Collected Poems by Michael Longley - review by Derek Mahon

Derek Mahon

Noah’s Ark

Collected Poems


Jonathan Cape 368pp £25

This book is long overdue. At a time when poetic form is at a premium Michael Longley is, among other things, a master of it. Pasternak, like Tolstoy, thought of history as an organic growth, seeing it ‘in the form of images taken from the vegetable kingdom, moving as invisibly in its incessant transformations as a forest in spring’. Beauty, he wrote, is ‘the joy of possessing form, and form is the key to organic life since no living thing can exist without it, so that every work of art, including tragedy, witnesses to the joy of existence’ (Dr Zhivago, tr Hayward and Harari). Form, imagery, organic life. Even as an undergraduate at Trinity College, Dublin, Longley had a precocious grasp of the sort of stanza favoured by Donne and Herbert, and the first poems included here shine with remarkable formal confidence: ‘Epithalamion’, ‘A Personal Statement’, ‘The Hebrides’. This is one of the benefits of knowing your Greek and Latin. A student of Homer and the Roman elegists, he has worked equally well with compelling anecdotes and elaborate lyric shapes. The latter are characteristic of his early years, since when he has pursued an increasingly direct mode which dispenses with ingenuity and rhetoric. The personal voice he established with Gorse Fires (1991) – well-travelled and wide-ranging, while rooted in local experience – is now the recognisable Longley sound, relaxed and authoritative:

A wintry night, the hearth inhales
And the chimney becomes a windpipe
Fluffy with soot and thistledown,
A voice-box recalling animals…

As an old friend of Longley’s, I’ve a particular soft spot for the poems of family and home (Belfast) and have long envied his eclectic ease with both high-brow and popular taste. He finds analogies for poetry in art and music (Satie, folk, jazz) and, like Yeats, a correlation between certain aspects of Irish and Japanese culture; but his principal themes are autobiographical and contemplative. ‘The Weather in Japan’, which ‘makes bead curtains of the rain, / Of the mist a paper screen’, is really about Irish rain – the rain of Connemara (‘Rain and sunlight and the boat between them’) and of his adopted parish in Co Mayo, to which he returns constantly. A key text in relation to his own practice is an essay he published in The Dublin Magazine – heavens, forty years ago – on the Ulster artist Colin Middleton, whose ‘constant preoccupations’ he identified as ‘the female archetype and the qualities of place’, and whose later work he praised for its ‘apparent freedom from intrusive neurosis’. (Middleton had affinities with Ben Nicholson and Henry Moore.) These were and are Longley’s own ideals, and he adds: ‘True art must always be to some extent local.’ He would acknowledge descent from MacNeice, Rodgers, and Hewitt; also from Patrick Kavanagh, who shared Betjeman’s love of ‘indeterminate beauty’: quaint corners, overgrown places, odds and ends. The contents of Middleton’s studio (‘shells, pebbles, feathers, driftwood’, bits of landscape) are Longleian furniture too; but his primary concern is ‘to make space in my brain-box for the other creatures of the world’.

A young Irish critic, Maria Johnston, writing of Longley, invokes Messiaen, who transcribed birdsong and reproduced it in his music. She quotes the French composer: ‘Every spring each blackbird invents a certain number of themes which it retains and adds to previous themes; the older it gets the vaster its repertory of melodic motifs becomes.’ The same might be said of this constantly self-renewing poet, himself an amateur naturalist. Blackbird, robin, lapwing, lark and owl (‘all ears’) populate these pages, together with seabirds and house sparrows which ‘with precision wheetle and cheep under the eaves’, and a ‘wind-tousled’ wren with her ‘brain-rattling bramble song’.

Animals too – fox, badger, hare – enter this Noah’s Ark of a book, and all these endangered species join our own in a plea for art and peace, the end of art:

Home is a hollow between the waves,
A clump of nettles, feathery winds,
And memory no longer than a day
When the animals come back to me
From the townland of Carrigskewaun,
From a page lit by the Milky Way.

‘Who was it suggested that the opposite of war / Is not so much peace as civilisation?’ (‘All of These People’). Peace yes, but there is much violence and war in the background where ‘Achilles hunts down Hector like a sparrowhawk’. Longley’s father saw action on the Somme as a young man, and the poets of that war are a special interest – among them Isaac Rosenberg, who appears here in ‘Bog Cotton’ and ‘No Man’s Land’, where Longley also speaks of his ‘Jewish granny’ on the maternal side. It’s his granny, I think, who gives their peculiar poignancy to the Holocaust poems: ‘Terezín’ (‘No room has ever been as silent as the room / Where hundreds of violins are hung in unison’); ‘Ghetto’ (‘The little girl without a mother behaves like a mother / With her rag doll to whom she explains fear and anguish’). As for those poems about the recent ‘troubles’ in Northern Ireland (‘Wounds’, ‘Wreaths’), I’m not so sure; they have, as is in the nature of things, begun to date. But one of these, ‘Ceasefire’, will live, perhaps because, removed in space and time from the poetry of the latest atrocity, it comes to the point obliquely. Achilles and Priam meet after the death of Hector, and Priam says: ‘I get down on my knees and do what must be done / And kiss Achilles’ hand, the killer of my son.’ This gesture is probably the finest and most astonishing comment any of the Irish poets has made on the subject.

It has been noticed before that this king-size bloke, who once distinguished himself at rugger, handles his materials with rice-paper delicacy. Though equal to large conceptions, he is a lover of fragility and evanescence and excels at the moth-like lyric and crystal image. These are scattered throughout. A poem in memory of the artist Gerard Dillon describes one of his pictures:

Cats on the windowsill, birds of prey
And, between the diminutive fields,
A dragonfly, wings full of light,
Where the road narrows to the last farm.

As if from an entry in Coleridge’s notebooks, a waterfall freezes to a chandelier; above Chicago, 747s line up beside the moon; he opens a ‘galvanised Aeolian gate’; in ‘Yellow Bungalow’ he hears an accordion’s ‘bellows wheeze / And fingernails clitter over buttons and keys’. (That ‘clitter’ is spot-on.) These precise observations are of a piece with the conservationist instinct which attends to ‘other creatures’. Cloud, linen, flower and snow absorb the blood and sweat of the Homeric pieces and the violence the Belfast elegies mourn. The explicit love poems are few, yet all his poems are love poems. A subtle eroticism pervades everything, for here is a poet in love with the world itself. Longley’s attitude towards it, uxorious and eirenic, is that of a sage at peace; yet the later poems (‘Is this my final phase?’), glancing back and forwards, give intimations of nostalgia and unrest. He quotes James Wright: ‘Latches click softly in the trees.’ Are doors beginning to close? He remembers his students in Atlanta, assembled now ‘Where the mind goes in the small hours, at sunrise’; imagines himself painting, like Hokusai, ‘into extreme old age’, and revisits his earliest work. ‘Montale’s Dove’ and ‘Leaves’ rehearse leavetaking; but this is premature. What has been called ‘mysterious late excellence’ is, for Michael Longley, here already, and there will be more to come.

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