The sunday poem

Every week Ruth Padel discusses a contemporary poet through an example of their work No 11 Michael Donaghy
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Prize-winning American-Irish poet from a Catholic background, a London resident since 1965. Two collections of glitteringly witty, dark, learned poems, intellectually complex but deceptively light-toned and beaten into polished forms by a master hand. Marvellously varied, imaginative subjects, from Irish love knots to Shakespeare to Arctic explorers. He is a poet of ideas and history. Music (he plays traditional Irish music professionally), belief and the tragic quirks of past human lives rub shoulders in his work with contemporary relationships, all summoned up in a tone of confiding intimacy which hopes you'll find the world as crazily, metaphysically entertaining as he does.

A poem about the heart under the skin, the pain under Valentine's pink satin, the dangers and scars of love. It yokes together wildly different worlds (Tracy's boyfriend, prisoners, the foul tattoo parlour, St Valentine, the poet's feelings for Tracy whom he'd like to hear from though she never showed her scar), through common themes - skin (the tattooing parlour, the scar, the flaying of Valentine); pain and mutilation (the prisoners' broken glass, Tracy's "legless" weekend and split from her boyfriend, the arrows in the heart); and retraction and denial. As in the sliced-off tattoo, the desanctified saints, Tracy's refusal to say where on her the mark was, the bracketed blank which stands for the scar, the "odd, anonymous note" the poet "unwraps" (as he never unwrapped Tracy), deceiving himself into "believing" it's from her. The underlying concept could be summed up in the "Got you under my skin" love song: the tragic difference, in all this love business, between surface and interior, appearance and reality. Jeans and shirts hide tattoos, blood "spurts" out of the Sacred Heart, unlikely inner passions drive lonely men to blazon their arms painfully with Chinese dragons and blurred hearts. This poem takes the Valentine as mark of inner imagination and reckless outer pain.

The line is iambic pentameter, the blank verse rhythm that has dominated English poetry since Elizabethan times. Five beats to a line: but he pulls it around like Plasticene, lengthening it to show you something, shortening it to shove the ideas on. The second line lengthens to six beats as you wait in that awful parlour (where four S, five T and three K sounds hold everything up). The fourth is lengthened for the "blood-sopped cotton" and needle business. But the sixth line is short: the poet stops describing and moves on to the main theme. Vowel harmonies (legless / ex; heart / bastard / hurt; dragon / iron; RJL / small / apocryphal / Liverpool) sew lines together subtly. (So much for the "Modern Poets Don't Use Rhyme" brigade - what does "use" mean, when people say that? Everyone "uses" rhyme: they just use it differently in different places.) But the beat and flow, the changes of accent and rhythm between the lines, are the main source of the music.

Starting in a buttonholing, man-in-a-pub, upfront way ("Ever been tattooed?"), ending with a regretful private envoi, he scoops together disparate images to get across universal pain at the (potential) emptiness at the "heart" of love. See the blank, the scar never shown, the anonymity, the affair that didn't happen, the saints who are no longer saints (St Christopher has lost his "St").

But though the poem bloodily dissects the damage and hollowness of love, though the boyfriend turns into a sliced-away initial (a "bastard" X), the last line closes, nevertheless, on a note of hope. In love, you "let" yourself "believe" that something universally yearned for, a wrapped gift as invisible as sainthood, will come your way. The whole business of "my Valentine" turns on a paradox, that the miraculous is also ordinary ("Lovers in their ordinary swoon", W H Auden put it in a famous love poem): something extraordinarily vulnerable and violent, a heart pierced by an arrow, gets "sliced" and "skewered" into macho arms with the most ordinary implements, Biros, broken glass. A memory of flaying is everyone's "mark" of yearning, their clung-to bit of salvation in loneliness: "broken" maybe, but still the "trace" of love, miraculous, sanctified by immortal human longing if not by the cardinals of Rome.

c Ruth Padel 1999

'Liverpool' is taken from Errata, OUP


Ever been tattooed? It takes a whim of iron,

takes sweating in the antiseptic-stinking parlour,

nothing to read but motorcycle magazines

before the blood-sopped cotton and, of course, the needle,

all for - at best - some Chinese dragon.

But mostly they do hearts,

hearts skewered, blurry, spurting like the Sacred Heart

on the arms of bikers and sailors.

Even in prison they get by with biro ink and broken glass,

carving hearts into their arms and shoulders.

But women's are more intimate. They hide theirs,

under shirts and jeans, in order to bestow them.

Like Tracy, who confessed she'd had hers done

One legless weekend with her ex.

Heart. Arrows. Even the bastard's initials, RJL,

somewhere where it hurt, she said,

and when I asked her where, snapped "Liverpool!"

Wherever it was, she'd had it sliced away

leaving a scar, she said, pink and glassy,

but small, and better than having his mark on her

(that self-same mark of Valentinus,

who was flayed for love, but who never

- so the cardinals now say - existed.

Desanctified, apocryphal, like Christopher,

like the scar you never showed me, Trace,

your ( ), your ex, your "Liverpool").

Still, when I unwrap the odd, anonymous note

I let myself believe that it's from you.