Poets of Franklin County: Patrick Donnelly

Last modified: 11/9/2015 4:03:06 PM


Patrick Donnelly speaks quietly and with care as we talk of what it is like to be handed a bag that contains your mother’s ashes.

“It’s literally an awesome experience, in the oldest meaning of that word, that you are holding this bag of sand and gravel that was a person,” Donnelly says. “It’s incomprehensible that all the complications that made up that person have been reduced to this.”

Donnelly, of South Deerfield, and Northampton’s seventh poet laureate, writes of the experience in his poem, “Cradle-Song,” which appears in his book, “Nocturnes of the Brothel of Ruin,” published in 2012 by Four Way Books.

Donnelly writes, “They gave her into my hands, /seven pounds, two ounces,/ as once they had given/ me into her hands.”

And as surprising as it is to witness the mother’s death transformed into a birth, an even more astonishing conversion occurs in “The Mother’s Ashes Reply,” a companion poem. In this second poem, the mother’s ashes tell of being released to be “no body” as they are scattered over the ocean by “that man.”

Donnelly says that the response poem is “a strategy that I stole from the Japanese imperial anthologies.”

He smiles, acknowledging his debt to a tradition of poetry that “goes back right to the beginning of Japanese pre-history” and flourished during the medieval period in Japan. Donnelly describes a very social and communal culture of poetry in which officials in the imperial court would write poems in a highly condensed, 31-syllable form called waka, and send them by messenger to one another.

“Imagine that the highest levels of American government are writing poems back and forth to each other all day and deep into the night,” Donnelly says. “That was going on for a thousand years.”

Finding paired poems that represented a thousand-year-old correspondence between two poets excited Donnelly.

“Because they’re very sly. Sometimes the sender’s poem will ask a question and the reply poem doesn’t answer it. Or it may answer it very obliquely. Or it may ask another question. So, the idea that you can get more voices in the book other than the primary speaker, by having these reply poems, excited me a lot.”

Donnelly, lecturer at Smith College and director of the Poetry Seminar at The Frost Place in Franconia, N.H., has translated Japanese poems from the medieval period with his husband, Stephen D. Miller, associate professor of Japanese language and literature at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. Their book, “The Wind from Vulture Peak: The Buddhification of Japanese Waka in the Heian Period,” was published in 2013 by the Cornell East Asia Series, and in 2015, Donnelly and Miller received the Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission Prize for the Translation of Japanese Literature.

Donnelly plans to read some of the translations, as well as poems from “Nocturnes,” at his inaugural reading as poet laureate on Sunday, November 1 at 4 p.m. in the Neilson Browsing Room, Neilson Library, Smith College.

He will also be presenting the first performance of his Choral Poem Project. Twenty people from the Northampton area will collaborate to perform Albert Goldbarth’s poem, “Library.”

Goldbarth’s poem is a list poem, Donnelly says, each line beginning with the phrase, “This book— ”

The Choral Poem Project calls upon Donnelly’s previous experience in theater and music, as he arranges the poem so that some lines are spoken by a diverse array of solo speakers, others by the group as a whole, and still others by groups of only men or only women.

“It gives an amazing effect for the audience to hear a group of people speak a poem this way,” Donnelly said.

Donnelly hopes to do “another iteration” of the project with young people, as he did while a poet-in-residence at Gardner Pilot Academy in Allston, Mass., where fifth graders did choral readings of Christopher Smart’s poem, “For I Will Consider My Cat Jeoffry,” and an excerpt from Walt Whitman.

“That was great,” Donnelly says, smiling.

Another of Donnelly’s projects as poet laureate, planned for the spring of 2016, is a benefit reading, “Poets for Life: Poets Respond to HIV,” to honor the body of literature that has been written about AIDS. Poets will read their own work as well as the work of poets too geographically removed to attend or who have passed on. The reading will benefit A Positive Place, an organization formerly called AIDS CARE/Hampshire County, which provides a wide array of services for people with HIV and AIDS.

“I’ve written a lot about the AIDS crisis in New York in the ’80s, which I lived through, barely,” Donnelly says.

He finds that giving form to loss or ache is less painful than leaving it be.

One of the reasons he may feel drawn to the waka of the Japanese Imperial period is that many of these poems, too, address grief.

“There were so many elegies and laments,” Donnelly says. “The Japanese are a people that have thought about impermanence for a millennium and a half, you know. It’s embedded in their world view. And I just thought, these people are worried about the same things I’m worried about.”

“They are beautiful,” Donnelly says of the waka. “And I hear real people speaking in them, which to me is everything.”


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