Poetry Book Review: The Problem of the Many

My copy of the book, and my good boy sniffing around it.

To be human is to be afflicted with the “long sickness of existence.” At least, that’s the “chemical distress” apparent in Timothy Donnelly’s 2019 poetry collection, The Problem of the Many. And to be afflicted with the “long sickness of existence” is to not have a singular disease, but a communal one, and not a communal one merely of the present, but of epochs that came before you, of the animals and plants long since extinct, and to take for granted the gift of hours of toil, mastery, and artwork the worker bee used its lifetime to produce “one-twelfth a teaspoon of honey,” stirred away “thoughtlessly.”

And worse yet, to be existentially human in the face of an abundance that would astound our forbearers, making us feel guilty, quite frankly. At least, that’s how I took the final poem that follows the acknowledgements, “The Human,” where Donnelly states, “And when I close my eyes to brace against / the late imperial effects of it, I feel a forebear step forward / from a cave in thought, its arms extended as if to take part / bodily in the beauty of what we call sky, and through some new / distortion in the throat, indicates what the many, still situated / in the dark behind us, come one by one to tremble at the mouth to see.”

Of course, I find a deep abiding sense of beauty, rather than guilt, in the long arc from the cave to the “tremble at the mouth to see.” But I can understand folding that into a larger philosopher question of existential dread of what it means to be human, our infinitely constituted parts compared to the whole, as Donnelly explains it. Whether it is the infinitesimal at the level of the atom (he waxes philosophically about the cloud, how it “can’t behold the infinite inside itself; it will only see one cloud”), or the smallness felt by the vastness of the universe we inhabit, exemplified by Betelgeuse compared to Earth (Betelgeuse is 1,400 times larger than the sun), Donnelly tries to grapple through poetry the existential dread of the human.

That, for example, there is something deeply dark and dreadful in Donnelly’s telling about the emergence of vanilla, from a discovery made by a horticulturalist slave nobody in the modern world has heard of to its ubiquitous utilization in the poem, “Hymn to Edmond Albius.”

In other words, for Donnelly, there is something disquieting about knowing the darkness of our forbearers is behind us. He even blatantly suggests his fear of the dark in one of the poems, and now, I take that to mean something else entirely.

The engine of this existential dread, I think, is what scares Donnelly the most, and he quotes Emily Brontë to get at it, “Nature is an inexplicable problem. It exists on a principle of destruction.” Donnelly can’t quite abide by that destruction. It’s painful! Almost a sensory overload. And yet, we continue going on. Or the Earth continues spinning, as he says at one point.

I’m not adept enough at poetry to review this collection from the standpoint of its poetic form, but from the standpoint of its heavy dosage of philosophy (I particularly thought it fun to include reflections on Diogenes and a poem (“Malamute”) from the perspective of being a dog, since Diogenes is often associated with living a dog-like life) and conflicted introspection, I enjoyed the collection, and I know for certain, that something as dense as this poetry collection is (at nearly 200 pages, with lengthy poems, and poems steeped in philosophy), I would have to read it a second or third time to truly appreciate it.

“To be human is to be born blind to more than we can see, but almost made of it,” Donnelly says in, “The Problem of the Many,” the namesake of the book, and such is either the source of enormous, nearly unfathomable existential dread, as Donnelly beautifully paints in his collection, or for me, perhaps more a source of exquisite beauty, for I find beauty in the humility of not knowing.

And also, you know, that’s why I like poetry and poets. They help us see a little bit better.

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