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 was 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 irresistible 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 Errata.
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. 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 (pages 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 Darkroom, 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).
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’s 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).
Early in Anne-Marie Fyfe’s third collection, the narrator runs a writing class in a prison and makes use of Raymond Carver as a stimulus. As the writing begins, she observes, “Carver would’ve / nodded: no chi-chi writing, no / tomfoolery, not a sign of a cheap / trick in sight” (The Writing Class). This is a good way into Fyfe’s own work and the seriousness of her poetic concerns, but Carver’s colloquial ease and carefully crafted authenticity is not her aim. Fyfe’s language has a roiling surface, a gristly weight that seldom lets you forget its artifice. She likes hyphenated compounds, pronouns and articles are pruned, punctuation can be so light that grammatical function has to be actively sought. She favours the elliptical and allusive over the plainspoken. She likes to push words into new roles. These are not cheap tricks and rather than a poet who frets solipsistically at the inadequacy of language to give access to experience, Fyfe’s work engages with an all-to-real objective world, which continually proves difficult to feel at home in.
Visiting the “old man-killing parishes” of Jutland, Heaney declares that he feels “lost, / Unhappy and at home” (The Tollund Man). The wrestling of Fyfe’s language echoes this irresolvable paradox of rootedness in a lack of belonging. So in The Ghost Twin she swipes powerfully at the idiocy of the suburbs. It is a “street / of facades. Squabbles. Songs of Praise / in every living room” (Mid-Terrace Water Feature). Weydon Priors Crescent is a dormitory for the “defeated: diminished men recover / from seizures, breathless women / clear knitting from tables” while the narrator flees back to the “TV-newscaralarm- gridlock / heaven” of London. A doll’s house in A Small Life reflects suburban housewifery with its “complacency” only occasionally giving way to the desire to “smash / candlesticks, painted piano keys, take / little shears to pale ruched blinds”.
The most original poems grow from Fyfe’s Irish childhood as well as those that take off into the realm of parables or typological narratives. Of those set in an Irish context, Shooting in the Street is a gem of a poem in which a young woman’s mundane Saturday shopping is barely ruffled by the shooting of a local greengrocer. The bitten-back, choppy narrative – “A Saturday for wedding shoes. / Last item on the list. Strappy, open, / not too dance-hallhigh” – is impressionistic and the ordinariness Fyfe elsewhere lambasts here seems of value. The atrocity passes almost parenthetically – “when I get back on an afternoon / 91, he will be not-long-dead” – to be immediately translated into another item on the news. Auguries suggests that, in comparison to the rather fancifully escapist fortunes read in tea leaves, what the Belfast Telegraph reports as facts are “things you might imagine could / never happen”. It is this sense of bewilderment in the face of mundane events that Fyfe catches so well in her best poems, which employ indeterminate settings and narrative voices that report plenty of incident but little coherence. The poem that won her the 2004 Cardiff Competition, Curacao Dusk, opens with the enigmatic statement that “A plane flies off a map’s edge / today”. Once said, the poem’s tracing of the plane’s preparation for departure takes on a doomed and surreal air. More so, in that its payload seems to consist of mysteriously illegible postcards, “tethered / cockatiels”, wristwatches and “a crushed trumpeter’s / mute”. The co-pilot proceeds with the job though he seems fully aware things are awry, tapping the compass “twice for luck”. This is not writing likely to yield itself to explication, but a more fitting tribute to it as a contemporary poem might be the honest admission that walking out of our front doors of a morning at the beginning of the twenty-first century often feels rather like this.