Saturday, February 11, 2017

His Swords and Armor: Remembering Michael Donaghy

Left to right: Michael Donaghy, Richard Pettengill, Robert Archambeau, at Donaghy's last American reading, 2004

Talk to anyone about the late poet Michael Donaghy and you realize something immediately: everybody loved him.  Whether they knew him well, or met him briefly, the sentiment is the same. His charisma was supernatural. I loved him, too, and it broke me up when he died. I read his poem "The Classics" to a small gathering of people, and it shook them all to the core. Now, years after his death, I've written an appreciation of him for The Hopkins Review. It begins like this.


The beginning of “The Classics,” a poem by Michael Donaghy, has stayed with me for a long time:

I remember it like it was last night,
Chicago, the back room of Flanagan’s
Malignant with accordions and cigarettes,
Joe Cooley bent above his Paolo Soprani,
Its asthmatic bellows pumping as if to revive
The half-corpse strapped about it.
It’s five a.m. Everyone’s packed up.
His brother Seamus grabs Joe’s elbow mid-arpeggio.
“Wake up, man. We have to catch a train.”
His eyelids fluttering, opening. The astonishment . . .

It’s quintessential Donaghy, invoking as it does his great theme, memory, and his love of performances of all kinds—especially those involving Irish music in dingy bars. It brings the two things together in that image of a hunched Joe Cooley, still playing his accordion even as he nods off, the music so thoroughly internalized that he needn’t be fully awake to play it. The true performer, Donaghy implies, gets lost in the performance—something that can only happen when the music has been so completely absorbed into the musician that it becomes his second nature.

Donaghy was famous for reciting his own poems from memory at readings that were fully realized performances in a way too few poetry readings are. At a Donaghy reading there was never any of the mumbling, [End Page 33] page-flipping, or nervous self-explanation with which poetry audiences are all too familiar. He was entirely present to the poem and to the audience, not hovering a little above himself, wondering just how he ought to manifest. Once, when Yeats’s famous question “How can we know the dancer from the dance?” came up, Donaghy gave an answer that underlined his commitment to losing himself in performance: “Who cares?” Better for the two to be so intermingled they can’t be torn asunder.

“The Classics” ends like this:

I saw this happen. Or heard it told so well
I’ve staged the whole drunk memory:
What does it matter now? It’s ancient history.
Who can name them? Where lie their bones and armor?

Perhaps, given Donaghy’s fascination with memory (accurate or otherwise), there’s a small irony in how the version of this poem I’ve carried in my head for years turns out to be a bit distorted. When I came back to the poem on the page recently, I was surprised to find it ending with the question “Where lie their bones and armor?” For ages I’d been saying “Where lie their swords and armor?”—an inferior ending, to be sure. But I want to keep my distorted version, for now, and use it as a way to talk about Donaghy’s poetry because his poems—or perhaps I should say his performed poems—were both his swords and his armor.


The rest is in the current issue of The Hopkins Review. Online access for those with access to Project Muse is here.  Open access forthcoming.