Michael Donaghy – 10 Years On

With the South Bank in London about to stage a celebration of Michael Donaghy’s work (http://www.southbankcentre.co.uk/whatson/michael-donaghy-a-celebratio-85980) and several new publications forthcoming, I remember reading with him around 1990 at that same venue. I’m sure the event was recorded but I’ve never heard it since. He was reading from Shibboleth (1988) and I must have been reading from Beneath Tremendous Rain (1990). I reviewed his posthumous book Safest (2005) for Poetry London (I think) and thought it might be appropriate to post it here unchanged. My intention was to review his work as a whole as well as commenting on the short collection that Picador had then produced.

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Michael Donaghy’s death in 2004 is rightly regarded as a great loss to English poetry. With the publication of Safest – poems he had been preparing for a fourth collection – we can see his work over 30 years forming a tragically curtailed, but significant whole. I wonder if he tired of the early ‘metaphysical’ label, so easily applied to a poem like ‘Machines’ which opened his first book and remarkable in 1988 for its elegance of form and delicate wit. What is really distinctive in the first two books is his pursuit of the dramatic lyric. Donaghy is a terrific storyteller and a key part of his success is the irresistable address of his narrators. This is usually combined with astonishingly fluid transitions from colloquialism to the complexly erudite (the metaphysical bit). Drama lies in Donaghy’s precision of voice, the accessibility of character and narrative and his superb, often comic, sense of timing. His deployment of these various devices results in the other distinctive property of a Donaghy poem – the sheer distance it can travel from start to finish and the surprises on the way. Particularly for those who saw him perform, these are the elements he triumphantly combined in feast-like poems such as ‘Smith’, ‘Letter’, ‘Cadenza’, ‘Liverpool’, ‘The Hunter’s Purse’ and ‘Erratum’.

In retrospect, the traditional nature of his subjects is clear: love, art, death, time. Perhaps the absence of politics will come to be seen as a bar to real greatness, though the opening 20 pages of Shibboleth and the first two sections of Errata are very powerful evidence in his favour. Perhaps all his concerns are subsumed in his continual meditation on the temporal – how identity is composed of past events, how the past can seem more real than the present, how “the past falls open anywhere” (‘Black Ice and Rain’ from Conjure). Always restless, Donaghy’s third book seemed significantly darker in tone and contained fewer stories. What the blurb referred to as his most “vulnerable” work is a series of heart-broken love lyrics and a number of poems on his relationship with his dead father. Of the latter, ‘Caliban’s Books’ is outstanding and need give no quarter to Plath’s ‘Full Fathom Five’ in the evocation of parent/child relationships and Donaghy’s poem is full of tenderness and astringent nostalgia for the lost man and his Irish childhood.

Now Safest gives us 24 new poems – barely half a full collection – and one can only wonder at what might have been. Maddy Paxman’s note on the contents suggests these were the pieces Donaghy had approved for publication, but even so the repetition of a brief passage in two quite different poems (page 21 and 27) suggests an inevitable lack of finish. The book seems to have been shaping up more to resemble Conjure than the early work. Vintage Donaghy can be found in poems like ‘A Darkoom’, an imagined/remembered portrait of Klein, a holocaust survivor and photographer, visited in the garrulous narrator’s youth but whose memories of the man are at risk of being forgotten. The opening poem’s image of a Claude Glass (an 18th century device for creating picturesque images of landscapes that lie at the viewer’s back) is a perfect vehicle to articulate Donaghy’s retrospective habit of  “squinting to recall some fading pleasure, / or [being] blinded by some private scrim of tears” (‘Upon a Claude Glass’).

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‘From the Safe House’ is another narrative tour de force, blurring the boundaries of memory and imagination, compacting time to an eternal instant in writing a letter from Reagan-era Chicago to send in the present day to a friend who has just died prematurely but imagining him a happily married father in Vera Cruz! Against all the odds this works – and is deeply moving. This is an almost baroque extension of earlier modes, but Donaghy’s bold re-writing of the original in ‘Akhmatova Variations’ looks like a new direction. As does ‘The Moko’, which reads as a hypnotic paean to some whale-like creature: “Muscles of silence are rolling miles offshore at night”. Such environmental concerns are new in Donaghy’s work and his lyricism invests these creatures with grace and nobility:

They knew the stars and steered by singing them

and when the stars were dark, by wind,

and when the winds died, by wave swell,

bird flight, swirled shoals of luminous algae,

by phosphorescence a fathom under the outrigger.

The fact that the moko turns out to be a Polynesian mythical beast of the sea only adds to the poem’s intrigue.

Donaghy’s art – as far as it was allowed to develop – owes its success to contradictory impulses. It thrives on tensions between fluid and formal, colloquial and erudite, humour and seriousness, personal and impersonal. It strikes me there was a movement over the years from the first of each of these contrasts towards the second – whether a permanent sea change or mere local turbulence we will never know. Of course, hindsight tempts us to see the darkening as prophetic but, as I have said, this was under way in his third book. Safest has its preponderance of troubled and troubling lyrics, less love-torn this time, more concerned with the dissolution of self. ‘Midriver’ is a bold language experiment in which the lyric voice is almost wholly stripped of its personal pronoun and identity seems lost in a swirl of the temporal and spatial: “so stops halfway and, neither there nor there, / but cold and rained on and intransitive”. Even more explicitly in ‘Exile’s End’ and ‘Disquietude’, it is death that lowers and Donaghy writes not with Larkin’s horror, nor Thomas’ raging, but from an intrigued distance: “No recording devices are allowed in this hall. / The lights dim . . . / for the next movement / which features no one and is silent”. (‘Disquietude’).

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