The Problem of the Many by Timothy Donnelly (Picador)

Tears in the Fence

‘Deep in the brain of invertebrates, the pineal gland gets its name from/ its resemblance to a pinecone.’ ‘In German, aKeplermakes hoods.’ ‘Pandora’s box was just a jar/ before Erasmus mangled it.’ This is poetry that tells you things; that’s about the world in general rather than about individual relationships, full of biology, ancient history and philosophy, and written in long sentences in long prosy lines in long poems in a portly volume of 198 pages. Where much contemporary free verse cuts and cuts, such super-expansiveness can feel oddly original.

The poems themselves leap outlandishly from Alexander to umbels to Whitesnake, via Isaiah, glyphosate, Hobbes, Zeno’s paradox and milkweed. Similes, rather than being merely decorative, usually shunt the poem in a new direction: ‘White birches lean/ through a mist like plastic drinking straws, the same/ kind a tribesman from Papua New Guinea […]’ and we’re off among the…

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