I was recently sent a review copy of Maddy Paxman's The Great Below: A Journey Into Loss. It explores the marriage between her and the revered American-British poet Michael Donaghy, who died at the age of 50, from bleeding on the brain, in London, at the height of his poetic powers. This isn't a very long or helpful review, I am sorry to say, because I found the book too sad to complete.
I did, however, read up to page 83, and I am sure that some comment is better than none. Donaghy, friend to Don Paterson, John Stammers, and other major poets in the UK, and someone I admired and knew a bit (I sat beside him at one of his last birthday parties), is as close to a sainted figure among those British poets who love form and wit as one can get, and there seems no doubt this review copy is a poisoned chalice - how can one truly review such a sorrowful tale, without being accused of insensitivity if one notes any faults? Well, I respect the author too much not to give it an honest critical response, as far as I can.
There is a poignant gulf in the text, between Paxman's own ability with language, and that of her husband's. Paxman's book is well-written, clear, interesting, and very frank - but Donaghy was a verbal genius, and that absence of linguistic felicity marks this work, which, written in prose, has less of the dark wit and formal surprise of a Donaghy poem.
This is a strange, unsettling book, that exists in that short genre of the "great poet's widow" biographies, the best-known and best, being Left Over Life To Kill, which is such a bleak and powerful title. I am unsure as to the audience of this book, for it appears as a memoir but also a kind of self-help work, as it show the way forward out of terrible loss.
While Donaghy was very well-known in the poetry world, he was not famous too far outside it, yet there is not quite enough set up, at the start of the book, explaining just how loved and important his work, charisma, teaching, and readings were to those around him. That's a shame, because it doesn't give readers a way in to the full drama.
Paxman is blunt about personal details of their marriage, but also his dying last few hours. Did we really need to know that as this great, gentle man was dying he was worried about the so-called "ampersands" - experimental poets - taking over the poetry world's academic structures? Donaghy is revealed to be profoundly needy, child-like, and often lost without Paxman. I am sure he was, but the portrait that emerges is somehow diminishing. If, as she suggests, he was so unable to handle so many details of life, why share that with others? Well, for the sake of honesty, and that must be welcomed - the book will be an invaluable source for biographers and critics of the period.
My final concern is with how other poets are treated. I attended the famous memorial described in the book, and it was a major, moving, glorious event, perhaps the largest gathering of poets ever in London, for a funeral - there were so many geniuses and brilliant writers, critics, and poets there. Paxman doesn't mention any of them by name, really, as if to imply readers wouldn't recognise the names, but it closes down the event somewhat.
However, these are a critic's concerns, and you could say that it is Paxman's right to express her own feelings about her husband, his vocation, his struggles, his moods, and his dying hours. As such, it is a very forthright book, that holds little back, and will surprise and move any reader who knows his poetry, or cared for them as a couple. I myself cried more than once. The lack of proper care the NHS gave to this great poet until the very end is sickening.
The second half of the book, which I was unable to read, because the whole thing was just too emotional for me at the moment, is, it seems, a further description of how the author manages to move on, after the early death of her husband, and find a new way of living, with their young son. I imagine it ends, somewhat, happily, and so I need to finish the book.
For those who want to know about the last days of a poetic genius, and about how his wife and family coped with his sudden, unexpected death, this is a must-read. But I'd make sure and read his Selected Poems, first, and then prepare to be devastated by the brutally open nature of this book, which, it must be said, is painfully honest.
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