Sunday, June 8, 2008

Hasta la vista

I’m in Alicante Aiport as I write this, and have an hour before check-in time. This will have been the only chance to say anything here during the last week, which was taken up with classes, hikes around town, and meals enjoyed at a leisurely pace. We didn’t have ideal weather in Relleu, in fact, more consecutive days of rain than anyone ever expected so far into the spring. It certainly made everything green, and the last two days gave us warm temperatures and pellucid skies. I think the classes went well; we got some good writing done. Even I stole a few hours to draft a new poem, stimulated, I suppose by the productive atmosphere.

In class we read poems by Elizabeth Bishop and by Mimi Khalvati, in particular, “The Mediterranean of the Mind” (mentioned in an earlier blog), which Mimi wrote a few years back during her stay at Almàssera Vella. It describes the village of Relleu, but it also speaks of Michael Donaghy, who taught a course here just a week before Mimi arrived for hers. They were good friends, colleagues who respected each other’s work. The sad thing is that Donaghy died of a brain hemorrhage the week following his course, and the poem brings in his death as it develops. In fact, it is an “in memoriam” poem dedicated to him.

My encounters with Michael Donaghy were minimal. In the late 80s, he had the galleys of his first book sent to me, requesting a jacket comment. I wasn’t aware of him them, didn’t know that he had served as editor of The Chicago Review before expatriating to London and making his living there as a performer of Irish music. Eventually he became integrated into the London poetry scene, forming close ties with other young poets like Mimi Khalvati, Don Paterson, and Matthew Sweeney. Everyone I’ve spoken to about him says that he was enormously well liked. We only met face to face one time, but I can’t quite recall the circumstances. I believe it was in 1986 at a pub in, I think, Camden Town, where I was then living; or maybe 1987. I don’t remember who introduced us, but I do recall that he said he’d come to live in London and was performing on what he called “the penny whistle” as a way of supporting himself. Then, probably ten years later, after he became well known on the British poetry scene, a friend gave me his telephone number and suggested I call; this was during one of my stays in London in the late 90s. But our schedules didn’t match up, so we didn’t see each other. A few years passed, and suddenly he died. Those are the facts, and it’s hard to feel resolved about them. I keep thinking that with a normal life span, we’d have seen him do even better work. But the books we have stand on their own merits, original and intelligent as they are. However tangential the contact, I feel as though I know him and wish things had turned out otherwise.

I’ll be in London this weekend and then participate in the celebration of American poetry that Anne-Marie Fyfe has scheduled for the Coffee Poetry series on Monday. We’re not reading our poems, but instead poems of an earlier generation—Stevens, Roethke, Bishop, and Merrill. (I’m the Bishop reader.)

No comments: