In Presiding Spirits, Magma explores how a contemporary poet is influenced by the writing of a poet now dead. Here, the London-based American poet Michael Donaghy takes a poem from his most recent collection and explains to Mick Delap how its starting point, in a very literal sense, was one of the better known poems of the first half of the twentieth century. Donaghy’s poem is called The Drop:
We taped it under the seats,
packed it into the door panels,
drove it over the mountains in July,
and the other two hadn’t a word of the language,
not a word, not help, not food,
and always that fear of the sirens and lights, until,
at the end, we drove all night screaming
our throats raw over the radio to keep awake,
words we didn’t understand, mi corazón,
every other word, mi corazón, then,
an hour to dawn on the day of the drop, we drove down
through Calvária – just hours to go, but
we turned off the road near a fairground to dodgems,
carousel, all boarded up, spent fires, an old starving bitch
limping loose through the trailers. To nothing.
We got out to piss then waited for dawn in the car.
After days on the road we were talked out, hoarse,
but this was different, I remember, I think I remember,
paint peeling off the hoardings, the sun floating up
red through the dust and the mesquite smoke. Crows.
The place seemed emptied even of ourselves.
And then we drove on to the drop.
I’d forgotten, and you never asked…
But it all came back last night. Trouble outside –
a speeding siren woke me, tuning down a fifth,
and I realized I’d been dreaming of that morning,
the three of us sitting in the car and, somehow,
I was standing outside too, watching us. I couldn’t speak
because I’d used up all the words.
But it was the words had used me up
and left me black birds, a white dog, and corazón.
But this was years ago. Years. Before I met you.
The money? It went where money goes.
The Drop comes from Michael Donaghy’s third collection, Conjure, published in 2000 by Picador. It is set in typical Donaghy territory, an insecure present unsettled by vivid memories of a shadowy past, with all the Donaghy trademarks: elegance, word music, wit, but also hints of dislocation and understated heartache. However, as he explained to Magma, it differs from much of his other work in owing a particularly strong debt to a presiding spirit. It is, in fact, a deliberate re-write of a twentieth century classic, a much quoted poem which also involves a difficult journey through arid and alien territory towards a climactic meeting.
The model for The Drop is Journey of the Magi, written by T.S. Eliot in 1927, five years after the publication of The Waste Land. In his poem, Eliot has one of the Magi recalling the winter journey, guided by the star, to Bethlehem, to witness the birth of Christ: ‘A cold coming we had of it, / Just the worst time of the year’. And it wasn’t just the weather but "the camels galled, sore footed, refractory" and "the camel men cursing and grumbling / And running away", so that "At the end we preferred to travel at night, / Sleeping in snatches, / With the voices singing in our ears…"
In Eliot’s second stanza, the narrator recalls finding a temporary respite, "a temperate valley, / Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation" and moments that seemed significant:
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver.
Eventually, there was Bethlehem – the "satisfactory" finding of "the place". But then, recalled in old age, in Eliot’s third stanza, doubts. They had witnessed Birth, but it was like Death and they had returned to their Kingdoms "no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation".
Reminded of the Eliot original, it’s easy to see the parallels in Donaghy’s poem, both in the overall structure and in many of its details. As Donaghy explained to Magma, when he started writing The Drop, he wanted to produce a poem which quite openly acknowledged its origins, but one which also, in the writing process, gradually moved away from the original until it perhaps achieved a life of its own. Donaghy was well aware that in all Eliot’s poetry, and not least in Journey of the Magi, Eliot had drawn heavily and quite openly on previous writers. In his critical writings Eliot always placed great value on contemporary poets developing a strong working relationship with what their predecessors had written. He was about to be received into the Church of England and was also heavily into 17th century theology when he wrote Journey of the Magi. As Donaghy points out, he began the poem with five lines in quotation marks that repeat virtually word for word part of a sermon delivered in 1622 by Bishop Launcelot Andrewes, whom Eliot greatly admired.
Another strong influence, Donaghy explains, was Ezra Pound’s Exile’s Letter, one of Pound’s translations from the ancient Chinese. In it, the aging narrator, far from home and friends, recalls with regret past meetings and past journeys, one of them "hard going, over roads twisted like sheep’s guts", another involving an idyllic sojourn in "a valley of a thousand flowers". So Donaghy was aware that in setting out to re-write Journey of the Magi into something of his own, he was calling up not one, but several presiding spirits. It was begun, he explained, "in the spirit of a game, just to see what would happen. Then if it didn’t turn into my own poem, it would have just been an exercise. But it did, I think, and I was quite happy with it in the end".
The result was of course, The Drop. Its subject matter, a drugs delivery, could hardly be more different from Eliot’s. But there are indeed strong and deliberately obvious parallels. Donaghy has preserved Eliot’s basic structure: a dramatic monologue in which the narrator, in the first section, recounts the difficulties of a journey undertaken many years before. Then, in a second section the narrator more vividly recalls one brief hiatus in the journey, before the travellers (off camera, as it were) achieve their objective. And finally, the narrator suddenly reveals he has an audience with whom he is sharing his doubts about the enduring significance of what has occurred. We discover late on that a "you" is present in both poems, and it turns out to be this "you", rather than the reader, who is being addressed.
As well as respecting the "architecture" of the original, which he admires, Donaghy has underlined his debt to Eliot by echoing both the language and detail of Journey of the Magi. "Leaving clues", Donaghy calls it. There is the same use of "And" at the beginning of sentences, to keep the poem, and the journeying itself, rolling along (this paratactic syntax already borrowed by Eliot from Pound). In their respective opening sections, there is the same sense of how empty an experience it is to be travelling with such difficulty, at night, through alien and hostile territory, with only the half-understood "singing voices" / "radio" for comfort. Each narrator describes, in the second section, a pause in the penultimate stage of the journey which delivers the same brief sense of respite. Both Eliot’s temperate valley and Donaghy’s deserted fairground are seen at dawn; both have a totemic and decrepit beast – white horse / white dog – and each has a central image both poets have identified as something they had seen themselves, in real life. For Eliot, the recurring image was of "a tavern with . six hands at an open door dicing for silver", which he saw "at night at a small French railway junction where there was a water mill". For Donaghy, it is the deserted, boarded-up fairground, seen, he says, in suburban Illinois. These are the images which somehow possess "an emotional charge", as Eliot puts it, that makes it impossible to remove them from what Donaghy calls "the mind’s retina".
And finally, both these American-born poets, returning across the Atlantic towards their roots, end their poems with their narrators uneasily contemplating what they have left, and where and how, years later, they have ended up. So where does that leave the reader? These are, after all, both dramatic monologues, not poems in the voice of the poet. Eliot was under great personal stress, his first marriage unravelling, when he wrote The Magi. Donaghy admits he has what he calls "an inflamed sense of nostalgia, of constantly looking back. My parents came from Ireland to New York, and I grew up with them looking back to Ireland, telling me I was growing up in exile, in an alien country. And what happens? I emigrated, but to England, not to Ireland!"
He warns, though, that "it’s always dangerous for readers of any poet – and I’d like to warn my readers especially – to assume that poems that appear to be spoken by exotic characters in exotic locations, long ago, are not personal, and to assume that poems which sound personal, are. We are constantly deluding ourselves about our pasts. No matter how hard we ‘tell the truth’ we’re fictionalizing. So I just do the same more consciously. Which is not to say I’m not aiming at the truth. I am certainly aiming at an emotional truth. And at a philosophical truth. Also, a musical, and a mathematical truth – however short I may fall. But not at a documentary truth. I’m never aiming at a documentary truth. I might include some of it, because it’s there, as raw material."
As for The Drop, "I think, especially in the third part of the poem, that it’s taken off from Eliot it’s become entirely its own poem. So it’s moved from being an intellectual exercise into having an emotional truth of its own. Though what that might be, the reader must say. I can’t".