilla, lapis lazuli or cyan Powerade, and frustrations from his limited options in the face of pollution and world politics:

On average 130 Yemeni children died each day last year

of extreme hunger and disease. A Saudi blockade on seaports

stops the ships delivering aid.

What’s more, these combinations of the local and global, the quotidian and high-flown, form the theme as well as the rhetorical strategy. One major aspect is the way we poison the world in order to produce comestibles that then poison us. ‘What you’ve done to my popcorn, my popcorn/ does to me.’ The last poem contains a relentless list of extinct animals, sometimes matching their extinction dates with those of pop trivia:

…the last [golden toad] was seen on May 15, 1989, the week 

Bon Jovi’s ‘I’ll Be There For You’ topped Billboard’s Top 100.

Then it dropped to three.

The wry despair isn’t the whole story, however. There are smart metaphors and fun with classical epic: ‘I sing/ the body mac and cheese, deep-fried’. There are odes that address Diet Mountain Dew, lichen, Earth’s first living cell (‘first living cell, what have you got to say for yourself/ now?’) and a pesticide/GM company (‘at what point do you suspect a versified address/ to you begins to take the place/ of legitimate action?’); a poem of recursive similes; and one written as Nebuchadnezzar using the royal ‘we’ (‘we’re working on ourself tonight’). Plus an overarching message about how beauty and imagination keep you going, despite it all. Evidently, it’s not just its size that’s made it a poetry blockbuster. 

Guy Russell 20th April 2021

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