just one (chapbook) thing: thom donovan’s ‘make believe’

by Nathan Moore

make believe, by thom donovan

Make Believe, by Thom Donovan

“All poetry is about seeing and, more accurately, a discourse of the senses in which seeing is just one faculty.”





For this installment of Just One Thing, I have asked poet Thom Donovan a single question about his new e-chapbook, Make Believe.

Many moments in Make Believe are concerned with vision. These poems, among other things, explore vision in various modes, from the spectacle of cable news to the very formation of subjectivity. Do you think of your work as constructing what might be called a poetics of seeing?

Many of the poets I have grown up reading closely tend to be poets associated with “seeing.” George Oppen, Louis Zukofsky … an Objectivist continuum. Then again, any poetry worth its mettle tends to be preoccupied with vision, whether vision in its literal fact (optics, phenomenology, spectacle) or ‘inward’ states (memory, imagination, hallucination, eidetics).

Vision is also of course very much meditated by language. There is no “pure” seeing in poetry without the literal word — the fact that words are printed or heard, that they are likewise seen in the air as Hannah Weiner’s “clairvoyance” demonstrates. So I want to say that Make Believe puts forward a “poetics of seeing,” but first qualify that all poetry is about “seeing” and, more accurately, a discourse of the senses in which seeing is just one faculty.

Make Believe responds to images from various films, videos and other media noted on the last page of the book, including Guy Ben-Ner’s Berkeley Island, Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men (2006), videos by Harun Farocki, Terry Cuddy’s video essays about Harriet Tubman, as well as Victor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive (1972). “Berkeley Island” begins from some research I was doing about Ben-Ner’s work in relation to solipsistic philosophy and the political situation in the Middle-East — namely the conflict between Israel and Palestine. Ben-Ner is Israeli, so I was thinking about how much his work is concerned with his position as an Israeli citizen. That “Berkeley Island” stages Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe within the home of the artist — where the artist uses his children as actors — dramatizes a situation of interiority.

At a micro-level, the set of “Berkeley Island” as well as the video’s content represent the ego, nuclear family, patriarchy (the “law of the father”); at a macro level, we can read these same boundaries existing among states internationally. For Ben-Ner to take on Defoe’s work in the ways he does I cannot help but read through a micro and macro politics of what Lévinas calls “the face of the other” (that which makes a radical ethical demand upon subjects). Ben-Ner “acts out” the problem of his biographical interiority if only so that something will break through to the other side of the aesthetic glass where political and ethical decisions are made. Where I write “acting out,” I mean it in the psychological sense of a subject learning to manage their traumas, but also in the sense that one becomes abandoned. One plays to have control, and to learn how to give control up. That Ben-Ner plays with his children in most of his videos seems essential to the political and ethical dimensions of his project.

While I am saying all of this, I wonder how much any of what I’m saying is conveyed by the poem itself. The poem leads, as David Wolach points out, with its ear, but often the senses become cross-wired — confused and ruinous. I dedicated the poem to my friend Gregg Biglieri who is a master of the pun, and of what he calls “negative synaesthesia” after Zukofsky’s Bottom. Flights into nonsense — into language play — seem necessary for the brain and the senses to sync themselves. So in “Berkeley Island” “when dissolves to wind” and a lens “points and chutes” as though to conflate photography with branching. Nonsense, of which poetry obviously has a lot, is meta-political in that it refuses to reduce language use to a representation (whether for a vulgarly conceived common sense or for the sake of communication).

Revolutionary moments and moments of insurrection prove this time and time again. There is also a sense for me after Biglieri’s work that the ear (rather than the eye) is the direct line to others. The lines “One’s ears for others / look into their own” (paraphrased from one of Zukofky’s shorter poems) alludes to this ethical dimension of listening/hearing. By giving ourselves to the ear, by letting the ear guide us and the eyes take a back seat, we perhaps open to something more ethical than the logical, rational, purposeful eye will permit. This link between ethics and aurality is definitely one of the major ones made by French Phenomenology from Sartre through Merleau-Ponty and Levinas. But it is also an idea reiterated by poets throughout history, especially “visionary” ones. Blake, Dickinson, Oppen are all important reference points for my own poetics in this regard.

Throughout Make Believe, the “Imaginary” (in Lacan’s senses of this term) takes precedence. In “Berkeley Island,” we are at the “mirror stage” — the point where an ego begins to recognize itself through a projection of (its own) otherness. The home is the site of the imaginary, being “at home” where relations between different egos issue from. In “Surveillance Says” (the second poem), I was thinking of the problems of the other’s gaze as a gaze of surveillance and interpellation — all of these ways of identifying and registering the “self” which Foucault originally historicized and the artist Haroun Farocki (whose videos the poem are directly responding to) has made much of his art about. “Children of Men” (the third poem) is a preliminary meditation on Alain Badiou’s philosophy, and specifically the term “grace” as it is used in Badiou’s book on St. Paul, The Foundation of Universalism. Looking back on the film Children of Men, the film seems a bit cheesy, and yet I dwell on its messianic tropes as they relate to the structure of social revolutions. I have been preoccupied by forms of messianism for a long time, so this poem channels some of that thinking. Aren’t all revolutionary moments moments of return to the imaginary, as if to say “this isn’t working,” or to ask “what if there were another image (of what we are) instead of this one?”

In Lacanian psychoanalysis the procession from the Imaginary to the Real leads to nothing less than a psychotic break from which subjectivity must be reconstituted, made-up again. The radical subject formation articulated by Badiou’s notion of Truth — by which the subject is subtracted from (revolutionary) events — is an idea I continue to come back to as a way of thinking through subjectivity non-representationally — as a process rather than a telos of social reality.

In “Unsalvageable in Auburn,” I began to think more radically about the lyrical line, and especially forms of caesura (movement within the line itself). All the poems of this section of the book, for me, are trying to get to this line that is constantly moving (yet interruptive and polyvocal) through a concatenated syntax and certain affective forms of address. This problem has been with me for some time since the composition of those poems in spring 2007. “Unsalvageable in Auburn” also starts to think about the problem of salvageability as an extension of community, activism and love. What happens when what we share is what is ruined, thus not always there for the sharing — occulted, destroyed, lost or displaced? This is a question I started to ask myself in the spring of 2007 that has informed my poetics ever since.

The last poem of the book, “The Spirit of the Beehive,” is a meditation on Vince Erice’s film by the same name. In one of the opening scenes of the film we see an audience of children watching James Whale’s Frankenstein. Throughout the film, the protagonist — a girl of about 6 or 7 played by Isabel Telleria — continually hallucinates the Frankenstein monster. Eventually she meets with a Republican solider who has taken refuge in an abandoned stable near the girl’s house. She brings him food and comforts him. When the soldier disappears one day (he is presumably executed by the people of the girl’s town), the girl suffers a psychotic break. As in “Berkeley Island” and “Children of Men,” “The Spirit of the Beehive” envisions an allegory.

At the level of form it would like to draw out this allegory through a kind of ekphrasis by which certain aesthetic facts are not only described but elevated to propositions about the imaginary and the terrible turn the social imagination must take in order for a society to become fascist. The form of “The Spirit of the Beehive” is very similar to “Berkeley Island,” perhaps because the poems are dealing with inverse problems. How, on the one hand, does one rescue the ego from the solipsistic disregard of others? How, on the other, does the subsumption of the ego by what Lacan calls the “big other” (the other of fascist “fatherland” and democratic multitude alike) risk something equally painful and destructive?

View Make Believe at Wheelhouse Press.

Thom Donovan lives in New York City where he edits Wild Horses of Fire and co-edits ON Contemporary Practice. He is co-curating SEGUE series this December/January and is an active participant in the Nonsite Collective. His critical work and poetry have appeared widely and most recently in ECOPOETICS6/7, War and Peace vol. 4, PAJ, The Brooklyn Rail and with The Fanzine. He is currently working on a collection of critical texts titled Critical Objects 2005-2010, as well as a book on cross-cultural translation after disaster, and a manuscript of poetry titled The Hole. He teaches at Bard College, School of Visual Arts and Baruch College.

Nathan Moore is community director and columnist for Read Write Poem. In his spare time, he plays with his children and with fire. Never at the same time. He blogs at Exhaust Fumes and French Fries.

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3 comments to just one (chapbook) thing: thom donovan’s ‘make believe’

  • I enjoyed this – and it’s great that this item addresses an ebook, so we can all go read it directly. thanks.

  • What a generous response to just one question! This poet puts so much thought and learning into his poetry, and yet his poems are short and distilled. I love these notions from the essay:

    “The poem leads…with its ear”
    “link between ethics and aurality”
    “Flight into nonsense — into language play — seem necessary for the brain”
    “line that is constantly moving (yet interruptive and polyvocal)”

    I love these lines from his poetry:
    Scolded daughters write
    Their allegories
    In abandoned sand
    Photographs of the dead
    Outnumbering the dead
    The deer just beyond this line the sure
    Beams their eyes

  • This response is amazing. So much to dig into here.

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