Tuesday Poem: Michael Donaghy - 'Safest'

Angelus Novus

As in this amateur footage of a lynch mob when someone hoists a
metal folding chair and commences to batter the swinging corpse
even as others hack at its limbs with machetes, just so Achilles, his
frenzy a runaway train, yokes up his team and drags Hector's carcass
around and around like . . . Stop.  Rewind.

Hector dying on his knees in the dust whispering Prove you're a
man, then, swear by your soul, swear by your gods you won't feed
my corpse to your dogs.

Fuck you spits Achilles.  Freeze frame.  Mid-blink, Hector looks into
Achilles' eyes and takes all the time in the world to recall his last
embrace of Andromache and, it hardly now surprises him, to look
back at the future advancing behind him, to his own father
kissing the hands of this killer, the monster taking Priam's hand and
weeping with him, the sound of their sobbing filling the camp.  Play
on.  Hector's face slams to the dust.

Try to look at this:  blind flash victims.  Nagasaki.  In their endless
1945 they face the camera as unaware of the photographer as they
are of you, viewer, Just so, rage-blind Achilles cannot now glimpse in
Hector's eyes, just before they empty, the terrible pity.

© The Estate of Michael Donaghy 2005
From 'Safest', published by Picador, London 2005

Hector was the eldest son of King Priam of Troy and one of the Trojan's greatest warriors, though he opposed war with the Greeks. Drawn into the war he did not want to fight, he killed Patroclus - Achilles beloved companion. Subsequently, in a duel with the grief-enraged Achilles, Hector is killed and his body dragged round the walls of Troy for all to witness.  It is a story of revenge and cruelty and the pointlessness of war - where heroes are compared to members of a lynch mob and their battles a cycle of endless killing in which no one really wins.  Michael Donaghy makes the parallel with World War II and the nuclear bombs dropped on the Japanese city of Nagasaki, and in the last line echoes Wilfred Owen's lines:-

 My subject is War, and the pity of War.
 The Poetry is in the pity.

Michael Donaghy died suddenly, from a brain haemorrhage, in 2004 aged 50.  He was Irish-American, brought up in New York, in the Bronx, where he witnessed endemic racism and every-day violence. Even as a young child he was drawn to books, spending time in the library rather than on the streets. He later said,  “I owe everything I know about poetry to the public library system.”  He went to university (which he referred to as his ‘miseducation’) and by the time he was in his early twenties he was the editor of the Chicago Review.  Michael was also a musician and, when he moved to London in 1985, he joined Don Paterson and jazz musician Tim Garland to form the fusion music group ‘Lammas’.

Michael Donaghy's poetry was lyrical, always underpinned by form and rhythm, and often referencing the Irish folk music tradition.  One of my favourite poems in this collection is ‘Irish Folk Music: A Fascinating Hobby . . .’ - which is only a fragment of an unfinished poem narrated by ‘Police Chief Francis O’Neill, Chicago, 1910'.

A review of his work in the Dark Horse (by David Mason), titled 'The Song is Drowned', said that:  "He was a poet of bountiful erudition, energy and delight. Even his haunted moods, his premonitions of an early death, came on with the brightness and wit of an Ariel."  Michael Donaghy's work is muscular, many-layered, profound, cross-cultural and multi-referenced.

‘Safest’ was the name of the file on his computer where he was storing poems intended for his next collection.  It was published by Picador, edited by his partner Maddy Paxman, in 2005.  Since then Michael Donaghy has dropped off the radar, as too often happens when poets die, leaving a big gap in the contemporary poetry spectrum.  I was given this collection by a friend who works in a charity shop - ‘No one wants the poetry books,’ she said.  Their loss is my gain.

Towards the end of the book is a poem that is almost prophetic, in the voice of a soul as it leaves the body and hovers over it in the emergency room.  It is called Exile’s End.

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.

Gaze down over the rim of the enormous lamp.
Observe the skilled frenzy of the physicians,
a nurse’s bald patch, blood.  These will blur,
as sure as you’ve forgotten the voices
of your childhood friends, or your toys.

Or, you may note with mild surprise,
your name.  For the face they now cover
is a stranger’s and it always has been.
Turn away.  We commend you to the light,
where all reliable accounts conclude.

© The Estate of Michael Donaghy 2005

You can still buy Safest on Kindle and through second hand books on Amazon and  from Abe Books.


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