Donald Thinks


Donald is ubiquitous, he is everywhere and everyone, a man for all seasons, a multitude of multitudes—the boob, the bore, the bully, but also the visionary, the tactical genius, the ladies’ man and guys’ guy, the dealmaker, the dad, the straight-shooter, the idiot savant. But here, my friends, is the true Donald, the inner Donald, the Donald’s Donald—wise man, aesthete, man of letters, the philosopher king.


Donald Ruminates on the Nature of Love

This morning Donald lingers in bed with his coffee and ruminates on the nature of love. As the morning anchors renew their scripted flirtation, he reflects on the great couples—Adam and Eve, Antony and Cleopatra, Echo and Narcissus, Bonnie and Clyde. His mind comes to rest on Dante and Beatrice. Donald has known the sudden eruptions and slow coolings of love, but Dante’s love for the banker’s daughter remains, for him, strange and mysterious. What kind of eight-year-old girl inspires such passion? Donald buries himself deeper into the bed and adjusts the comforter. He tries to picture their second and final meeting on the streets of Florence with Beatrice now a teenager, but his imagination has always been poorly furnished. The words “cornice” and “brocade” float through his mind, but nothing more. He has no trouble, however, imagining Dante afterwards, alone in his room, asleep in bed, overcome by a vision—the fiery cloud, the strange man, imperious and joyful, the half-naked Beatrice, and his own burning heart, which Beatrice reluctantly eats. The erotic cannibalism of the dream unnerves Donald—and that old fart Freud is no help, even though he read Dante in Italy while writing The Interpretation of Dreams. Donald thinks instead of George Eliot and John Cross, how they fell in love translating Dante only for Cross to jump from a balcony in Venice on their honeymoon. Victorians snickered and said that it was because she was 60 and he was only 40, but Donald doesn’t buy it. He sips his coffee and makes a face; it has gone cold. Ideas can be dangerous, he concludes, if pursued too far. So he abandons Dante, anguished and weeping, rolls out of bed and steps confidently into his slippers.


Donald Meditates on Meditation

Donald has no tolerance for people who need peace and quiet to think. He lays out his yoga mat beneath the stars of Grand Central Station, so to speak. Dickinson wrote poems while skimming milk; Pascal gave Paris a bus service along with his Pensées. So why should Donald stop to think? His favorite line from Marcus Aurelius is not a meditation but a coordinate: “Among the Quadi, on the River Gran.” In the margin, a younger hand aspires to aphorism: “Make enemies and insights will follow.” Donald has a game he likes to play with himself. On conference calls, he imagines he is the emperor, camped for the night at Carnuntum along the banks of the Danube; the proximity of the Marcomanni with their elaborate, barbarian hair, helps to sharpen his thoughts. Once, in a time of despair, Donald turned to Thích Nhất Hạnh. He took long walks, cultivating silence and mindful breathing; he repeated the four mantras of true presence; he looked deeply into his anger and tried to lose himself in interbeing. But inevitably, after twenty minutes or so, his mediations were interrupted by a voice in his head. It was not the voice of God, or even the voice of his true self. It was the voice of his beloved E. M. Cioran, saying, “To experience, in a marketplace, sensations the Desert Fathers would have envied.” And so Donald returned to his desk.


Donald Goes to the Ends of the Earth

Donald believes the earth is round, he does, and that it spins on its axis and revolves around the sun. No doubt. He just prefers the old rectangular tales with their sharp borders and precipitous ends. (He knows, of course, the flat earth is a modern invention, but why should that spoil his fun?) As he strides across the lawn in his polished wingtips, he thinks of Atlas, sent to his corner by Zeus to hold up the sky. Did he spend eternity cursing his burden, or did he look out over the edge of the world in awe and wonder? Donald himself has no fear of heights. He has stood on the Cliffs of Moher and imagined himself another Cú Chulainn, bounding across the sea stacks in flight from Mal of Malbay, that horny old hag. He thinks of the four angels who stand at the corners of the earth and hold back the winds of destruction. He thinks of Odysseus, commanded by Athena in the guise of Circe, to travel to the misty land of the Cimmerians to consult with the shade of Tiresias. He thinks of the Fortunate Isles and the Elysian Fields. What does the round world have on these stories? Jules Verne? Pictures from space? Imagine the story of Columbus without the terrors of the cataract. Donald quickens his pace. So many meetings, but daydreams fuel his efficiency. Almost there. He lets his mind drift till it catches on a familiar hook: a philosopher (some say Bertrand Russell; others, William James; but Donald can’t see his face) lectures on the spinning migrations of a ball through a universe of spheres. But the old woman isn’t fooled. She stands and registers her dissent: the earth is a flat disc resting on the back of a colossal tortoise. “And what is holding up the tortoise?” the philosopher asks. The woman replies, “It’s turtles all the way down.” Donald smiles as he opens the door. “Turtles all the way down.” How he loves that phrase!


Donald and the Art of Detection

Every once in a while Donald indulges himself and holes up in the den to watch his favorite detective shows. When his daughter comes to check on him, he puts her off with a joke. “I’m just feeling a little Mannix-depressive.” He has always loved the way she groans. As Columbo drifts across the screen, Donald thinks of Barthes, immaculate and French in his trench coat and scarf. Barthes appreciated the beauty of pattern and repetition, the secret formula of formula. But Barthes was a mama’s boy, bamboozled by the trail of breadcrumbs, the child’s guessing game of suspense. Only a fool wants to be fooled; Donald wants to be right. He prefers the déjà vu of reruns, where deduction gives way to divine foreknowledge. Columbo knows the killer before the killing. Surely, this is what Nietzsche had in mind when he spoke of the “metaphysical comfort” of tragedy, the reassurance of the eternal return. The wonder is not in the surprise but in the cultic recurrence. Donald freshens the chips and settles in for another show. He thinks of T. S. Eliot in his pew at early Mass, codifying the rules for detective fiction while composing “Ash Wednesday”:

The new years walk, restoring
Through a bright cloud of tears, the years, restoring
With a new verse the ancient rhyme.

On the screen, the detectives slaughter the bull, inspect its entrails, and pour wine over the burning thighbones. We have been here before and we will return again. Donald swells with a sense of well-being as he waits for McGarrett to say the blessing.


Donald at the Bookstore

There is a reason “think” rhymes with “stink,” Donald muses as he shuffles through the aisles at the Salvation Army Bookstore. Nonetheless, he finds the smell of aging paper and dead ideas strangely intoxicating.  He steers clear of Fiction—that country club of the mind—and heads straight for Self-Help and Inspirational. Here are his favorites, the permanent residents—Hugh Prather’s Notes to Myself, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, the poetry of Rod McKuen. Futility is so life-affirming. The sun always shines on New Age, but Donald likes to lurk in the shadows. In Poetry, he remembers the advice he once got from A. R. Ammons: “If you can avoid writing a poem, do so.” So few listen. Here they are, the big names and the small, the living and the dead. Hughes lies in his grave next to Hughes, Plath spoons with Pound. And, of course, there’s Ammons himself, an awkward guest at a party of Ashbery’s. Donald makes an obligatory stop at Military History, but can’t shake the feeling he’s joined a reenactment; his skin crawls under the imaginary uniform and he promptly deserts. He unearths The Anger of Achilles by Robert Graves, and Volume 1 of H. G. Wells’s The Outline of History (no sign of Volume 2). He buys Curious Myths of the Middle Ages mostly for the handwritten inscription: “To my loving niece Lillian, Aunt Rose.” What did dear Aunt Rose see in the story of “Prester John” or “Saint Ursula and the Eleven Thousand Virgins” that she felt keen to pass on to young Lillian? Donald saves the bargain bins for last. He thumbs through old playbills and soft porn novels till he comes across The Life and Convictions of Spiro T. Agnew. Donald smiles. Words will always have their revenge.


Donald Contemplates the Palm in Palm Beach

Donald attends to his duties—the evening soirees, the morning foursomes—but his mind remains fixed on Stevens: “The palm at the end of the mind.” Why palm? And why end? And what does any of this have to do with the notion of being? In the afternoon he lounges by the pool and looks beyond the palms to the palm in the distance. Nothing. He then examines his hands with their leafy lines embossed by the golden sun. Still nothing. He imagines Heidegger would help, but he recoils from the image of a fleshy, sunburnt tourist. Florida is no place for Germans. Donald takes a dip. It is all a question of property lines, he tells himself, as he towels off in the shade. The palm is beyond thought, beyond reason, but “rises / In the bronze décor.” But whose décor? Is it possible there is another place, a better place, beyond both reason and imagination—beyond “mere being”? For Maimonides, the palm tree was the opposite of heaven, for it was subject to generation and passing away, and therefore could be uprooted and sold. But how does this help? Does paradise begin where real estate ends? Donald frowns. What kind of creeping socialism of the soul is this! After all, Deborah dispensed wisdom under a palm tree and Jesus entered Jerusalem on a carpet of palms. That’s got to count for something. It is getting late and Donald needs to dress for dinner. He slips on his swim wrap, his mind still sputtering; he can’t escape the feeling that the poet is fucking with him.


Rumpus original art by Liam Golden.

Matt Brogan is a poet and writer. His work has appeared in the Antioch Review, Brooklyn Rail, Columbia, Court Green, Denver Quarterly, Verse, and other magazines and journals. He is currently putting the finishing touches on his first book, Donald Thinks. More from this author →