Donnelly, Patrick. The Charge. Ausable Press, 2003. (104 pages)
The title of Patrick Donnelly’s The Charge
can mean many things: attack, task or obligation, the current
or life force that runs through us all, finding expression in the thrill between lovers. It is also, as the
speaker describes in “Consummatum Est,” the moment he believes he became infected with HIV: “Yes – certainly
I felt it – and broke / into a sweat, the exact moment / the charge leapt from him to me.” Once we understand
what’s at stake here, the layers of meaning become clear – the task of living and all its obligations, the attack
made by the disease itself, the thrill of a lover and all its consequences.
In this same poem, he compares the moment of the charge to that
of women who look back and know the moment they conceived, and to the faith theologians have in what cannot
be seen or proven.
With the certainty theologians claim
for the salvation worked by Christ –
effects not yet seen,
but the end not in doubt –
some women look back and know
the exact moment they conceived.
In this way he compellingly compares, and we are forced to contrast, the moment life begins to the moment
that threatens his life. But it is faith regardless, and as with the mothers and theologians, that faith matters
only to oneself.
As death plays a part in each poem, so too does God. Always within the
speaker’s consciousness, God is addressed by turns ironically, earnestly, and tenderly. It’s a God, he acknowledges,
who seems not to listen or care, but whose existence is never questioned. Prayers, psalms, and incantations tie the
book together. The speaker needs all of these as he confronts the ravages of ill friends, nursing them through sickness
and sometimes into death, seeing himself in all of them. Suffused with an emotional and spiritual longing, the poems
convey pain without seeming to expect anything to change.
In “Low Door” we see how the sense of prayer is felt in all his
movements. We see as well the way houses and homes are a running theme: the longing for a home, the body as a house:
I must become very modest,
flexible, small and sweet to enter here….
to bend in half
like a Muslim at prayer
to fit the brass, then the silver key…
to genuflect into the tiny vestibule,
to find by feel alone, in the dark,
by its sloping shoulders, the gold key
to another still smaller door…
to fall into full prostration of amazement
to have a house at all,
to have a body and be alive
to live in it.
The speaker is as amazed at his home as he is with his body, subject as they both are to ruin and neglect.
In some poems we see his displacement:
These are not my keys,
this is not my door.
I’m so tired I could sleep anyplace,
but this is not my bed.
This is not my street,
not my face,
not my dirt...
These are not my eyes,
not my leaves, not my light
Continuing this theme of life and death, of home and the nurturing of the sick, several poems are
about plants, both thriving and dying. In “Fountain of Blood” the speaker describes a mess the neighbor
has created outside and a plant that has been put into broken-up concrete and “barely-breathing dirt.” “How
will it live, in these ruins?” he asks. “How will I?” The making of a home and the life it contains become holy,
as in these lines from “Rune for Michael Sick and Far Away”:
the Scriptures and Christ’s crossed body, and every holy thing,
my kitchen with its pies and kettles, and my knowledge
of how to knot ties and drive cars with gears,
my garden and the strength of all its weeds and seeds,
their power to appear again
The poems are all written from the persona of a gay man infected with HIV. For this reason they feel
confessional, the most painful moments and memories recounted as if exactness were a necessity. The humanity
is in the specifics. He gives us not generic death, but a specific kind of pain and horror. Often in these
poems the speaker is at a bedside, nursing or standing by. “Angels Trumpet” is a particularly beautiful poem:
In order to tell him he would die
a few weeks shy of 28, I needed only
to place two vials of brown glass
on the bedside table, in front of the tissues and tulips.
“Which are they?” he asked.
“Angelica,” I said first, reading from the book,
protection of the angel realm.”
Then the other (almost casually),
“datura candida, Angel’s trumpet,” and did not read
“for when the soul must utterly surrender.”
It was not my place was it?
to put the cold embouchure to my lips
Though many of the poems in this collection deal with sickness, the pleasures of the body are also
the subject of many poems, as in “Prayer After the Baths”:
for causing no man to love me
for more than a few minutes at a time
with such art as big, tall Tom has used this night,
because when he took off his baseball cap
to rub his buzzcut along my belly,
murmuring under his breath a baritonal “Sweet,”
I was in danger of becoming one of those
who have their reward in this life…
We see here how even amidst the carnal he is aware of God, and how this awareness seems never to
leave him. Moreover, there is a tone of gentle mockery or chiding towards either himself or God, perhaps
both. It is because of this light touch that the poems about faith and God are never overwrought.
Throughout the collection, the speaker works to come
to terms with death, the death of people he knows – friends, lovers – and his own, which in many of the
poems seems an imminent possibility. Men dead and dying of AIDS haunt the speaker. Hence, the charge to
go on living, past others who have died and in the face of one’s own death.
The poem “Riddle” powerfully tackles the terror
and duplicity of AIDS:
What travels with love,
but is hated?
What never eats,
What makes your cells its brothel
your life its toilet?
What? What? What?
In this poem, as with others, we are taken, almost unwillingly, to the most painful places.
Strangely though, it is never too much, and Donnelly’s deft hand brings beauty to the unlikeliest subjects,
as in “Prayer Over Dust”:
when it’s over, let my body
be useful, let little bears
nose through my guts
for grubs, let Destroying Angel
lift its wild orchid umbrella
where my heart used to be.
In writing about AIDS, Donnelly joins the likes of Mark Doty, Marie Howe and others whose poems relate
their experience of losing someone to this disease. Here, though, we are taken that much closer, into the confidence
of a narrator contending with sickness himself, teaching himself in these poems how to live with death on his shoulder.
An ambitious book, the poems work towards transcendence even
as they encounter despair. There is no graver subject, and yet never are the poems oppressive. Patrick Donnelly’s
humor and humanity lift these poems up and shine a light in the darkest corners.
received her MFA in poetry from the University of North Carolina, Greensboro,
and she works as an editor at Edward Elgar Publishing. Tara's poems have appeared in Seattle Review,
and Greensboro Review.