Book review: Nocturnes of the Brothel of Ruin by Patrick Donnelly

Patrick Donnelly
Nocturnes of the Brothel of Ruin
Tribeca: Four Way Books, 2012

Nine years after the publication of The Charge (Ausable Press), Massachusetts-based poet and teacher Patrick Donnelly returns from a long and winding road bearing a satchel filled with leaflets for the soul. “When in the uterine empyrean they told me” opens the collection with something of a mission statement—or, more precisely, with the lack of one. It sets a Buddhist tone for the considerations that follow, harking to the blood—both wet and dried—of attachments in a sparkling and sharply focused elegy to myriad past selves. Yet if we are to ascribe to any doctrinal underpinning, it is the folded shape of indiscretion, which finds purchase in every flavorful syllable.

The shock
not from bleeding, but from being caught
not knowing I’d have to kneel
on stones in front of strangers.

In “On the lungs, the liver, and the blood,” a favorite of the collection, Patrick spews foreignness not as the armchair colonialist, but rather from the heart of one who has loved, lost, and loved again. Its tender evocations step out from the snapshot frame and into the shadows of living ghosts, hair tethered to unseen ideals. Like the cell phone screen at which a woman gazes “as one might gaze / at one’s own face in a mirror,” it is a flat portal to the multi-dimensional inside.

Me, I expect catastrophe,
so I police my levees,
disconnect delicate devices
at first threat of thunder.

Patrick’s is an audible world where the cracking of a book spine sounds more loudly than a deluge of tongues. Even the silence is deafening, as when he implores to a past self—now blown to the winds of passage yet still trembling cobweb-like in the vestry of his thoughts—to twist the lipstick barrel of his desire, for it will someday drop his bucket down the well that shrouds his angelic charge with private joy. It is a space where pictures sniff and boys run across porcelain pasture.

This street I love
could come apart that fast,
like bread in water.

Prayers of unworthiness strike windows in the absence of storms. Feelings of adoration mix with urban sweep in tincture. He breathes, “no kind of singing can bring back the dead,” and in so conceding forces the stage to draw its curtains and weep in solitude. Music flounders at the wayside, left to ponder its incidental nature. There is beauty in every threat, the promise of a million temples crumbling into one. Its name is smoke, blown and broken.

If later
you called, a phone would ring and ring
somewhere in the wrong dark.

A highway stretches its back and links vertebrae with spilled admonitions: to the waste, to the waster, to the wasted. Like a broken denture rattling in the gut, it breeds a fear that crawls as quietly as sunrise and leaves students to their own devices. That same architecture haunts the shower, the thickness of a ruffled bed, the numerical values of ruin. Thus the title sequence glows, shuffling love and commerce into a yellowed pack—of cards, of cigarettes, of lies. Here the Prophet smokes, you see, and swaps words for the glitter of interior decoration. Deck the halls, He seems to say, before they fester. They are a maze. Neither intestinal nor scientific, but institutional. Don’t let the red light fool you; this is the stuff dreams are made of.

“Invocation” is another writhing flower, evoking schools of fish with an etcher’s commitment to the stroke. “Come to my cressets,” the poet implores, “gather / and assume a shape.” So begins a deeply biological assessment, wriggling and true. Ice and fire: the caduceus of procreation that makes steam of us. Drinking gall as if it were nectar, his lips part for nourishment and adoration. In the ashen pallor of twilight, he finds duty in practice: not to flesh, but to skin squared and bound. And yet words do not befriend him from all angles. He puts his face to them, inhales their insectile residue, and swallows until the taste has been assimilated. Still, they leave him for the blind. Voices prevail in the church down the street even as bodies fragment across the pond.

In the ears. That’s where these writings reside, releasing tufts of hair cells and sliding along the whorl of cochlea like children. At its end, a field of poppies.

Knowing Patrick and his husband Stephen D. Miller as I do from my time under the latter’s tutelage at the University of Massachusetts, I cannot help but read tears into the ink of poems like “Link,” in which the silhouettes of professionalism creep up the steps of personal mansions and leave their garments to dry in the rafters. But in the click of its final lines, in its avowal of death, there is a hope that shines and turns those tears to crystal. The burnished rings on their fingers speak a deeper tenure, and I have been fortunate enough to hear the snap of its fasteners.

The assortment of Japanese verses, translated with Stephen, peppered throughout the book also speaks to their synchronicity of thought and action. Thus permeated, words fly with the lilt of an autumn leaf from its branch: which is to say, at the whim of wind and dried to brittle perfection. Debts to maternal figures wax autobiographically. Conflagrations fool the romantic mind with their tendrils, ripe and translucent. The moon peeks in, not a voyeur but a doctor behind the otoscope. He sees the rake of age and its impossible scratches. Hair whitens, but its message only darkens. The journey cannot be spurred to completion, for its steps have yet to dot the earth. The moon returns in its stead, flowing through garments with the celerity of passion and melting with a snowflake’s turgid wetness. It is the body trembling on water’s surface.

In all of these are dire things indeed, yet also treasured things. From the sadness of a globe splashed with ruin to the pathways folding in on themselves, we see our body parts strewn in shards of history and obsidian. Would that we might sleep in our burning houses.

(Nocturnes of the Brothel of Ruin is available on Amazon.)

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