Not Knowing the Words

I’d like to share with you a sad, beautiful poem by the late Michael Donaghy, called Not Knowing the Words:

Not Knowing the Words

Before he wearied of the task, he sang a nightly Mass
for the repose of the souls of the faithful departed
and magicked his blood to bourbon and tears
over the ring, the lock of hair, the dry pink dentures.
Was he talking to her? I never learned.
Walk in, he’d pretend to be humming softly,
like wind through a window frame.

The last I saw of him alive, he pressed me to his coat.
It stinks in a sack in my attic like a drowned Alsatian.
It’s his silence. Am I talking to him now, as I get it out
and pull its damp night down about my shoulders?
Shall I take up the task, and fill its tweedy skin?
Do I stand here not knowing the words
when someone walks in?

Serendipity and the Magic of Chance

I had purchased a book of poems, called Conjour by Michael Donaghy just before my Brunei trip during a book fair.

Conjour was an unassuming little blue book, and not in prime condition. The reason I picked it up is a little unclear; even hindsight shines no light. Man is not completely rational.

I had never heard of Michael Donaghy, and the first few poems I had read in the book did not move me as they do now. I guess it was the final poem in the book that moved me to purchase it. The final poem is called Haunts:


Don’t be afraid, old son, it’s only me,
though not as I’ve appeared before,
on the battlements of your signature,
or margin of a book you can’t throw out,
or darkened shop front where your face
first shocks itself into a mask of mine,
but here, alive, one Christmas long ago
when you were three, upstairs, asleep,
and haunting me because I conjured you
the way that child you were would cry out
waking in the dark, and when you spoke
in no child’s voice but out of radio silence,
the hall clock ticking like a radar blip,
a bottle breaking faintly streets away,
you said, as I say now, Don’t be afraid.

The metaphysical reality that he transported me into gave me a sense of being part of something bigger. That I am who I am now, and soon I will be who I was going to be. And when I am in that latter state, I can look back at who I am.

The First Reading

The first reading of the book was rather uneventful. I still only liked, and understood (as far as I could) Haunt, and the other poems seemed alien to me.

I wasn’t used to this style of poetry: I always having been a fan of poems with “proper” stanzas that rhymed.

But if there was one thing about poetry that I learned, it is that twenty lines of a poem, when done properly, can tell a story that prose may take twenty pages to match.

Like the saying “a picture tells a thousand words”, the imagery and feelings that poems evoke do more to tell a story than mere words ever can.

I left for Brunei having only read the book once.

The Re-reading

I picked up the book again today. I re-read all the poems again, and it suddenly dawned on me how beautiful many of the poems in the book were.

It is strange how you can read something and not understand or appreciate it, walk away, then come back and re-read it, and suddenly start understanding and appreciating it.

Michael Donaghy passed away in September 2004.

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