Monday, March 06, 2006

Streetfighting. By Daniel Donaghy. University of Missouri-Kansas City: BkMk Press, 2005. $13.95 (pa.)

In his first full length collection, Donaghy's focus is on his adolescence in Philadelphia, growing up poor and disillusioned. These are passionate poems, dealing with the struggle of youth to make a place for itself and a life worth living. Many of Donaghy's characters don't have a lot to look forward to -- unfulfilling jobs, broken marriages; these characters will only know joy for a moment before entering the long descent into adulthood, and Donaghy captures these shining moments beautifully.

Donaghy shows us portraits of characters damaged by life, war, poverty and unrequited dreams. In :Shrapnel," he describes a boy sitting with his father after a vicious argument between mother and father. Donaghy describes the conversation: "He (the father) tells me his first wife got pregnant/ by a skinny Italian, and that his eyes/ are bloodshot from tears, not beer." Later, the father presses the son's hand into the shrapnel wounds on his neck, and leaves us with this haunting image in order to, as the narrator says, "show me just how close/ I'd come to never being born." Of course Donaghy doesn't tell us whether the narrator thinks his birth was a positive thing; he leaves us with this unanswered question.

Donaghy's poems often show us people weighed down with life. In "Anchor," Donaghy describes Koreans the father shot in battle, adulteries he's committed. Finally the narrator imagins his father's sins "devour(ing) him bit by bit." Mistakes and bad choices dominate these lives. They're elbowing out space to live between their demons and trying to find peace, happiness, or just trying to get along. But even when they find something to hold on to, life can take it away, quick as a speeding car jumping a curb to clip a pedestrian, leaving the bystanders haunted, shaken. These poems are sudden and powerful and they leave the reader haunted, affected, looking back down the long train tunnel of youth, wondering how we got to be where we are, wondering if this is the light, and how did we ever make it here.

-Originally published in The Hollins Critic