Jeffery Donaldson: “Museum”


Jeffery Donaldson has graced us with this poem about an encounter with a ghostly familiar,  if not a “familiar compound ghost.” Jeffery is currently working on an article about the significance of Frye to a poet, to be published in New Quarterly.  A video of Jeffery reading the title poem from his latest collection, Palilalia, can be found at the end of this post.


But one writes only after one has willed to renounce the will,
and the wisest of poets have always insisted that in the long
run all poetry that is worth listening to has been written
by the gods.

—Northrop Frye

Subway, in the middle of my commute,
   I found myself in a dark corner.
The line vanished into the underground
   in two directions, the clack and crow-screech

of steel wheels echoed in recession
   of the just missed five-o-nine
from the tunnel’s depths. Museum Station.
   A chilled solitude widened around me

and water-drops pooled in mimicked snips
   between the rails below. The ceiling lamps’
subdued fluorescence seemed to cast no shadows
   and were like peering through green water.

Exhibits from the ROM in glass cases
   with aboriginal wooden masks descended
like messengers from the real world above,
   whose outsize faces gestured witness and alarm

in the apocalyptic style of indigenous myth.
   Farther up, the February dusk
was tawny, the air tasteless and dull
   as pewter plate. Fog had moved in on

Old Vic’s scrubbed-stone but now vague
   turrets uncobbling upwards to the last
vanished spire, as though parting illusion
   from the epigraph above the stairway arch,

still insisting, after these twenty years,
   that the truth would set me free.
All gone up in a mist now, as far
   as I could see. I pictured them above,

the Burwash quad, Pratt, and residence,
   whose faux-gothic walls hold the city at Bay
like the brim of an empty cup, and where
   the mind-set of college years, memories

of what unwritten words, burn perpetually
   as in a crucible. I wonder now had I known,
those years hiding my fidgets, of the tics
   Touretters spend their days trying to release,

or heard of how the obsessive’s repetitions
   grind every last impulse to its death,
would I have finished more, managed
   the regimental habitus
and got things done?

Too skittish by far to do as that passage
   from Faust always roared mockingly I should,
from its perch on the cork board above my desk,
   Settle your studies! and sound the depths

of that thou wilt profess. Get real! I still
   have the welts from the nightly tongue-lashing.
But now school’s out at last, and the long ghostly
   hours of doodling, daydreams, lectures, lessen.

The students pouring from Northrop Frye Hall
   slushed in out of the fog in private directions
escalating down into the commuter scrimmage
   towards the platform. And that brought it on.

The clapping heal, nasal-snort, the lurching nod,
   the whooped-up screech and cluck.
I tried to catch the right patterns up,
   send them unfolding in dervish rhythms,

unstoppable as blinking. Suddenly,
   out of the unasked-for corporal hootenanny
I sensed a conjured presence whirled out
   in tangents from myself echoing

in the sniggers I bounced off the walls,
   until in my thinking, it appeared,
a stooped man stood apart,
   behind a pillar, unhurried, thoughtful,

neither leaving nor arriving, one I seemed
   to recognize or remember, coming through
and breaking up like a cell-phone signal
   too far from its source. The chunky glasses

and electric hair, plain, perennially ancient,
   he was there, bunched up within himself
like New Brunswick brushwood, swaying
   like a scraggly jack-pine or as a man

in thought at arm’s length from a lectern
   will rock, it seems, to captivating rhythms
for the sake of argument. Sheet folder.
   Waiting for this line to take him home.

He spoke up under my own chirps and wheens
   snickering back under the stone work,
like a cold draft working itself out.
   “Still conjuring ghosts, are you Hamlet,

from the depths of the waiting place?
   Have you forgotten my Shakespeare lecture
in ‘81, on how the Danish spook
   is not one jot less real than the made world

he rises in?” He looked himself over.
   “Not that I can say much in the matter,
but you might have made me younger.
   When you conjure someone in a dream,

(where are your manners?) it’s best to be more
   generous than time was . . . . But look at you.
Why you look as though you see a burning
   bush or a hanging disk of fire.”

“Oh no no, I see you, heavenly ghost,
   old sky father, old officer of art!
but holy company of angels
   what are you doing here? Fifteen years

have passed since we sat through the Blake
   readings at your remembrance service,
and together cracked what wine bottles afterwards
   launched you on your way across the Styx,

that second journey you once wrote about
   as having rather less to do with ego
than the first. You always looked for how
   to get past it without actually dying,

and I thought if I kept reading your prose
   you might show the way chosen ones take
to the spiritualized secular,
   and find you again, or myself at least.

But not haunting some in-transit concourse
   buried under old grounds I’ve already trod.”
“You’re still looking in all the wrong places.
   Time you saw through your own smoke and mirrors.”

“A window then? Not a thing I see?”
   “Closer, yes, but don’t get your hopes up
on clarity, too many hands and noses
   have been pressed to the glass for you to find

what you’re looking for in someone like me,
   even in this state. I was never much
for small talk, as little on subway platforms
   as on that elevator we once rode together.”

He shied away three steps and started to fade,
   searched himself as for the rumpled coat
he was still wearing. But I wanted more,
   moved to step clear of my own withholdings.

“I’ve long imagined I had missed my chance,
   had lost you to the ranks of bygone
paternal mentors, fathers in whom I planted
   the seeds of long-nursed dependencies

for the tall harvest that never came.”
   “Still stripping grafts from confidences
greater than your own? You’ve a way to go,
   and it won’t be this old crow, cocking

his eye at you under these shady lights,
   who will get you there. Don’t you know
that mine too was the ventriloquist’s thrown voice,
   and that what I spoke was a stirred echo?”

“I’ll never write as much as you did, spirit,
   the endless notebook-drafts of plumbed inklings
and the thirty odd volumes of limpid prose.
   I can’t pinch off a dozen lines in a year.”

“You could use some metaphoric roughage
   in your diet. An evacuation and purge,
as Auden said, can be a positive omen.
   But you’re the one who goes on about Whitman . . . .

You have to keep the tics down in public,
   and the vocal dirt from passing at all times,
(like kegel exercises for the mental sphincter . . . ).
   I can understand that. But your verbal

warm-ups are over-worked, if I may say so,
   too handled and pushed, too proudly shaped.
You’d rather lay off the inkpot than risk
   the odd bad sheet, won’t commit a line

not already hammered into its promise.
   You have this chiselled-phrase stuff backwards.
A poet finishes with cut gems
   for the jeweller’s eye, his sturdy maxim’s

sculpted waterfall hefted upwards
   into empyrean, he doesn’t start there.
You’re a Touretter. Why not write like one?
   Hold off the perfectionist blocking out phrases

to exhaustion, those worrying threads,
   the Penelopian back-ravellings of the unmade.
Your repetitious tics have always come first,
   and so they should, the ecstatic rhapsodist’s

St. Vitus’ Dance, slangster’s whizzle
   and conjuration, philologist’s hullaballoo.”
You think of Moses breasting the mountain top
   to find the right words already carved

in stone. But Moses too went round and round,
   ’til he found the clearing and the words came.”
My tics slowed, and he dimmed like a science fair
   light bulb, whose frail filament is

kept lit by the frantic, pumping cyclist
   ’til he tires. I cried, “But wait! What words?
Suppose I did dance circles, made off-beat
   tongue-claves my first exuberance, tell me

what I’ll find there beyond.” “No time,” he said,
   turning away, “and we’ve both said enough.
But look, you’ve waited on this line for some time,
   haven’t you. I think I hear what you need coming,”

he said, and fading, said something else I missed,
   when a shriek, as from depths within, drowned him out,
and it was then I saw, what else?, a light
   at the end of the tunnel, and heard the train’s

sliced-steel, involuntary skreak and howl,
   an offense to all, but look with how many
along for the ride! One last tic, I sounded
   my barbaric yawp. And a door opened.

from Palilalia
McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2008
© Jeffery Donaldson


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One thought on “Jeffery Donaldson: “Museum”

  1. Peter StirFrye Yan

    As usual, another wonderful poem, Jeffrey. Frye said stories come from other stories. Now we can update that: stories can also come from other literary criticisms.


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