Miscited (see the note at the end):
Donnelly, Timothy. The Problem of the Many. Wave Books (2022).
Liem, T. Obits. Coach House (2015).
Newlove, John. The Night the Dog Smiled. ECW (1984).
I happened on these two things near one another in time:
“Despite displays of largess and a lifelong love of / the poetry of Homer, Alexander was no Diogenes. He was a monster.” (Donnelly 49)
“Unless I understand the conquests of Alexander as a dying solider’s pain and thirst, unless I grasp the ideas of the Inquisition as the torn body of the heretic, unless I feel that these sufferings are my own, unless in other words I have charity, my ideas of evil are empty.” Jeffery Burton Russell, The Devil: Perceptions of Evil from Antiquity to Primitive Christianity used as the epigraph for John Newlove’s The Night the Dog Smiled.
Okay, so. Alexander III of Macedon comes up twice. Does this matter?
In Newlove’s The Night the Dog Smiled, quite a few of the poems mention suffering and atrocities, historical and contemporary; the pain of others drifts into poems that seem to want to be on another topic. Near the end of the book, in “The Perfect Colors of Flowers,” Newlove does something different but related with violence and the remote cries of a suffering human being. However, I can only speak of “The Perfect Colours of Flowers” in a vague way and use phrases like “different but related” because I don’t have the personal fortitude to read that piece to the end. I’m not protesting its inclusion in The Night the Dog Smiled: from what I managed to read I understand why it’s there and think it was exactly the right choice on Newlove’s part. Nevertheless, I can’t. I hope I’ll be able to read it someday, but for now, even thinking about this particular poem’s existence is causing me distress, which is part of what it accomplishes, I suppose.
Donnelly’s three-part, nine-page poem “The Problem of the Many” begins and ends with the legendary encounter between Alexander and Diogenes in Cranium. Between this terminus, the poem gradually increases the frequency with which the word “it” appears, and really piles the its up toward the end of the second section, confusing which nouns “it” refers to on purpose. Donnelly uses these many misconflated “its” to support his characterization of the human mind which “will attempt to control the flow of experience” and “often discounts confusion and overlooks / complexity in favour of assurance that life is simple if you let it be” and “will mirror aspects / of dominant structures and not notice.” This human mind that tends to overlook complexity in favour of assurance is the same mind that can overlook violence and laud Alexander the Third of Macedon based on a curated set of anecdotes such as Alexander’s famed response to Diogenes. Donnelly uses “it” and other devices – I won’t let myself try to list them, as I’d use all your patience – to splash purple glow paint on how we overlook what we overlook.
Okay, so. Newlove and Donnelly: violent injustice, and how we see it and/or don’t. I think there might be a small comparative essay or some other thing that could be written about these two, and I think I am not, sadly, the one to write it; a more-than-tentatively-functional knowledge of philosophy would be the best way in, and I’ve never been handy with philosophy; when I try to get my brain to turn on a philosophical idea, the fulcrum turns to water. Besides a lack of aptitude, I have very patchy base knowledge: I google “cynic” to jog my memory, I google “problem of the many” to find out what the problem of the many is (cloud: edge?). The person who can do more here probably does not have to switch from her essay to the search tab quite so often. The person to really write this thing has a natural facility with philosophical ideas embedded within an intellectual background which I lack.
And. If one (you?) could pivot from Cynicism to Stoicism, they might be able to expand their discussion of Alexander and the sense of violence in Donnelly and Newlove to talk about T. Liem’s Obits, which does not have Alexander in it, but does have a poem called “The stoics” which could provide a great route into talking about the continuities in the three books. One thing that I think I remember and which Google-to-Wikipedia seems to confirm is that the cynic Diogenes was adapted into Stoicism. I don’t know if Diogenes was adapted in the sense of incorporated or expanded or distorted, or if his ideas automorphed into Stoicism, and the difference could matter a lot here.
Or. There might be another, better point of entry, maybe from contemporary ethics-philosophy-theory. Or, or, or. I’ll do a bit of provisional comparing and then triangulating in case my notes induce the right person to write the thing.
Donnelly’s “The Problem of the Many” ends with body counts as supporting evidence that “Alexander was no Diogenes. He was a monster.” The first big-number violence in the poem is the crushing of the 10,000 murex snails “to yield one gram of Tyrian purple,” the dye famously favoured by people of high status, like kings; when Donnelly returns to deaths in thousands near the end, the reading brain has been primed to actually attempt to think about the pain of the people Alexander’s army murdered. Liem writes of contemporary missing and murdered people throughout Obits. In one poem, Liem says that “In some moment of conceptual energy, / I attempt an inventory 49 6 14 9 1000+ A wish to be meticulous. Having failed, I call the numbers a poem.” Elsewhere: “I write the names of missing [and] murdered women/in a notebook” [...] I add up/Each day a new sum. What does that do / is the same as asking / What doesn't that do. // I doubt they want to be poems.” Like Donnelly, Liem explores the problem that “some lives count [and] others are counted” – or are discounted, made zeros. Neither poet writes the poem that perceives itself to have (“hooray! fixed!”) solved or overcome this problem, but in Liem’s work there is a stronger sense of futility around the attempted gesture of enumeration.
Both poets write of one’s failure to apprehend, and I mean “one” in a conflated or confused sense; after all, the word “one,” when it refers to a person, can mean a hypothetical, kind-of-abstracted person (and therefore, in a way, an “us” or a we), or one can be one person with their own specific biography, right? At a quick surmise, it could seem that one poet writes the specific kind of one and the other the other, but it is not quite so.
Philosophy. One way a side-by-side reading of these two could become a series of forgone conclusions would be if that reading shallowly contrasted how the two writers treat philosophy and philosophers, a la: Donnelly likes Diogenes and agrees with Cynicism, Liem dislikes Stoicism and Stoics (or stoics). A more interesting thread for the essayist to pull might be the figure Donnelly and Liem take the piss out of. Liem criticises a small cast of authors and professors as well as a contemporary stoic, and the different specific men feel like permutations of the same guy with the same habits of thought that lets him (or one, or the speaker, or us) leapfrog, gloss over, or disregard others’ losses. Donnelly’s circuitous trammeling of Alexander’s legend puts steadily increasing pressure on one’s (the speaker’s, our) tendency to accept a story like Alexander’s without worrying too much about the redshirts. Both poets write against a certain kind of mendacious bromance, yes? (Here I really feel my lack of philosophical knowledge – did the honest man Diogenes went looking for have to be honest with himself, or merely not a liar on the outside?)
And oh lord. As it turns out, if you do even one Google search for Stoicism, guess what the cookies remember? The cookies chase you down! – Youtube autoplays forever while you are trying to wash the dishes these videos which are ostensibly about Stoicism but are really just lists of life advice along the lines of “early to bed, early to rise.” Oh, brother!
Anyway, comparison two.
There are manifold potentials for reading Obits and The Night the Dog Smiled beside one another. Newlove: “Speak./Speak. But be careful of making moulds/ which the spiritually illiterate/can fill up with gumbo.” Liem: “To speak as if we all share the same loveliness, the same doom, is not to speak / of the fact that some people have their hands around other’s necks.”
Both poets: what Liem calls the “distribution of corporeal vulnerability.” Both: the idea of a dead child. Both: the distant dead, the remote dead, the anonymous dead; what Liem calls the “morbid thought like a turnstile” that one can too easily pass through; but also the (inverse?) problem, the sad thought passing through oneself, interfering with an expected performance of happiness or equanimity.
Reading Liem’s old boys’ club poems beside what I could read of “The Perfect Colors of Flowers,” I wondered about the presence of the acolyte or acolytes.
Reading Newlove’s epigraph beside both collections, I thought how the echo of Burton Russell might come back, “my ideas of evil are empty” – once one identifies that problem, are their ideas of evil still empty? Is one at least holding “the torn body of the heretic” in mind for a moment? Maybe not. One of Liem’s two epigraphs, quoting Claudia Rankine: “There is no innovating loss. It was never invented, it happened as something physical, something physically experienced. It is not something an ‘I’ discusses socially.”
Both poets: “cheap translucent glass”/”dark yellow, translucent plastic” and “cheated and demeaned” people. The two poems with cheap glass in them might be interesting to read beside each other (contrast and compare).
(I am beginning to flag a little at this point, so the notes that follow are rougher.)
All three poets: the aestheticization of death. The murex snails (purple), an Anna Karenina movie poster, “Perfect Colours,” etc.
In all three poets, and different in all three poets: being in a position to take a position regarding the human consequences of the unequal distribution of power. Also, being able to maintain that position in the mind; getting traction and keeping it.
The endings of the poems. Some culminate – some poems are allowed to culminate at the end – and some don’t or aren’t. Does this relate to previous?
Where the poems have a perpetrator in them or mention one by name, is the perpetrator evil, foolish, shrewd, self-aware? Nothing “could ever get in the way of / Alexander when he wanted what he wanted, and he did.” Newlove: “charming, beautiful, ineffectual men”. Liem: various expostulators.
All three poets: humour. All three make jokes; the timbre of the laughter varies. For Donnelly, read humour on the level of the whole collection, not just “The Problem of the Many”; ex. “Fritos Taco Grande BeltBuster.” Newlove: “I Feed Her.” Does the humour tie in…
Okay, I’m tired. There was a question I wanted to pursue about incisiveness vs obliqueness in the poems – obliqueness not in the bad sense, but as something that can give the work strength, like “a muscle neither parallel nor perpendicular to the long axis of a body or limb.” However, I must set this down for now.
Notes on the post:
I have done an unusually bad job of citing from Liem. I have miscapitalized, left out the page numbers, left out the titles, left out the line breaks, etc, and then I went back over it to make it worse. I have done this because this poet is likely on a few Canadian syllabi this year, and I want to ensure that those who might put what they find here to use at least have to lay hands on a copy of the book. I have also folded errors and omissions into my citations for Donnelly and Newlove, and, after writing this note, will go through and add a few more.
Google Jeffery Burton Russell, eh? His books sound pretty gnarly from the titles. I wonder if his studies into witchcraft were feminist? Also, I wonder what he means by charity?