by Michael Donaghy
Picador, 2009, $21.00 cloth, ISBN 9780330456296
reviewed by Sarah Kafatou
Michael Donaghy, an Irish-American poet and musician from the South Bronx, lived for the last twenty years of his life in London and died there at the age of fifty in 2004. He had served as poetry editor of the Chicago Review, but it is in Britain that his work was honored with the Whitbread Poetry Prize and the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, and it’s there that his collected poems and essays have now appeared.
Many of Donaghy’s strongest poems are dramatic monologues. As is the case with good fiction in prose or verse, empathy is never asleep in them. He comments, “A story I write from the point of view of a Japanese courtesan or an early Christian saint may be as or more autobiographical than a poem about the death of my father.” Indeed, in many of his best poems the interlocking of different lives is a central theme. Consider “Haunts,” in which a father returns from the dead to say, “Don’t be afraid, old son, it’s only me / … here, alive, one Christmas long ago / when you were three, upstairs, asleep / and haunting me … and when you spoke / in no child’s voice but out of radio silence, / the hall clock ticking like a radar blip, / a bottle breaking faintly streets away, / you said, as I say now, Don’t be afraid.”
Donaghy encounters the lives of others in his own again in “Southwesternmost,” a poem to his mother and “the treeless plain where she went home to die. / I almost hear it now and hold its shape, / the famine song she’s humming in my sleep.” The slippage of sound from “shape” to “sleep” in these lines speaks of the passage from conscious to subconscious in the poet’s mind. It’s crucial too that the mother’s song is not hers, or his, alone, for Irish traditional music is no monologue but the voice of many practitioners, of a people. We feel this when reading the sequence about it titled “O’Ryan’s Belt,” which takes as its occasion “the last unshattered 78 / by ‘Patrolman Jack O’Ryan, violin’, / a Sligo fiddler in Dry America. // A legend, he played Manhattan’s ceilidhs, / fell asleep drunk one snowy Christmas / on a Central Park bench and froze solid. / They shipped his corpse home, like his records.” A performer himself of traditional Irish music on the flute, Donaghy took to heart the exigencies of “common time.”
Somber themes of twentieth-century history sound in these poems: in “April 28th, 1940”, a story of the Blitz, and “Palm,” a bitterly funny account of seduction and betrayal in occupied France, and “From The Safe House,” about 1968 and the Weather Underground. Other poems are simply personal and universal, like “Annie,” a tender message to an unborn child: “Flicker, stranger. Flare and gutter out…Their kitchen windows burn / whom we can neither name nor say we loved. / Go to them and take this letter with you. // Go let them pick you up and dandle you / and sing you lullabies before the hob.”
The poems take many voices, many forms, and express many moods. More than a few were written in response to loss. The dead are not gone from us entirely, and friends and lovers from the past can be met again in imagination, though this may not bring comfort. So it is in “From The Safe House,” where the poet writes a letter to a former friend to be read by that friend in an alternate life; and again in “Black Ice and Rain,” about a love triangle:
Since then, the calmest voice contains her cry
just within the range of human hearing
and where I’ve hoped to hear my name gasped out
from cradle, love bed, death bed, there instead
I catch her voice, her broken lisp, his name.
A poet of complex human relationships, critical of academic theory but well-read and highly attuned to the demands of his craft , Donaghy excelled in finding words that resonate memorably in the mind and heart, in striking chords not easily resolved. Much admired in Britain, he deserves to be better known here in the United States.