I had a brief email exchange with Michael Donaghy not long before his death in 2004. He had been Googling himself and found a gushing comment that I had made about his poetry on a chat forum (*cringe*). He had got in touch to say thanks. I loved his poetry since I first saw him perform (where? I can’t even remember. Might have been near Bangor somewhere?). That night I was mesmerised by his performance. He didn’t use any notes. I hadn’t read any of his poems before and I’m so glad I heard him first before reading them because it was more like music than literature- I still can’t read them to myself and hear it the way I did then. Happily, there is the Poetry archive, where we can still hear his voice.
If you Google yourself and find something favourable, you should let the person know. That little moment is a blessed memory, and I wonder if the reason we read poems is something like a self-Googling as we look to feel understood by someone else’s account. Well that’s how his poems work for me anyway.
This is one of my favourites.
Reprimands, by Michael Donaghy
John 20:24 -29
We fell out of love as toddlers fall
glancing down, distracted, at their feet,
as the pianist in the concert hall
betrays her hands to thought and adds an extra beat –
The thought vertiginous. The reprimand.
It fells the bee mid-flight. It made me stall
before a holy water font in Rome
half afraid that if I dipped my hand
I’d find the water’s surface hard as stone
and – this you’d never understand –
half afraid to leave the thing alone.
For I’d been taught that Jesus walked the sea
and came to Peter three leagues out of port.
Said Peter Bid me to come unto thee
and strode on faith dryfoot until he thought….
and thinking, sank. I’d never learnt to swim
but I’d seen insects skim across a pond
and I’d seen glasses filled above the brim.
Some firm conviction keeps a raindrop round.
What kept me rigid as a mannequin?
We fell out of love and nearly drowned.
The very wordlessness all lovers want
to feel beneath their feet like solid ground
dissolved to silences no human shout
could ripple –
like the surface of that font
when other voices, tourist and devout,
grew still, and someone whispered by my side
O ye of little faith -and shallow doubt-
choose here to wet that hand or stand aside.
No one was there. But I could tell that tone.
I heard his ancient apostolic voice
this evening when I went to lift the phone
to tell you this – and froze. The reprimand.
For once, in two minds, Thomas made the choice
to bless and wet with blood his faithless hand.