Poet Joseph Donahue & JFK

Following are excerpts from a seqence of poems titled “Purple Ritual” in Joseph Donahue’s first book of poems, Before Creation (1989). The sequence in much longer and more complex than these passages suggest, but today it seemed important to me to share part of this composition for the record. At this blog, we always tell people that Joe is from Lowell, which is true, but also true is that he holds a prestigious academic position in the South—as the Helen L. Bevington Professor of Modern Poetry at Duke University. He is the author of several books of poetry. This spring, he will be featured in a reading and talk sponsored by Lowell’s Hellenic Culture and Heritage Society at the Whistler House Museum of Art. Watch this blog for details.—PM


from “Purple Ritual”

. . .

from “Seven”

The plane alighting, at Love. The king pausing. The carpet unfurling. Is it only in retrospect that this arrival affects me? My lack of legend the drama’s first cause?

I was in Dallas when Kennedy was shot, I tend to confess when talking about my past. Against that most silent afternoon others clamor for a telling. Days, entire years, ask to be spoken of with appropriate emotion, but the narrative dwindles into aimless incident, or fantasies of flight and stealth.  . . .

. . .

from “Kennedyana I”

In 1960 my uncle, a veteran of the JFK senate campaigns, joined the White House staff as a liaison to Congress.

That Christmas we received a portrait, from my uncle’s family, and of my uncle’s family. Uncle, blonde wife, six blonde children, arrayed in a ritual pose. At the focal center, like a truer father, that most dapper of chieftains.

The portrait fed a secret pride in me which fed, in turn, my envy. I wanted to enter that corona, to stand amid my glittering cousins, which I did, briefly, in June of 1962.

Kettledrums and brass shook the cool Virginia air. Evening, awash with crowds, festooned with banners. Enroute north, age eight, I waited with my cousins as the President completed a speech.

JFK worked his way toward us, down a flagstone path. Excitement blurs the details. What I recall, and who would not recall his first radical flux of identity, is the President shaking my hand and calling me by my cousin’s name.

. . .

from “My PT109 Tieclip”

In a sleek cabin the crew no doubt crouches, intent at their weapons. So gold a warship should have come from an Egyptian tomb. Token of an assured transport. A glittering coffin adrift on a river.

Too portentous, that this campaign relic should suggest no more than Kennedy’s closeness to death.

The gold bow cutting the silver froth reminds me of Texas heat, of solitude, of nothing to do, of a boy lying in window glare, pushing a tieclip through blue carpet fiber, cooled by the pitch and roll and exuberance of war.

—Joseph Donahue (c) 1989