Safest, by Michael Donaghy

The line of beauty - and truth
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The Independent Culture

Michael Donaghy, born in 1954, grew up in the Irish-American community in the Bronx. In 1985 he came to London, which quickly recognised him as a true custodian of, in Blake's words, "the holiness of minute particulars": the tiny movements of syllable and imagination that creates a poem's music. His poems were deeply felt and playfully metaphysical. His books won prizes; he lived by music (flute and Irish drum) and teaching. Then, suddenly, a year ago, he died of a brain haemorrhage, like Arthur Hallam, Tennyson's friend. The effect on the world of poetry was pretty much what it was on Tennyson. Shattered disbelief, personal and professional despair, unreckonable loss.

Donaghy's last essay is reprinted in Machinery of Grace, a tribute published during this year's National Poetry Week by the Poetry Society and Beverley Literary Festival. It demonstrated the unique place he held in the hearts of fellow poets, how they honoured him in their artistry and humanity, love of tradition and supple imagination. "I couldn't look myself in the eye," he says in that essay, "unless I used verse as a means of discovery, rather than a method of persuading my audience of what I thought I already knew."

You cannot read Safest, his last and posthumous collection, without mourning that vision. Poetry was the way he attended to life. These poems - beautifully wrought, wise, mischievous and fluent as conversation - remind us what the world has lost: "Sometimes your writing's a soft tangle of subtleties/ undercutting each other, blurring the paths/ and you arrive at a washed-out bridge or rockslide./ Leave it. Don't try to end what's finished."

"Safest" was the name of the computer file where Donaghy stored poems. Unlike Hallam, he did not die at once. He knew he might not survive the operation and told his wife that these were the poems he wanted published.

Was Safest his intended title? No one knows, but Safest is frighteningly apt. Michael adored his young son Ruairi. The cover carries a photo, "Ruairi in flight", which Michael manipulated into a universal image: a barefoot child seen from below, running lightly over the tree-tops through a night sky blazing with shooting-starry lights.

And this is a good image for Donaghy's vision of how poetry works, too. It is the crafting of beauty out of our childlike flight through a darkness lit by strangeness, art's wild, vulnerable leap into the dark: the only worthwhile way to gauge our safety.

"Maybe poetry is our way of using the power of language against itself," he said, introducing his recent Faber edition of 101 Poems about Childhood, "so that, however briefly, we feel the world afresh with all the intensity of infancy." He knew we always drop back down to earth. Beneath this book lies Donaghy's adopted city: London, incorrigibly rich, sad, plural. In the crevices of Safest's London are some clairvoyant reflections on death: "St Thomas's Hospital where you lie/ in the eighth-floor intensive care unit/ wired up to a heart monitor/ staring north to Big Ben's crackled face."

Yet Safest also sparkles with delight in technique, whether of flute-playing, frog-swallowing or language itself. A sequence of prose poems revels in the sexy flicker of language while laughing at the way obsession with it upsets those who don't share it.

"My whisper," says one of Donaghy's last sonnets, "is a tile in a mosaic,/ the sky a spray of one-star constellations:/ the pupil, the tear, the full stop." Donaghy's "whisper" resonated with life. But it depended on the seriously playful manipulation of ordinary truth. What Safest gives you is the real thing. Poetry, that truth you have to lie to tell.

'Machinery of Grace' is available at £7 plus £1 p&p (of which £5 goes to the Ruairi Donaghy fund) from The Poetry Society, 22 Betterton Street, London WC2, marketing@poetry society.org.uk

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