Patrick Donnelly’s The Charge

Donnelly, Patrick. The Charge. Ausable Press, 2003. (104 pages)

The title of Patrick Donnelly’s The Charge can mean many things: attack, task or obligation, the current or life force that runs through us all, finding expression in the thrill between lovers. It is also, as the speaker describes in “Consummatum Est,” the moment he believes he became infected with HIV: “Yes – certainly I felt it – and broke / into a sweat, the exact moment / the charge leapt from him to me.” Once we understand what’s at stake here, the layers of meaning become clear – the task of living and all its obligations, the attack made by the disease itself, the thrill of a lover and all its consequences.
       In this same poem, he compares the moment of the charge to that of women who look back and know the moment they conceived, and to the faith theologians have in what cannot be seen or proven.

        With the certainty theologians claim
        for the salvation worked by Christ –
        effects not yet seen,
        but the end not in doubt –
        some women look back and know
        the exact moment they conceived.

In this way he compellingly compares, and we are forced to contrast, the moment life begins to the moment that threatens his life. But it is faith regardless, and as with the mothers and theologians, that faith matters only to oneself.
       As death plays a part in each poem, so too does God. Always within the speaker’s consciousness, God is addressed by turns ironically, earnestly, and tenderly. It’s a God, he acknowledges, who seems not to listen or care, but whose existence is never questioned. Prayers, psalms, and incantations tie the book together. The speaker needs all of these as he confronts the ravages of ill friends, nursing them through sickness and sometimes into death, seeing himself in all of them. Suffused with an emotional and spiritual longing, the poems convey pain without seeming to expect anything to change.
       In “Low Door” we see how the sense of prayer is felt in all his movements. We see as well the way houses and homes are a running theme: the longing for a home, the body as a house:

        I must become very modest,
        flexible, small and sweet to enter here….
        to bend in half
        like a Muslim at prayer
        to fit the brass, then the silver key…
        to genuflect into the tiny vestibule,
        to find by feel alone, in the dark,
        by its sloping shoulders, the gold key
        to another still smaller door…
        to fall into full prostration of amazement
        to have a house at all,
        to have a body and be alive
        to live in it.

The speaker is as amazed at his home as he is with his body, subject as they both are to ruin and neglect. In some poems we see his displacement:

        These are not my keys,
        this is not my door.
        I’m so tired I could sleep anyplace,
        but this is not my bed.
        This is not my street,
        not my face,
        not my dirt...
        These are not my eyes,
        not my leaves, not my light

Continuing this theme of life and death, of home and the nurturing of the sick, several poems are about plants, both thriving and dying. In “Fountain of Blood” the speaker describes a mess the neighbor has created outside and a plant that has been put into broken-up concrete and “barely-breathing dirt.” “How will it live, in these ruins?” he asks. “How will I?” The making of a home and the life it contains become holy, as in these lines from “Rune for Michael Sick and Far Away”:

        the Scriptures and Christ’s crossed body, and every holy thing,
        my kitchen with its pies and kettles, and my knowledge
        of how to knot ties and drive cars with gears,
        my garden and the strength of all its weeds and seeds,
        their power to appear again

The poems are all written from the persona of a gay man infected with HIV. For this reason they feel confessional, the most painful moments and memories recounted as if exactness were a necessity. The humanity is in the specifics. He gives us not generic death, but a specific kind of pain and horror. Often in these poems the speaker is at a bedside, nursing or standing by. “Angels Trumpet” is a particularly beautiful poem:

        In order to tell him he would die
        a few weeks shy of 28, I needed only
        to place two vials of brown glass
        on the bedside table, in front of the tissues and tulips.
        “Which are they?” he asked.

        “Angelica,” I said first, reading from the book,
        “angelica archangelica,
        protection of the angel realm.”

        Then the other (almost casually),
        “datura candida, Angel’s trumpet,” and did not read
        “for when the soul must utterly surrender.”

        It was not my place was it? ­
        to put the cold embouchure to my lips
        and blow.

Though many of the poems in this collection deal with sickness, the pleasures of the body are also the subject of many poems, as in “Prayer After the Baths”:

        Thank You
        for causing no man to love me
        for more than a few minutes at a time
        with such art as big, tall Tom has used this night,

        because when he took off his baseball cap
        to rub his buzzcut along my belly,
        murmuring under his breath a baritonal “Sweet,”
        I was in danger of becoming one of those
        who have their reward in this life…

We see here how even amidst the carnal he is aware of God, and how this awareness seems never to leave him. Moreover, there is a tone of gentle mockery or chiding towards either himself or God, perhaps both. It is because of this light touch that the poems about faith and God are never overwrought.
        Throughout the collection, the speaker works to come to terms with death, the death of people he knows – friends, lovers – and his own, which in many of the poems seems an imminent possibility. Men dead and dying of AIDS haunt the speaker. Hence, the charge to go on living, past others who have died and in the face of one’s own death.
        The poem “Riddle” powerfully tackles the terror and duplicity of AIDS:

        What travels with love,
                  but is hated?
        What never eats,
                  but consumes?…
        What makes your cells its brothel
                  your life its toilet?
        What? What? What?

In this poem, as with others, we are taken, almost unwillingly, to the most painful places. Strangely though, it is never too much, and Donnelly’s deft hand brings beauty to the unlikeliest subjects, as in “Prayer Over Dust”:

        when it’s over, let my body
        be useful, let little bears
        nose through my guts
        for grubs, let Destroying Angel
        lift its wild orchid umbrella
        where my heart used to be.

In writing about AIDS, Donnelly joins the likes of Mark Doty, Marie Howe and others whose poems relate their experience of losing someone to this disease. Here, though, we are taken that much closer, into the confidence of a narrator contending with sickness himself, teaching himself in these poems how to live with death on his shoulder.
        An ambitious book, the poems work towards transcendence even as they encounter despair. There is no graver subject, and yet never are the poems oppressive. Patrick Donnelly’s humor and humanity lift these poems up and shine a light in the darkest corners.

Tara Gorvine received her MFA in poetry from the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, and she works as an editor at Edward Elgar Publishing. Tara's poems have appeared in Seattle Review, Cimmaron Review, and Greensboro Review.

Boxcar Poetry Review - ISSN 1931-1761