Poem Explication: “The River in Spate” by Michael Donaghy

The River in Spate

  • by Michael Donaghy (1954-2004)

sweeps us both down its cold grey current.

Grey now as your father was when I met you,

I wake even now on that shore where once,

sweat slick and still, we breathed together—

in—soft rain gentling the level of the lake,

out—bright mist rising from the lake at dawn.

How long before we gave each other to sleep,

to air—drawing the mist up, exhaling the rain?

Though we fight now for breath and weaken

in the torrent’s surge to the dark of its mouth,

you are still asleep in my arms by its source,

small waves lapping the gravel shore,

and I am still awake and watching you,

in wonder, without sadness, like a child.


The apostrophic style of Michael Donaghy’s poem, “River in Spate” conjures a feeling of longing and nostalgia in the speaker’s tone, as the speaker appears to address his lover, who lies sleeping in his arms, as if she were awake and could answer him. This is a poem of mourning for passion that has been lost, and the river seems to stand as a metaphor for that earlier passion between the speaker and his lover. Donaghy’s word choice in the first line, “sweeps us both down its … current” (1) conveys strong, powerful emotion, in comparison to the diction in the later line, “small waves lapping the gravel shore” (12). The “small waves lapping” produces a significantly weaker image in the reader’s mind, and emphasizes that the two lovers’ passion has decreased since their first meeting.

Donaghy only capitalizes the first words of his sentences, rather than those of each line. On line 1, the first word, “sweeps” is not capitalized, so we see that the title is a part of the sentence, like so: “The river in spate / sweeps us both down its cold grey current.” (1) Therefore, we see that the title actually acts as a first line of the poem, flowing into the body text like a river flows, the whole effect being one of onrushing. The line, “[g]rey now as your father was when I met you” (2) acts to address the time that has passed since the lovers met; as we continue to the next line, we learn that the speaker is now old and “grey” like his lover’s father was when they met: “Grey as your father was…/ I wake even now on that shore” (2-3). This establishes two timeframes in contrast to one another, an idea that will return with the ending comparison of the couple by/in the river. The image Donaghy creates of the speaker awaking on that same shore “where once, / sweat slick and still, [they] breathed together” (3-4) suggests that the speaker is still connected to their lover, perhaps even lying on their bed. The shore acting as a metaphor for the lovers’ bed seems quite likely when reading the next lines: “in—soft rain gentling the level of the lake, / out—bright mist rising from the lake at dawn. / How long before we gave each other to sleep…[?]” (5-7). The words, “in” and “out” mirror the real act of breathing, and also suggest the movement of sex. The descriptions of their breathing, “soft rain gentling” and “bright mist rising” certainly have a natural, breathiness to them, and also seem to imply a sort of joining with the natural world (perhaps another nod to the primal nature of sex).

The speaker raises a question: “how long until we give each other to sleep…?” suggesting that their love growing “cold” was an inevitability— “cold” being a reference to the “cold grey current” of passion/the river. Sleeping suggests a stillness, a dullness perhaps, but it also suggests exhaustion from their love-making. The added detail, “to air” (8), further emphasizes that sleep may be due to their passion, perhaps implying the breathlessness of orgasm. Donaghy’s choice to place this detail on the next line allows for the reader to interpret the image more slowly, raising these two contrasting images of total passion, and lack-thereof.

When I came upon the lines, “you are still asleep in my arms by its source” (11) and, “and I am still awake and watching you” (13) near the end of the poem, my interpretation of the poem’s “story” became confused. While my initial reading was that the speaker was addressing their sleeping lover, these last two lines suggest another interpretation, that the speaker is a mother (or perhaps father) and is addressing her lover’s sleeping child in their arms. Returning to the earlier line, “grey now as your father was when I met you” (2), the “you” then appears to be the child; the child’s father, the greying man that the speaker met and fell in love with. Through this lens the poem could still be read as one of grief, but grief of a more complicated nature. From the perspective of this second reading, the use of “we” throughout the poem becomes unclear, and the imagery somewhat convoluted; for these reasons it is perhaps a less likely interpretation. However, I still think it is worth noting how the phrasing of line 11 suggests an alternate (possibly unintentional) interpretation, and shows how significant a single line can be to the clarity or confusion of a poem.



Donaghy, Michael. “The River in Spate.” Conjure, Picador, 2000.

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