I’m going to start with a question: when does the contemporary become the classic? It’s appropriate for a poem about one thing neatly, seamlessly becoming another, even as the speaker asks whether his words can ever turn into action – a transformation which would erase them completely. Michael Donaghy’s ‘Machines’, first published in 1988 wants to write itself out of existence, but we can all be glad it doesn’t quite succeed. Here’s the poem:
by Michael Donaghy
Dearest, note how these two are alike:
This harpsichord pavane by Purcell
And the racer’s twelve-speed bike.
The machinery of grace is always simple.
This chrome trapezoid, one wheel connected
To another of concentric gears,
Which Ptolemy dreamt of and Schwinn perfected,
Is gone. The cyclist, not the cycle, steers.
And in the playing, Purcell’s chords are played away.
So this talk, or touch if I were there,
Should work its effortless gadgetry of love,
Like Dante’s heaven, and melt into the air.
If it doesn’t, of course, I’ve fallen. So much is chance,
So much agility, desire, and feverish care,
As bicyclists and harpsichordists prove
Who only by moving can balance,
Only by balancing move.
‘Machines’ does what a lot of great love poems do – it reaches out across an absence, to create the illusion of presence. It’s a substitute for human contact, a self-proclaimed attempt to bridge the gap between the speaker – here – and the addressed, however far away. The word ‘addressed’ seems more than usually literal; ‘Dearest’ reads like the start of a letter, and the poem shares some of the anxiety of a correspondent unsure of how his words will be received. We know what ‘this talk […] should’ do, and what will happen ‘if it doesn’t’; whether it achieves its goals or not is ultimately up to us. Though described as mere ‘talk’, the poem on the page or screen is now a physical reality which replaces a moment of physical contact, of ‘touch if I were there’; even that touch, however, is subservient to the following ‘should’, the lovers’ predicted reunion shot through with a conditional uncertainty.
This uncertainty is what the poem works against, even while it evokes it, with its images of delicate balance, ‘effortless gadgetry’, ‘the machinery of grace’. The second rhyme-word, even, is part of this formal and romantic trapeze act – if you don’t know (as I didn’t) that the stress in ‘Purcell’ falls on the first syllable, you’re going to tumble nose over tail. But, musical ignorance negotiated, we carry on, and the poem points up the precarity of its own formal structure. After a relatively neat and tidy first stanza, the right-hand margin starts to veer widely – long lines lean out, and short ones pull back in, like a cyclist correcting his movement after a tricky corner. The closing couplet lines are among the shortest in the poem, bringing everything back before moving tentatively forward. And look at the start of the penultimate stanza – ‘So much is chance’ hanging out into the white space, way beyond its comfort zone, almost alone out there. The whole poem nearly topples forward, and it takes another two lines for the metre to right itself; the fifteenth line is iambic, but all those esses feel a little like pedals spinning.
Of course, at fifteen lines, ‘Machines’ has missed the chance to be the sonnet we might have assumed it was going to be, with that big gear-change volta nine lines in. Caught up (or pretending to be) in its own ‘desire and feverish care’, it over-reaches, goes too far, but somehow balances, nervously informing us of the necessity of ‘agility’ before going on to display just that. The poem only gets away with being such an ‘effortless’ show-off – ‘look, no hands!’ – because Donaghy can pull off the trick.
I know very little about Purcell and Dante, and nothing at all about Ptolemy and Schwinn, but part of the point of ‘Machines’ is that it makes its components disappear, which is one step towards its stated desire to ‘melt into the air’ completely. But if it did, we’d never know it had existed, which seems like a worse fate than the fall the narrator foresees, with acceptance more than fear. It’s all a question of balance.
If you want to hear Donaghy read his own poem, and find out more about his work, there’s a nice recording available here. Donaghy died in 2004, at the age of 50, and many UK poets cite his workshops as a formative influence – hence the question at the top of this post.