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Mister Perfect

Michael Hinds

Randall Jarrell is a reliably anxious authority to call on when questioning the canonical dynamics of reviewing a Collected Poems:

Back in the stacks, in libraries; in bookcases in people’s living rooms; on brick-and-plank bookshelves beside studio couches, one sees big dark books in black bindings, the Collected Poems of the great poets. Once, long ago, the poems were new: the book went by post—so many horses and a coach—to a man in a country house, and the letter along with it asked him to describe, evaluate, and fix the place in English literature, in 12,000 words, by January 25, of the poems of William Wordsworth. And the man did.
It is hard to remember that this is the way it was, harder to remember that this is the way it is. The Collected Poems still go out … and the man who is sent them still treats them with rough, or rude, or wild justice; still puts them in their place, appreciates their virtues, says Just here thou ail’st, says, Nothing I can say will possibly ... and mails the essay off.
It all seems terribly queer, terribly risky; surely, by now, people could have thought of some better way? Yet is it as different as we think from what we do to the old Poems in the dark binding, the poems with the dust on them? Those ruins we star, confident that we are young and they, they are old ‑ they too are animals no one has succeeded in taming, young things nothing has succeeded in aging; beings to which we can say, as the man in Kafka’s story says to the corpse: ‘What’s the good of the dumb question you are asking?’ They keep on asking it; and it is only our confidence and our innocence hat let us believe that describing and evaluating them, fixing their places ‑ in however many words, by whatever date ‑ is any less risky.

This riskiness surely attends all reviewing, but it also seems particularly acute when it is a Collected edition that we are talking about. It remains an abiding concern whether the Collected is the product of a post-mortem ruckus between academics and editors, for example Larkin, or the fidgety self-arranging of  a still-living poet, as with Derek Mahon’s ongoing reshuffles of his work through a series of Collected editions (in this respect, he is the closest we have to an Irish Walt Whitman). All of this is informed by death, of course; very few poets are more valuable alive than dead, and very few want to be, if we take seriously the idea that a poet is seeking to find some words that will hitch a ride on the collective unconscious into the future (Plath’s “indefatigable hoof-taps” come to mind).

Although he did organise some of his earlier work for republication, Michael Donaghy never got the chance to arrange his own Collected edition or to cull parts of his work for a Selected Poems (in some respects an even more radically demanding type of book for a poet to produce), simply because he died too young (in all senses). Ten years after his death, Picador has produced a paperback edition of his Collected Poems after a five-year wait, decorated with a sumptuous black-and-gold representation of what looks like either a seismograph or the graph on a lie detector; either way, it is a significant choice: the colours suggest a casket, the image an announcement that the time has arrived for canonical weighing and measuring. We are back in the domain of risk.

There is plenty in place here to try and help make your mind up about Donaghy, even before you get to the poems. Sean O’Brien’s introductory essay effectively says an awful lot of what one might want to say in a review such as this, and says it very well. Of course, it could be argued contrarily that the confidence of O’Brien’s claims for Donaghy’s work would be regarded as more robust if the essay had been placed at the back rather than the beginning of the book; yet it also poses an interesting question for you when you begin to work through the poems, because you still have licence to make an assessment of whether or not the poems warrant O’Brien’s laurels. O’Brien tells us emphatically that Donaghy is a good poet; but until we read him we do not know how good.

The frequently quoted descriptions of Donaghy as a modern metaphysical may well make prospective readers nervous; yet in the main there is nothing ostentatiously intellectual about these poems and Donaghy rarely ventures out into abstraction or clever-clever self-love. This is remarkably thoughtful and conscientious poetry, exhibiting a watchfulness that can be unbearable, as in the torturous restraint of “The Last Tea of Rikyu”, where a man condemned to die by hara-kiri meets his death with a stoicism that maddens. This is not a veneration of ritualised death, ritualised tea-drinking or anything, but a poem that speaks of a colossal vacancy within which none of it all matters:

Rikyu unwraps bands of black silk
From the short sword.

His eyes are clear.
     ‘Have we not already died
     Who live beyond fear and desire?’
I weep for humility and gratitude

And do not see the shock, the body buckling.
This is how it always begins;
A jolt, the world whirls within us,
A raindrop hesitates, then hits the roof.

This is not redemptive, rather horribly brutal, in the way that genteel docility does particularly well; the metaphysical aspect of this poetry is the existentialism that we expect in Raymond Chandler, but it also carries with it a full-blown nausea, one that only increases as the elegancies of poetic minimalism reassert themselves. Rikyu is an Epicurean, not a Buddhist, but he may as well be a Scientologist; and that’s the truth.

What really surprises about Donaghy is his narrative strength, the way in which he generates scenarios that acquire an instant credibility. Here, in the wonderful “‘Smith’”, he begins by wondering about how to believe in the writing of your own name (“Why does it take a forger’s nerve / To make my signature come naturally?”), and then progresses into a series of explanations drawn from memory. This does not quite take on a Wordsworthian solemnity, however; instead, Donaghy watches his past through his fingers (recalling Joyce’s Stephen in his moments of high pretension):

Later, in my teens, I brought a girl,
My first, to see the Rodin exhibition.
I must have ranted on before each bronze;
Metal of blood and honey ... Pure Sir Kenneth Clark.
And those were indeed the feelings I wanted to have,
But I could tell she was unimpressed.
She fetched our coats. I signed the visitor’s book,
My name embarrassed back into mere words.

The other thing to remark here is just how perfected this anecdote is within the entire stanza, which compresses the memory into its most gently excruciating form. Donaghy’s ability to use narrative is more than postmodern what-iffery, therefore, but a source of thorough musicality and artistic regeneration; the stories that emerge in his poems are not so much looking to prompt us into epistemological queries about the essence of the real; rather they allow us to encounter variations within the real, placing us within a metamorphic system in which our minds can remain elastic and mobile. In this way, Donaghy the poet-musician takes us back to the fundamental principles of the lyric that Pound outlined in ABC of Reading (1934): “Music rots when it gets too far from the dance. Poetry atrophies when it gets too far from music.” If these poems gratify as stories, recalling the raconteurish aspects of Ciaran Carson or Muldoon, they also do so musically, and this amounts to a rhythmic dance of intellect which takes us into the actual process of consciousness. So this is a vibrant poetry of the intelligence, but it is not about the demonstration of concepts; it does not offer us a philosophy but ways in which to query and wonder about it. So in “Music and Sex and Drinking”, Donaghy’s speaker ventures an Ian Duryesque theorem that the terms of the title “constitute us like dimensions”; the idea is stretched out and pummelled, Donne-style, only to reach the conclusion that if the idea is provable as correct, then that represents a terrifying neatness, and gives him no occasion for pleasure:

I find myself, sobbing, over and over,
‘I am exactly trivial and hold that everything,
And each least part of everything,
However tragic, chaste, tuneless, sober,
can be accurately graphed upon these axes
To fill up its place in the world to the edges.’

In the same way, Donaghy makes a fascinating political poet; not because he is expressive of a particular commitment but because he is peculiarly aware of how politics exists as a volatile presence in the imaginary. In this sense, the most terrifying mentality is not that of the true believer, but the unreflective constituent who does not realise or recognise that what they inevitably express is the purest of ideology:

Foreign policy does not exist for us.
We don’t know where the new countries are.
We don’t care. We want the streets safe
So we vote for the chair. An eye for an eye.

Our long boats will come in the spring
And we will take many heads.
the name of our tribe means ‘human being’.
We will make our children pray to our god in public.

This poem (“Majority”) is a calculatedly unsubtle expression of a terrifying mentality. What immediately follows it in the sequence of his first book, Shibboleth, is a remarkably sinuous run of variations upon that brutality. “News item” provides a wickedly laconic epitaph for “the literal-minded” who died attempting to evacuate what appears to be a cinema in a frenzied response to a “little girl who shouted ‘fire’”. That dark gag is blown away by another, when the speaker concedes also that “Among the missing” are the girl herself and “those of us who remained seated / Savoring the sheer / Theatre.” It does not matter whether there was a fire or not, therefore; when death comes, it will come. The theatrical setting of this poem takes us right into the next, “Pornography”, in which we are now asked (determinedly) to accept that we are in a cinema:

The bodies of giants shine before us like a crowded fire.
One might here quite credibly shout ‘Theatre’.
I can’t watch this. Instead, I’ll stare at the projector beam
The smoke and dust revolve in and reveal.

More than just a setting, we are in fact revisiting the vocabulary of the previous poem, which could read as diminishing the seriousness of its devastation, yet this is only the beginning of the poem’s fugue-like operation (which takes its place metonymically within the book’s overall use of a similar technique of theme and variation). In the second stanza, Donaghy embarks on yet another anecdote ‑ “Remember my story?” ‑ in which he relates how he saw (while driving in Maine) a hawk plummeting to catch a hare, only to let it fall. The language is magnificent and portentous, Yeatsian in its noisy polish:

Real as a wind shear before the blown snow reveals it.
The hawk became its aim, made one smooth purchase
In a splintering of twigs. A hare squealed, and I watched the bird
Slam the air in vain till it gave up and dropped its catch.
I told you how I sat and watched the rabbit die,
And described blood steaming on the frosty gravel.

This rhetoric of the wow is given a hard bump in the next stanza: “Remember how angry you were / When I told you I’d made it up?” At this moment, we are left only with the storyteller’s rationalisations, that he had done the artistic work of allowing his audience to imagine what it would be like to feel the dimensions of this situation, and that no further ethical obligations should apply:

But I told my tale well, bought your pity for the hare,
Terror for the hawk, and I served my point,
Whatever it was.

This Aristotleian apologia would make a good ending for a good poem, but Donaghy has two more stanzas in which our frame of reference shifts again and again. We are asked to “remember” another account of the speaker’s adventures in Maine, this time when they were treated to a Platonic spectacle in a cave:

I was trapped in a cave and saw shadows on the limestone wall?
When the scouts freed me and carried me to the cave mouth
The true light burned my eyes like acid. Hours passed
Before I found myself safe in the Maine woods, resting in my car.

After the previous stanza, are we inclined to believe him? It seems that the answer to some degree must always be yes, that we forget to recognise the basis of what we behold in truth, “whatever it” is. None of this would be more than the kind of abstract epistemological point which I earlier said Donaghy does not make, except for the final reel of “Pornography”:

THE END is near. The final frame of Triumph of the Will
Slips past the lens and the blank flash blinds us.

Aha. All of a sudden, these poems’ issues of credibility and credulity, and their setting within mediated modes of mass unthinking, culminate in a final, but very far-reaching query. Do the fantasies of credibility that art presents find a mirror in totalitarian politics? To what degree is an aestheticised politics contradicted or confirmed by the true lies of art? If I believe in Plato, if I believe in little girls crying wolf, if I believe in Michael Donaghy, I can believe in Leni Riefenstahl. Belief might be the problem.

We are mainly dealing with four books and a few outliers here, the poems from Shibboleth (1998), Errata (1993), Conjure (2000) and Safest (2004). The sustained quality of the poems across them, and the formidably compact Collected that emerges, directly echoes the achievement of the ur-canonical poet of our time, Elizabeth Bishop. The Bishop comparison holds in other ways too, notably in how formalism co-exists quite comfortably with the customarily relaxed idiom of the poems. Donaghy can work in whatever form he likes: seemingly, none of them come amiss; at the same time, he does not appear to have had one that he particularly favours. Just like Bishop, there is a villanelle, but only the one. He is also reticent in the way that Bishop is reticent, not impersonal at all, but saving privacy for himself outside of the messy public spaces of the encounter with a reader. This only adds to our pleasurable trepidation of the work, of course; the illusory sense that we might find a further implication in it that will bring us closer to the Real (that we do not want to meet, not really). That is the truth of Donaghy’s work, the way he allows a reader to suspend themselves, not in a Keatsian daze of uncaring, but rather a comic blaze of awareness that allows a full range of will and instinct to be inhabited and explored.

Broadly speaking, Donaghy echoes Bishop again in that he gives the lie to the idea of the maturing poetic voice as a desirable achievement. There is not much of a “progression” from book to book. Donaghy appears to have been born ready. These poems are always like poems, they are musical and coded, not merely lineated prose or sensible sentences. What does vary is his sense of a poetic subject, however, and how it might be manipulated; the political sequence in Shibboleth is a good example of that. The later poems understandably contain a much more direct awareness of bodily fallibility, showing again that Donne-like capacity for wry but empassioned patterning, notably when Donaghy contemplates the imperfect death of his mother through the perfecting lenses of science and metaphor:

I’ve a pocketwatch for telling space,
a compass tooled for reckoning by time,
to search this quadrant between six and nine
for traces of her song, her scent, her face.
Come night, that we might seek her there, come soon,
come shade the southwest quarter of this chart,
the damaged chamber of my mother’s heart.

Donaghy died of a brain haemorrhage (like Bishop), so it is hard to be too confident about the emergence of an autumnal late style in poems like this, given that his own mortality was far closer to him than he realised; and yet it is hard not to find just about the only heroism available to artists (as artists, rather than as activists) in moments like these:

You will do the very last thing,
Wait then for a noise in the chest,
between depth charge and gong,
like the seadoors slamming on the car deck.
wait for the white noise and then cold astern. (“Exile’s End”)

The things about Donaghy that we might want to make intellectual capital out of, such as his status as a transnational transplantee, an Irish musician moving from New York to London, turn out to be the least interesting things about him. What abides is a sense that a poem is a minor fuss worth making, even if that might mean exile, crime or punishment. Identity politics can be left to those who stay at home, whether by choice or accident; this finds incredibly forceful expression in “Mine” ( a triumph of the contemporary subgenre that we could call the Dante-but-not-quite-Dante-Poem) in which a paternal spectre directs Donaghy’s speaker out of the underworld to the life-path he must follow:

And when, at last, it lifts its fleshy, palsied,
Toothless, half-blind, almost human head,
It’s me.
     Whom did you expect? It retches
from its blackened lung, I’m not your father,
son. Mine is a worked-out seam whose walls
get disappeared, caved-in, carved-out.
Back out of it now, before you lose your thread.
Go home, unpick the knot you’ve made,
leave it skitter in long waves across the tarmac
unspooled like the guts of a crushed cassette,
pay out whatever bloody yarn you must
though it wind through olive grove, ruin,
renamed road at first light where you’re last seen walking,
just, to the rest of your own life, whoever you are,
and no king’s daughter holding the end of your line.

It is good advice, to weave your own lines, once you have unravelled those that held you. Almost any of the one hundred and fifty or so poems in this book indicate that Donaghy did this as well as almost any other poet of the past century, living or dead; and making that judgement does not feel too risky.

Michael Hinds is co-ordinator of the Irish Centre for Poetry Studies and Head of English at the Mater Dei Institute, Dublin.