This year marks ten years since Michael Donaghy died. As it happens, this autumn his Collecteds – poems and prose – are both going to be out in paperback, at last. Almost more to the point, the first critical guide to his work (appropriately called Smith: A Reader’s Guide to Michael Donaghy) will be published by Picador in I think October, written by Don Paterson. It feels like almost more of a milestone than the others.
The anniversary will have come and gone by then.
Already, in June, a quiet little book was published quietly by a small press, Garnet Publishing. It’s The Great Below, by Michael’s widow, Maddy Paxman.
It’s instinctive to me not to try and relive that awful period, but that is exactly what Maddy’s book unflinchingly does. She begins with the minute-by-minute story of that last week in Spain, his collapse, the day with him in hospital (his last-ever day), and the days that followed when he was on life support. She describes her thoughts and feelings during that time, even the ignoble ones like irritation and snappishness, in a way I found quite awe-inspiring. The unblinking gaze.
The aftermath of his death, the process of becoming a widow, a single mother, a new person, of going through the thing, is interspersed with flashbacks to their life together. It’s very well-written. There are intimate details, but it’s not indiscriminate (there are a couple of discreet veils in evidence). This isn’t a flailing widow’s memoir. It’s a woman telling the story, making a story out of her story and claiming her life. The Michael Donaghy in the book is very familiar; there’s little in here that will shock anyone who knew him. She tells what it was like living with him (the hypochondria, the flakiness, the weird hours, the friends, his devotion to Ruairi); she brings him to life. I laughed out loud several times when Michael walked out of the pages (in this case, a bit ruefully):
Michael had a rather extreme side to his personality; I often felt that he experienced the full taste of life, in both good ways and bad, whereas I lived things more at arm’s length, mitigated by an inner observer. One of his friends described him as living ‘in beauty’, rather like William Blake, whose every experience was imbued with great intensity and meaning. This may well be appropriate or a poet, but I think it sometimes led Michael to seek out stimuli in unhealthy ways,m as it he needed to keep the intensity of the feeling going all the time, no matter the consequences. Of course this could make him tremendous fun to be with, particularly for his friends.
So in this book, ten years on, we get a little crackling film reel, where we can see Donaghy move and speak…
The book also brings something else to life, something that always bothered me a bit as one of his students (& drinking cronies, yes), and which makes it a slightly uncomfortable read for many of us in the Poetry World. It’s the giant looming cloud, like an enormous squid (or cuttlefish) that had to be kept at bay. Us. The Poets. The Students. The ‘Panting Poetesses’. (This made me laugh; every time I had to ring the house I’d say, ‘Hi Maddy, this is KATY’ – though I’m sure she knew which ones they were…) Because Michael had that famous gift of making everyone feel as if they were somehow his special friend. I guess we all were, but there were so many of us… It must have felt totally unmanageable. As well as describing her effort to keep some kind of family bubble together – after his death as much as before it – Maddy enacts it through the simple structural device of not naming external people involved in the story. The ‘young man’ who spent years sorting out the Donaghy study and archive, and co-editing the collected prose. ‘A friend of Michael’s', ‘a generous friend’. The former student who actually paid for Michael’s headstone – I’m sure I knew who that was, but now I can’t remember… Everyone chipped in as they best could. These acts of generosity were the lifelines people caught hold of. But those life lines are in their stories. This is Maddy’s story of her journey, and let’s face it – much of that journey has been about trying to make space for herself. If you can’t do that in your own book, well…
She writes about going to poetry occasions as his deputy – as it were – only to feel like, vaguely, a disappointment, unable to be the person everyone really wanted. This book charts her acceptance that she can only be herself, that that is actually good enough, and what seems to me like a gloriously clear-seeing (though hard, sad, fraught with illness) journey into her new understanding.
Any of us who’ve been through a cataclysmic death, or a life change so profound that it required deep reinvention, or even a chronic illness, will recognise ourselves in parts of her story, I think. A friend of mine, the other day in a Facebook thread (and Oh my God, WHAT would Donaghy have been like on Facebook, how many fake accounts would he have had), said something rather apposite:
Good friends hold us to account. Friendship is a tender stick-up. It’s healthy to part with bits of yourself – it’s the bits that others look after that keep us from drifting off altogether.
The Great Below is Maddy’s account of not drifting off altogether when the person who held the biggest bits of her disappeared. She talks about her relationship with Ruairi, eight when his father died, and her inability to be the crazy big-kid dad he had been so close to. She talks about the sides of her personality perhaps given up in the necessity of being a counterweight, the ‘together’ one – and not the literary one, though she had written poetry before. Of editing the posthumous work, she writes:
One thing that kept me connected to Michael was my involvement in his work. The young man [n.b., Adam O'Riordan] had been continuing to catalogue the books, and he and I had begun to collect Michael’s prose writings for an anthology… This I found an immensely enjoyable process that stretched my brain in ways I had forgotten and gave me a further insight into the brilliance and originality of Michael’s mind. I felt more in touch with his intellectual life now than I had when he was alive, when my role had been more one of a practical and emotional support.
This is quite an important moment, and I think writing the book is important, too. It is an intelligent, open woman’s charting of her various attempts to find a new way of being. That new way emerged in its own good time – not not as she thought she needed it, with several false starts, but as she was ready for it, piece by piece. It reads like a gripping story. You have to find out how she is, what happened next. She emerges at the end of the book healing, and more at peace with herself and her still-very-present husband – still full of the love they had – and, it seems to me, wise. She is wise. It’s a difficult, but really wonderful, book.
There’s one small thing, though. There’s a point where Maddy writes, ‘I think it might take a generation for Michael’s charming personality to get out of the way of his impact as a writer’. Now, this is obviously true. Anyone who thinks we can see Michael’s poetry clearly should read Stanley Plumly’s fascinating book, Posthumous Keats, which traces – one theme at a time, not just chronologically – how Keats’ reputation was moulded by his passionate, bereaved friends into their various images of him. As my friend Joe might say, they each grabbed the bit of the mirror in which they could see the bit of themselves that Keats had held. But, as such, for many, many of us it isn’t Michael’s ‘charming personality’ that keeps us from being able to gauge his posterity. It’s love and friendship. And gratitude, because Donaghy helped so many people learn how to be their real selves, too. (I, for one, even though I had always written, arrived in his workshop virtually as a refugee.) No one else could have done that the way he did.