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Timothy Donnelly

It seems as if you lack a feel of any blessing of your own inside you, which is driving you to seek your blessings in things separate and external… Other creatures are content with what is their own, but you, whose mind is made in the image of God, seek to adorn your superior nature with inferior objects, oblivious to the great wrong you do.…

—Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy

The imperative to accumulate doesn’t permit capitalist subjects to feel as if they no longer have any need to accumulate. According to the morality of capitalism, too much is never enough.

—Todd McGowan, Capitalism and Desire


t would be easy, accurate, and even comforting to describe I Wanted Everything as yet another book of poetry about desire. Easy because it’s right there in the title. Accurate because, at the end of the day, that’s exactly what this is. And comforting because to summarize this wild, capacious new thing as “a book of poetry about desire” is to domesticate it, make it familiar. Readers of the lyric are at home with longing. We know the road and where it leads to and we want to take it. We make monuments of our longing at great expense and we walk around them in beautiful confusion. We tune our inner lives to longing’s hopeless frequency. We want to step to want’s groove, which is darkly gorgeous even when it’s boring. We want to wade in wide pools of want. We want to hang in want’s caverns, in its old echoic caverns. We come for the erotics (we still want to be enticed) but we stay for the disappointment, which we find richer, lasting, and ultimately more reliable. And we almost find our disappointment satisfying but (even better) not quite. We look to the poet, or her proxy (i.e., our proxy) to wake from her dejection, to get back up and keep the beat, keep patrolling for what can’t be had, striving for the dreamed-of, the ideal, the dead. And whatever it is, we want her to imagine having it and having at it with abandon, so that for a while its absence collaborates with imagination to produce a whole new level of focus and energy, a compelling, driving force—even as it leads, as it must, to nowhere. Nowhere but defeat. As consolation, we tell ourselves that the poem serves as a consolation prize, that the poet’s language, which is itself always a surrogate anyway, just keeps on substituting what was never there in the first place. The poem is a linguistic stand-in for what can’t otherwise be possessed. If she can’t have it outright, then she’ll take her word for it. At least there’s that. Not what she came for but not nothing. And we suppose, in the end, that the poet’s victory must be measured by how compellingly she articulates that defeat, how valiantly she claims her abjection. How gracefully she accepts it once she sees it coming, or how fetchingly she ornaments it once she realizes it’s all she has. Or, sometimes, having seen it all unfold like this so many times before, maybe we start poking around for evidence that the poet, or the poem, knew what she or it was up to all along, hints that they knew they were doomed from the start, but still they dragged themselves out of bed just as we do, got dressed, and reported for duty. And even though she knows she’ll meet her end out there in the unforgiving light of the page—part martyr, part drama club; part acrobat, part cautionary tale—she goes, nevertheless, on with the show.

But something other than familiar lyric longing is at work in I Wanted Everything, something far more treacherous. It haunts these poems like the aspartame in Diet Snapple, which the speaker of Whittlesey’s “Obicà”—named for a self-described “group of casual and contemporary Italian restaurants in international gateway cities”—drinks down, despite “knowing / …it is probably poisoning my body” and “preferring / indeterminate insidiousness over caloric content.” And she drinks it, she writes, after “pausing a moment to consider the corruption / behind the agency meant to protect me / which nevertheless allows the neurotoxin // in my drink.” There is much more at play here than meets the eye. It would be one thing if the intelligence at work behind the reality were that of a beneficent god and not a corrupt FDA. Just as it would be one thing if the endless wanting of I Wanted Everything unfolded in Keatsian grots or antique bowers, or on bucolic slopes, fragrant meadows and sun-dappled vales—although the natural world, particularly the poet’s native West, sublime unto itself (albeit associated not simply with the expansion of transcendent feeling but also with that of empire), does appear in these poems. For the most part, Whittlesey’s longing is situated instead among the fluorescent aisles of all-night drugstores, or on the doorstep of overpriced Manhattan eateries, or in the freakish theater of the subway system, or in “the dark cavern of Trump / Tower’s underbelly.” Desire for Whittlesey presents itself not simply as the time-honored, almost quaint condition of human consciousness that, once upon a time, we learned to channel productively into exploration, architecture, and scientific advance, or else to direct with lyrical delicacy towards objects of hypothetical or naturally occurring beauty like sunsets, nymphs, the everlasting, and nightingales. That’s not where we are anymore, if we ever really were. Where we are is “a land where two double cheeseburgers cost less / than a single,” “where advertising inserts are spilling / continually out of magazines.” And this place we find ourselves in determines what we can do, and feel, and be. And if “the essence of the human struggle” is to be caught in an endless cycle of longing, imprisoned in dull matter, and alienated from our hypothetical luminous principle or even simply from what we might have fondly thought of at one point as our “light heart,” then this struggle takes on another dimension in our current cultural context—which is to say one in which our longing is perceived as a resource by those who stand to profit from it, who have devised ways to prolong and exaggerate and capitalize on it, and who cast spells to keep us babies of stupid appetite forever until we go broke or die.

It’s hard to see the poetry in this, at least at first. It’s hard to romanticize this landscape or to use it as a springboard to transcendence. There’s no comfort in remembering how our longing—no matter what else we do with it—is constantly toyed with by corporate beaks and tentacles, entangled in the vast invisible networks that determine what toxic processed meats we have at hand to overload our stomachs with, or what sizzling elixirs we need to waste a day’s pay on to rub into our faces at night “to pretend at youth.” And yet, succumbing to these forces is not without interest to Whittlesey. She is wryly sympathetic to our weaknesses (and her own) as fellow pilgrim consumers. She knows surrender has its sex appeal. Its path is wide and clear and it’s much more traveled by. Eat the lotus. Relinquishing agency means never having to remember you’re guilty. “I bow humbly before / my masochism,” Whittlesey writes, in one of the many brilliantly witty lift-out moments in what happens to be, despite its constantly gnawing disgust and despair, a truly hilarious book. She lets the market and its empty promises lure her speakers deeper into the illusion like old-school perfume or crepuscular birdsong. She understands our need to push global crises out of mind by focusing instead on our “serious addiction to sneakers.” Italics hers. The market’s logic seduces and infects her poems’ own, its forces playing on her speakers the way warbling springtime breezes and sunbeams do on Mr. Coleridge’s own poetic self, his arms spread wide like an icon of Romantic receptiveness on a Somerset hillside in “The Eolian Harp.” For Coleridge’s speaker, the natural world begets “flitting phantasies” that “traverse his indolent and passive brain,” attuning him to the “one intellectual breeze” that unifies all of creation. But for Whittlesey’s speakers, nature’s fragrant bounty has been displaced by rows and rows of scentless GMO produce, “banal major brands,” and “cake after cake / that looked much better than it tasted.” The fuel that animates it all is boundless human appetite, and that humming you hear is the global corporate machine. Whoever conducts is whistling a corporate marketing campaign. Keats’s vision of the world as a “Vale of Soul-making” has been downgraded to a pop-up ad for online classes on personal branding. Striving into one’s best self has less to do now with moving through “a World of Pains and troubles…to school an Intelligence and make it a soul” and more to do with furbishing your emptiness in falsifying gym gear. She lays it bare in her brilliant “Target Audience,” which begins:

What I loved was not you
but a lack

(my lack). What I loved
was not you but my own

and advertising.

O how you moved in me
my motivation to strive.

Isn’t that the major
operating principle?

Mechanism here is what
you aren’t.

Here is someone
you should want

to be, so that movement
may ensue deep down,

to the store, to the gym,
to the outfitters for your outfit

for success.

Here and elsewhere, Whittlesey’s wide and motley breadth of utterance—she can come off graceful, gaudy, terse, longwinded, anxious, frothy, wise, ridiculous, solemn, meditative, and moved to sing, often in the same poem—includes an unmistakably biblical note as well. “O how you moved in me / my motivation to strive,” she writes, sounding much like a passage from any number of the Psalms, and also recalling 1 Timothy 4:10, which in the New Standard American version reads: “For it is for this we labor and strive, because we have fixed our hope on the living God.” However, the majority of the poems in I Wanted Everything that shimmer with spiritual overtones (and late in the book, there are many) are concerned primarily with a lack of hope and fixity. Nothing is stable for Whittlesey, beginning on the subatomic level (she goes there). Instead, her vision quest is a giddy wandering into the wilderness of department stores in which one feels “baptized // by the scent and shiny murmur of things,” or through Babylons of “greyhounds all night / along velvet jacinth couches; // cosmopolitans effusive over / triangular glass edges // onto chalcedony floors.” This last image is courtesy of “Miss Muggins Goes to a Nightclub,” one of ten picaresque poems threaded through I Wanted Everything that feature Whittlesey’s half-parodic, half Romantic hero, whose surname is defined by the OED as “a person who is duped, outwitted, or taken advantage of.” Miss Muggins, who comes across as both a figment of the poet’s imagination and a fictionalized version of herself, is a lonelyhearted devotee of ice cream and bad advice, trips to the desert, to Mexico, and to the movies, and who is at one point told on a bus by a youth (who might also be a god) that she “will be loved in this life // for a night, / just not for a lifetime.” She loves “cold pizza in bed,” Tchaikovsky, and frozen margaritas (to which she likens that old monastic scourge, the Noonday Demon). Miss Muggins seeks to be “no longer yearning,” but she is nonetheless “still hoping after all these years.” Readers won’t exactly be wrong to suppose Miss Muggins’s longings are erotic in nature, but they are erotic only in part, or in a generalized or maybe sublimated sense—the point of her isn’t to pine after a partner or even the idea of partnership so much as to personify what Whittlesey refers to elsewhere as “an overactive love…of the world.” That old thing. As such, Miss Muggins provides an infectiously forward-looking, buoyant spirit that countervails the book’s wearier vexations, giving voice to an enthusiasm odd for an inhabitant of a planet that’s presented as “blistering / into a tungsten mass.”

An awareness of earth’s precarious situation comes to the fore in the book’s closing section, beginning with the wryly titled “A Bucolic Excursion Takes a Turn”:

I longed for trees—brown bark to make me feel
again some part of the earth. But the sky called

me to a duel—I RSVP’d Yes,
we drew our ammunitions, mine of flesh,

the sky throwing down its clouded fists.
I found I had no strength except that I was part

and nothing like the dirt that held me there.

It should come as little surprise that the speaker’s pivot towards Nature is provoked by (what else?) longing, but this time it looks not like a self-centered longing to ingest or to possess something as an object but rather like a longing to commune with, to feel a part of something. It feels like progress. However, Whittlesey’s line break smartly draws attention to the way this kind of longing has more in common with the other than one might at first think: the speaker wants nature “to make (her) feel,” to serve as an instrument of her self-realization. She brings too much of her human perspective into the woods with her; their exchange quickly grows anthropomorphized—combative, but decorous—with a bully sky bearing down on her like a cartoon Yahweh. But this challenge puts the speaker in her place and steadies her; she sees that she is of the earth and radically separate from it, or “nothing like” it; it is both other and home. At the same time, this phrasing (“nothing like the dirt”) suggests another, more nihilistic reading, namely that the speaker sees herself as nothing in the same way that the dirt itself is nothing—a dark platform, but it makes for equal footing. Other poems towards the book’s end posit the interconnectedness of all life, often as they explore the human role in the planet’s degradation, sometimes at a panicked pitch: “What are the consequences if I buy that new pair of shoes?” the speaker of “Elegy for a Dead Earth” asks. “Disappearance of most remaining glaciers” follows—a harrowing response, but also one purposely exaggerated out of proportion. Heightened awareness troubles these poems into new forms, new musics, and new modes of questioning: “how long / this willful purposeful negligence?,” “Was all that psychedelia / faux / sense / of unveiling / or true cosmos-fabric revelation,” “how much longer / can we continue / to justify eating meat.”

If Whittlesey proves incapable of locating any sustained satisfaction, spiritual or otherwise, in the course of I Wanted Everything, she can hardly be faulted for that. The world she casts her eye on, the world she wakes to and contends with and moves through, is intent on keeping her permanently hankering for more. This is what she was born for. This is what it’s come to. And Philosophy can’t reach her the way it reaches Boethius—“Leibniz can you help me with this?” she asks. No answer. The gravitational pull of market capitalism and all its fixings is too strong for Miss Muggins and her kind to ever achieve escape velocity. But in lieu of that victory, we have these gloriously vital songs of defeat. They capture how it feels to be alive now. And they expand our poetry to include such “deeply banal” but beautifully crafted and true moments as this: “Later, when the market disappoints / her hopes for a hot empanada, // she settles on some processed cheese / and frozen financiers for later.” The loose tetrameter, the half rhyme, the play on market and financier—this degree of poetic caretaking is typical Whittlesey, and it lightens the dark. It acts as bannister. It shows us the way. Through it, and with the sensibility this kind of caretaking evinces and promotes, she manages to find surprising beauty in the natural world—she gives us “satin ravens” that wreak havoc on “purportedly impenetrable Tupperware” (among my favorite lines in the book); she gives us thunder and lightning described as “a blunt throb / then topaz crack in the tumbling sky,” followed by “violet rains / awakening sage.” Readers who want answers might find them in moments like these, which offer a tacit endorsement of a way of being in the world that privileges the value of perception over that of acquisition, accumulation. Or maybe it’s Whittlesey’s next book that will tell us more directly what to do, how to live. In the meantime, she has given us a book that strives like a champion, that face-plants like the best of us, that shies away and throws a fit. A book that reads us as much as we read it. A book that knows what we’re going through, that moves us the way we need it to, that still hasn’t found what it’s looking for. Years from now, when they ask, and they will, what it was like back then, meaning the present, I will be kind. I will hand them I Wanted Everything, and I’ll say take this, all of you, and read.

Elizabeth Whittlesey was born with her sun in Leo in Harare, Zimbabwe, where she roamed with the other lions until the age of three. She grew up at the foot of Mt. Olympus of the Wasatch Range of the Rocky Mountains of Salt Lake City, Utah, and received her B.A. from Rice University and her M.F.A. from Columbia University. She currently resides among the Washington Heights hills of Manhattan.


Timothy Donnelly is the author of The Cloud Corporation (winner of the Kingsley Tufts Award) and Twenty-seven Props for a Production of Eine Lebenszeit. His poems have appeared in Harper’s, jubilat, The Nation, The Paris Review, PEN America, Ploughshares, TriQuarterly, and other journals, and have been translated into German and Italian. He teaches at Columbia University and is poetry editor for Boston Review. He lives in Brooklyn, New York with his wife and two daughters.