Space to Think, a new book celebrating ten years of the Dublin Review of Books More Information 

A Soul in Wonder

Sean O’Hogain

Angel Hill, by Michael Longley, Cape Poetry, 80 pp, £10, ISBN: 978-1911214083

Michael Longley has said that he hopes that by the time he dies his work will look like four really long poems: “a very long love poem; a very long meditation on war and death; a very long nature poem and a playful poem on the art of poetry”. While one should be mindful of DH Lawrence’s advice to “never trust the artist; trust the tale”, Longley’s remarks are still a useful tool in approaching his latest collection, Angel Hill. It is as good a way as any to spilt open the book and let the words reveal their music, themes and poetic vision.

This is Longley’s eleventh collection, leaving aside Poems 1963-1983, Selected Poems and Collected Poems. It reflects his prodigious output and work ethic, which has only been interrupted once, when he did not publish a full collection apart from Poems 1963-1983 between the years 1981 and 1991, a ten-year silence that contrasts with his output both before and after the 1980s.

Longley is not a poet to be read lazily. His poetry is as crafted as a hand-weaving or hand-carving, full of love, skill, hard work and vision. It is mindful of the alchemist’s motto, “Tria sunt necessaria: videlicet patientia, mora et aptitudo instrumentorum” (Three things are necessary: patience, soul and a way with the tools). Longley has all these, together with a classical education, an ear for music and a love and knowledge of the natural sciences. Therefore, his work demands attention of the reader, demands engagement with the voice of the poems and an appreciation of the craft involved in producing the finished poem, which may have scientific themes and words, Latin references, family resonances or even the statement of deeply-felt love and friendship for colleagues, past and present. Hence the usefulness of the poet’s own perception of his four great themes – love, war and death, nature and the art of poetry.

However, these themes are not separate. In “Necklace”, a lyrical gift to accompany his present to his wife, Edna, on the occasion of fifty years of marriage, he says:

Long ago I compared us to rope makers
Twisting straw into a golden cable.
Here is a necklace marking fifty years.
The straw rope has turned into real gold.

Her gift to him was a gold ring made in Glasgow in 1914:

I know in my bones that it was worn
By a Tommy fighting in the trenches …
We borrow their eighteen-carat love.
I like to think he survived the war …

The poem “Engagements”, with the eye-catching opening two lines, “My love letters were randier than even Guillaume / Apollinaire’s to Madeleine from the sodden Front” goes on to deal with war, poetry, love tokens and the muse. If you are curious about what happened to those randy Ulster letters, as against the French letters of Apollinaire:

We burned all our love letters in a bedroom grate
Weeks before our wedding, incinerating lust
And unhappiness …

The title Angel Hill refers to an area in Scotland where Longley’s daughter and her family live. This place has a numinous grip on Longley’s poetic powers and affections. However, these “Scottish” poems have a different feel from those concerning the other numinous places that Longley holds dear – Carrigskeewaun in Mayo, and of course his home town of Belfast. While these poems do name the townlands and people that hold the poet’s imagination, the language is less Hiberno-English and more Anglo-Saxon.

The richness of image and the striking observations of nature that resonate meaning and poetic method are still there, but it is new country, new inspiration and different. Longley has two daughters in Scotland and there is a wonderful poem about travelling between the two:

We have been travelling across Scotland
All day, from one daughter to another:
After Achnashellach comes Achnasheen,
Sheep grazing among molehills, seaweedy
Breakwater, two stags watching us pass,
A rainbow mirrored where a heron stands.

There is also a poem, “Solstice”, invoking an early morning outing, that notes the difference from outings in Co Mayo. The Scottish landscape brings out a different Longley, evoking Coleridge writing while his children sleep, and the pursuit of the muse.

Hoping for otter encounters
I walk without grandchildren into the Lochalsh silence,
The puddle-lit salt-marsh,
But curlews give me away instead ...
… before I turn to face
My elongated shadow
With its walking stick, and
The cottage where grandchildren
Draw in closer to the stove
On the shortest day, above them
Bracken-rusty Angel Hill.

Of those same grandchildren:

You have buried me up to my shins
In autumn leaves. I am taking root.
My arms are turning into branches.
My head fills with chestnuts and acorns.

“Angel Hill” has snowdrops

Inauspicious between headstones …
Tokens for Murdo, Alistair, Duncan, home from the trenches …
for soldiers who come here on leave
and rest against rusty railings
Like out of breath pallbearers.

Longley talks to his daughter about the place:

Someone must be looking after the headstones,
It might be you with your easel and brushes
And your big sheets and charcoal for drawing
Snowdrop cumulus and lichen lettering.
Someone must be looking after the railings
And closing the rusty gate behind her.

The essential elements, he tells us, are love, war, nature and poetry.

However, there are many other sides to Longley and his work. There is the classical scholar who is as at home with Greek and Latin as with English literature. This man appears here in “Donkeys”:

Have the donkeys abandoned Connemara
And hobbled away on painful slippers?
We used to converse with their heavy heads
On the way to Leenane, The Famine road …

Homer compares Ajax to a donkey
Hoodwinking inexperienced farm-hands
And – obstinate, immune to wallopings –
Kicking up his heels and gobbling barley
While feebly they lambast his back and fail
To budge him till he’s had his bellyful …

And again in the poem “Furrows”:

That image from the boar hunt
Of how the sun picks out
Each ploughland furrow
Reminds me of lazybeds
So brought to life in Mayo
By evening sun that two
Connemara ponies appear.
Odysseus gives them names
I comb their shaggy manes.

This learning also lights up “The Brooch as Odysseus”, where “He is talking about himself again, / Telling the truth and telling lies”, and speaks of the clasp “that glistens like the skin of an onion”.

The son of the First World War soldier is another side of Longley. The spirit and soul of his father are in the poem “Survivors”:

Show us the mustard burn on your shoulder
And the shrapnel bruise on your shiny shin.
Dad, you caught one in your “courting tackle”
And nearly lost my sister twin and me.

And in “Treasures”, with its startling dirty knickers image:

Among the treasures in her secret drawer
My mother preserved soiled underwear,
His medal, the strap from his wrist watch
With dust and sweat beneath the buckle.

The revulsion with violence, a heritage of his father’s war experience and the poet’s own life spent in Belfast, is here also. “The Troubles” refers to the thirty years of civil strife as “The Years of Disgrace”, while “Badger” and “Dusty Bluebells” are in memoriam to Martin McBirney and Patrick Rooney, both victims of the conflict.

In the poem in memory of Seamus Heaney, the Troubles serve to show the friendship, but also the difference in backgrounds, between the two men:

We drove after Bloody Sunday to join
The Newry March – road blocks, diversions –
Time enough to decide, if we were asked
At gunpoint: And what religion are you?

Heaney is also mentioned in the poem “Menu”:

That time I shared a lobster with Heaney
(Boston? New York?) he took the bigger claw.
At this stove I cooked beans on toast for him
And, later, for young Muldoon, scrambled eggs
(Such a serious dim sum connoisseur).
The poets of my youth gather round the hob.
Mahon was unimpressed by consommé:
“Proper soup has leeks and barley in it”.

Would a typical Muldoon literary chase through the bushes of this poem, where lie hidden beans, scrambled eggs, dimsum and consommé, lead us to starving Mayo a hundred and seventy years ago, where taking soup, even consommé soup, had deep cultural implications? Would the Muldoon Method of disturbing all the dust of memory and allusion and influence lead us to deduce that it would take a Northern Protestant to know what proper soup was made of? Proper soup indeed!

Longley has a deep love and appreciation of nature and could be called an ecopoet, whose work stands alongside Gary Snyder. Both poets’ work can be enriched by comparison as it can be argued that they share themes, styles and techniques. Nature is sacred for both, and writing about nature is a form of worship. For both, no experience is complete until it is written about. The poet has to be taken by surprise in writing a poem; to be possessed by a sense of wonder.

They also think in geologic time, which is set against human time. In “Trilobite” Longley addresses a friend, Bob Kennedy:

Thank you for the trilobite,
Its four hundred million years
(Approximately) parcelled
With tissue paper and two
Elastic bands, carefully.
Set free by your hammer blow
From the muddy blackness
Of deep Ordovician seas,
It finds its way in sunlight
To Carrigskeewaun, eyeless
At the fireside among bleached
Bones and raven feathers.

The parallels between nature and composing poetry are common to both and this is shown in “Image”:

The last day of the year:
Greylag geese are flying
In regular formation
Along the shoreline, sky-shapes,
An image of poetry.

In “Corncrakes” the efforts of humans to make nature work for them means the poet “Took the ferry to Inisboffin / When corncrakes were calling in couplets”. Alongside their awareness of biodiversity loss, Snyder and Longley also share an awareness of the shamanic role and responsibility of the poet. This involves poetry in music, incantation and subject matter that lead the reader and the poet to transcendence. It also involves excavation of memory, bringing the past into the present and reanimating the culture:

Poets love nature and themselves are love.
Imagine an out-of-the-way cottage
Close to the dunes, the marram grass whispering
Above the technicolour snails and terns’ eggs,
Intelligent choughs on the roof at dawn,
At dusk whimbrels whistling down the chimney,
And outside the kitchen window that cliff
Where ravens have nested for fifty years.

Moth-and-butterfly-wing decipherers,
Counters of Connemara ponies and swans,
Along the lazybeds at the lake’s edge
They materialise out of sea-mist and
Into hawkbit haziness disappear.
One has written a lovely blackbird poem.

For Longley friendship and love interrupt the human condition of power, greed and war. Friendships are celebrated as oases of companionship and soul-refreshment. In this volume he speaks of Dorothy Molloy, Fleur Adcock, Edna O’Brien (the other Edna), Bob Kennedy and the two friends referred to as the ornithologist and the gynaecologist. He also celebrates the artists he admires, including those who have painted him. Some of the poems are invocations of time past, such as the warm requiem for vanished “Bookshops”:

Mullan’s in Royal Avenue, Erskine Mayne’s
Close to the City Hall, dusty corridors,
Aisles of books, elbow room and no more,
Our first pamphlets jostling for attention,

Then the first slim volumes (if nobody’s looking
I’ll move mine to the front. Nobody’s looking).
Death of a Naturalist, Late but in Earnest,
Night-Crossing, No Continuing City.

That terrible shock of our names and titles.
Each wee bookshop has closed, a lost cathedral
With its stained-glass window that depicts
A young poet opening his book of poems.

However, the bedrock presence in the book is the townland of Carrigskeewaun, Co Mayo, which has been Edna and Michael Longley’s hearth for over fifty years. It is a temenos, the spiritual and physical home of the poet and his wife. As for another poet of Mayo, Antoine Ó Raifteirí, the places, the flowers, the birds and other animals are talismanic and emblematic. In both Carrigskeewaun and Cill Aodáinthe, naming of things carries the importance of a sacred act. Naming is epiphany:

I shall have lost my way
At last somewhere between
Traleckachoolia
And Carrignarooteen.

Carrigskeewaun has let Longley’s imagination bed into a pre-industrial existence, a place where he can rest in mind and body. It has enabled him to make “one place an everywhere”, but this has not been achieved by him alone. His muse, his love, his wife of fifty years, has made all this possible:

You have walked with me again and again
Up the stony path to Carrigskeewaun
And paused among the fairy rings to pick
Mushrooms for breakfast and for poetry.

You have pointed out, like a snail’s shell
Or a curlew feather or mermaid’s purse,
The right word, silences and syllables
Audible at the water’s wintry edge.

We have tracked otter prints to Allaran
And waited for hours on our chilly throne,
For fifty years, man and wife, voices low,
Counting oystercatchers and sanderlings.

This place is no Mayo of the mind. It is real and tactile and sensual. Here “a bitch otter may lope from the waves, her whiskers glittering with sea water”. It is a place of birdwatching:

I waken in dawn-light as tufted ducks
Settle among the residential swans
But fall asleep before counting them,
Then I open my eyes on lapwings.

Of love and inspiration: “Your intelligence snoozes next to mine. / Poems accumulate between our pillows.”

And of aging:

… the Fairy Fort
Where I want my ashes wind-scattered.
I wouldn’t mind dying now, I think,
Shutting at last my bird-watching eyes,
A starling-whoosh in my inner ear.

The place, the poetry, the person and the craft come together in the poem “Age”:

I have been writing about this townland
For fifty years, watching on their hummock
Autumn lady’s tresses come and go and,
After a decade underground, return
In Hundreds. I have counted the whoopers
And the jackdaws over Morrison’s barn.
Too close on the duach to tractor tracks
The ringed plover’s nest has kept me awake,
And the otter that drowned in an eel-trap.
Salvaging snail shells and magpie feathers
For fear of leaving particulars out,
I make little space for philosophising.
I walk ever more slowly to gate and stile.
Poetry is shrinking almost to its bones.

Michael Longley has become the grand old man of Irish letters, recently adding the PEN Pinter Prize for 2017 to his long collection of awards. His poetry is on the Leaving Certificate syllabus, a not inconsequential exposure considering that this period of study is probably the most engagement the general public has with poetry. Longley is quoted whenever the peace process is mentioned. His patrician demeanour is stately Romanesque and he has so many sides, as we have seen, that he is, for all purposes, round. His lyrical gift is wedded to a lightly worn but well-used education, an eye for detail and an ear for music. He has spoken of his wish to be considered as Ireland’s first English poet. As he says himself says, “I was brought up in a house with English voices and I had to go out and find my way.” We are lucky he did.

This collection of new work is for those times in life when it’s deep and dark November in the soul. But it will also serve for the times when “the red red robin comes bob-bob-bobbin’ along”. It is Soul Food. Perhaps Longley’s friend and fellow scholar at the Solly Lipsitz Hedge School of Jazz and Blues, Van Morrison, has the phrase (via William Blake) for it: “A Soul in Wonder”.

1/9/2017

Sean O’Hogain is a lecturer in the School of Civil and Structural Engineering at the Dublin Institute of Technology, Bolton Street.

Categories