The End of Algorithm: A Review of Timothy Donnelly’s The Problem of the Many

At the edge of excess, long past whatever asceticism conceals our rituals of self-indulgence, I hope an insect with a compound eye would tell me not to jump, but from a safe distance, we’d stare into the bottomless pit. If such an insect doesn’t meet me there—who knows where it lives?—I’d prefer Timothy Donnelly to point out, with his unflinching attention, all the proper nouns I would likely miss. I won’t feel comfortable at that height either way. Since his second collection The Cloud Corporation (Wave Books, 2010), Donnelly’s been heralded as a poet who stockpiles the cultural and industrial artifacts around him—not so much a monolith as an archivist with an ear for the long sentence, a preservationist with such idiosyncratic tastes his temperament is unabashedly his. In Donnelly’s third collection, The Problem of the Many (Wave Books, 2020), he begs of himself, of his readers, to reconcile the difference between abundance, with its political and imperial and economic masks, and particulars of that abundance, with their human names: both one and one whole.

Begin with a footnote to the title: “The Problem of the Many” is a 1980 essay by the philosopher Peter Unger, a piece which considers clouds, borders of clouds and their droplets, how many clouds fit inside or outside a cloud, one cloud or no cloud and what’s between? Is a cloud simply the shape visible to the human eye—and because we must answer no, what to make of the indeterminable water droplets? While the question Unger poses so closely resembles Keats’ negative capability, I wonder: who will risk these poems for the sake of if-then information? Unlike a cloud, poems don’t have a periphery of droplets, though readers might feel the impulse to consider Unger a compliment to what seems overtly dialectic in Donnelly’s poems. To understand Donnelly’s lyrical impulse—with its invocations of Prometheus then Ridley Scott, its 7-11 Cheetos, its stomach aches and over-the-counter flu remedies—as conveying the problems far more appropriate to a philosophical treatise misdirects from what makes him a poet worth remembering. Instead, one hears the sublime loneliness of a man surrounded by so much, chanting rhythms so consistent it’s unclear if they’ll ever stop ringing. 

“What is Real,” the title of the first poem, postures with the outfit of a declaration and the naked body of an interrogative: “And though we had fed long and well at the table / the talk always turned to whether to go on / regardless of what it might say about our moral sense…” This first sentence, which continues for 27 more lines, begins with a qualification of everything that follows: the rest of the book. The lyric “we” has already engorged in the recent past, proof that we and you and I are real once our belts are briefly unbuckled at a dinner party. If we stop this engorging, will our selves also diminish into something indeterminable, something as inscrutable as a cloud? Consumership proves I have the ability to consume, and any other answer I’m imagining includes a conversion of degrees of excess, feasting, abundance. Donnelly, however, has never been a poet of degrees, while without binaries the self becomes “an open border, a common source of being, before I / die—let us be, let being be, continuous, continuous.” This is how The Problem of the Many deviates from Donnelly’s previous work: extremes have become seemingly unbearable for the poet, those which he parodied in The Cloud Corporation—yet the very end of thought, the place where metaphor exhausts itself, is the place where these poems operate.  

If the rhythms of language speed up or slow down time, the formal patterns of Donnelly’s poems suggest he’s anticipating the never-ending absence of the future. Even though he’s “built [his] ship of death,” arrival time is unclear, and whatever route its captain maps with Apple Maps likely won’t be leisurely. Artifacts of the present excite Donnelly into the timelessness that will, must, end, as in “Diet Mountain Dew” the plastic bottle with its high fructose corn syrup and globules of caffeine, energizes Donnelly towards a destination, a physical transformation:

I have built my ship of death
and enough already, every
toxic sip of you preparing for
the journey to bloviation: 
I leave to return and return
to depart again the stronger
for a satisfaction being bound
to no port has afforded me.

Eight lines of mostly four beats feels particularly abbreviated for a Donnelly sentence; like most poems from The Problem of the Many, I find attempting even a moderate tempo counterintuitive to the supersonic movements—rhythmic, lyrical impulses from can-to-can in the twelve-pack—from beginning to end. With this new collection, Donnelly’s formal patterns have become less expected, impossible to presume after the first 10 pages, rhythms in generative sentences that never monotonize their subjects.

So much has been said about Donnelly’s cross-disciplinary interests and unflinching focus, and not nearly enough has been written about the center of that radius: a “you” unmistakably embedded in love. Donnelly experiences and refracts life through his “you,” his us and we, and in perhaps the greatest achievement of this collection, the long “Hymn to Life,” he whittles those immediately unidentified pronouns to those for whom he composes his hymns. The poem begins with what’s been absent from the past—“There were no American lions. No pygmy mammoths left / or giant short-faced bears, which towered over ten feet high / when rearing up on their haunches”—and ends with the poet promising his partner he’ll put away the dishes, bathing his infant daughter, chatting with his close friend. The saturated world with its invented and impossible borders exists somewhere else from these moments of being together. 

Then what facts adopt a discernible shape in Donnelly’s poems? Where do I look? What have I learned about Unger, or Callimachus, and ancient Egypt? Did Jonah ever escape the whale? The word “mystery,” for me, has yet to appropriately describe what the best poems accomplish or how a lyric is constructed; in the most memorable work, there is always a specific and intelligible reason to justify what decisions have been made in a poem. Though once a poem bewilders, say, through the tendrils of figurative thought, I’m not standing in front of the Library of Alexandria or looking up at a cloud shaped like jerky—but I’m imagining everything the poet loves, having learned how to hear what shape that feeling takes.


Christian Wessels

Christian Wessels is a poet from Long Island. His work has recently appeared in KROnline, Gettysburg Review, and Bennington Review. He has received fellowships from Boston University, the Stadler Center for Poetry, and University of Rochester, where he is a graduate student. He works for AGNI and the Rochester Education Justice Initiative.

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