"She lives the poetry she cannot write" – Wilde
Foreign policy does not exist for us.
We don’t know where the new countries are.
We don’t care. We want the streets safe
So we vote for the chair. An eye for an eye.
Our long boats will come in the spring
And we will take many heads.
The name of our tribe means ‘human being.’
We will make your children pray to our god in public.
Majorities (for Brexit, for Trump, for Corbyn) have recently had enormous effects on our political culture, and politicians have forgotten the dangers of hyperbole. Again. At the moment Michael Donaghy’s poem seems horribly apt. It is stripped back to a brutal simplicity; short sentences and naked malice directed against anyone who is not of ‘our’ tribe.
It doesn’t reach the right hand margin; it has line breaks; but is that enough to make it a poem? Donaghy was steeped in technique and knew what he was doing. It’s not his most complicated work but nothing in it is accidental. There is rhyme, though it’s subtle; are/ care/ chair in the first stanza and spring/ being in the second. The short sentences ‘We don’t care’ or ‘an eye for an eye’ leave nowhere to hide, no rhetorical frills.
The line breaks are not arbitrary either. ‘We want the streets safe’ sounds fairly benevolent but he makes us draw a tiny breath before the vicious corollary, ‘So we vote for the chair’. New countries, new policies, even new gods come and go but the vengeful xenophobia of the masses remains, says Donaghy.
Every word counts. The title explains who is speaking, so no untidy explanation is needed. The power is in the tiniest of words, the pronouns; ‘We will make your children pray to our god in public.’ It’s a bald declaration of the will to do harm. Horribly timeless, horribly topical; a manifesto that would apply to any group strong enough to dominate its opponents, from the Romans to the Vikings to the Nazis.
It sent me back to Carolyn Forche’s small 1979 poem The Visitor, which ends: ‘It is a small country. // There is nothing one man will not do to another.’ Like the Donaghy, that poem is bleak and has nothing in it to reassure us. Without the fluid sentences of prose, Majority knocks out the vile platitudes of a strong tribe and focuses our attention on the worst of ourselves. It’s a small mirror, but a mirror all the same.