Book review: 'Nocturnes of the Brothel of Ruin' holds nothing back

Patrick Donnelly's second book of poetry, "Nocturnes of the Brothel of Ruin," is one of those bracingly honest, yet so immensely refreshing, volumes of poetry.

We are not asked to wallow in "confessional" angst, but to take a good look at how things really are and through the elegant addition of translations of Japanese verse, to find a connection with nature and human nature for the poetic tonic of metaphor and meaning in language. Donnelly is the recipient of the Amy Clampitt Residency Award in Lenox for 2018, and is working on a new book of poems, "Little-Known Operas."

"Nocturnes of the Brothel of Ruin" is divided into three sections, the first prefaced by a dream-like, perhaps supernatural Zen Buddhist divination, of being in the womb in a cosmic dream state that counsels and predicts the essential of love for the soul relating its story. The speaker of the poem dives into life: "I didn't think, I seized / the bloody flag of my attachments / and tore down the tunnel of what I couldn't know / was my millionth birth."

These poems are about the fates and love, and how beautiful longing and lust are, but also how death and our actions enter life with finality. It is a searching and plaintive expression of celebration in language deeply personal and poetry cutting edge in nature. Each section has subtle themes of love, our mother and impermanence.

Scattered like blossoms within sections at different intervals, like unexpected, but companionable visitors, are translations by Donnelly and Stephen D. Miller from ancient Japanese poets that accentuate Donnelly's deeply moving verse reflecting on the sometimes ethereal and impermanent nature of every moment, every feeling, every relationship, indeed, every life. But his poetry and the precision of these Japanese poems combines the beauty of being aware of this life as perplexing and challenging and brief, all at the same time. The mortal experience of our inadequate interpretations of nature are at once resolved in an immersion with the natural world as in this translation of the poem "To Her Teacher," from the Heian period Japanese of Izumi Shikibu:

"the path I had to take

led from dark

to darker-

O moon

on your mountain edge

shine across

the vast emptiness"

The Japanese poems of so long ago are a quiet and powerful link to the poetry of Donnelly's contemporary, open and revealing appraisal of our flawed efforts toward excellence as in his apt inclusion of the poem "Translation" :

"at first the 900-year-old scratchings

really seemed to mean,

as I hoped,

it was the same world

after he saved it

as before-


after further probing,

the poem announced, unhelpfully

proof he saved the world

is the same

as it has ever been"

"Nocturnes of the Brothel of Ruin" is a brave collection of poems that holds nothing back, but accompanies us all to face the music of impermanence and love that sometimes comes our way. We all have the best intentions, but what comes out in our lives is often the embodiment of folly, at times humor, and certainly dumb luck, which in their own humor and grace, is sometimes the best teacher.

Patrick Donnelly and Stephen T. Miller will read from "The Wind From Vulture Peak," "Nocturnes of the Brothel of Ruin," "Jesus Said" and new work from "Little-Known Operas" at 5:30 p.m. Friday, May 25 at The Bookstore & Get Lit Wine Bar in Lenox.

Colin Harrington is the events manager at The Bookstore & Get Lit Wine Bar in Lenox. He welcomes reader comments at

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"Nocturnes of the Brothel of Ruin" (Poetry)

By Patrick Donnelly

Publisher: Four Way Books

90 Pages