Jonathan Cape, 2006.
Reviewed by Ann Fallon.
Michael Longley has been described by Seamus Heaney as ‘a keeper of the artistic estate, a custodian of griefs and wonders’. He is a central figure in the contemporary Irish poetic landscape and has created a body of work which ensures his importance in the continued evolution of that landscape. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and a recipient of the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry and the Wilfred Owen Award. He has won the Whitbread Prize, the T S Eliot Prize, the Hawthornden Prize, the Irish Times Irish Literature Prize for Poetry and the Librex Montale Prize. We took a look at his Collected Poems, first published in 2006, and the most comprehensive introduction to his work.
Longley is not the only Northern Irish poet who deals with the borderlands delineating war and peace; past and future; community and individuality; abstract concepts and material realities, but he does so in a singular way. Underlying his approach to the territory between these concepts is a notion of what he calls ‘the fundamental interconnectedness of all things’. Most of his work was published against the background of the North’s ‘troubles’ and in such a context of social conflict and violence, the Whitmanesque idea of the connectedness of all things has the effect of refuting political jingoism and propaganda which generally aims to demonise an enemy. He recognises this interconnectedness as an underlying, non-linear and highly sensitive flux. It draws his attention from his immediate family and friends, to his neighbours and wider community until his townland includes ‘Carrigskweewaun and Central Park’. It takes him from fleeting moments in the present, to the ancient past and tentatively indicates a possible direction for the future. He expresses this sense of interconnectedness in classical analogies, in terms of biology and ecology and also in terms of mystery.
Longley casts an eye on particular details within his social context, rather than on the inherited concepts which generally inform the historical, literary and political landscape in Ireland. By using lists and catalogues and by paying close attention to what is unique and individual in his environment, he communicates with the more instinctive elements of human nature and gives us what has been called ‘privileged access to lower levels of raw information’. Such raw information forces us to pay attention to the world itself, rather than to our preconceptions of that world and exemplifies what William Empson calls poetry’s ability to ‘impos[e] its own assumptions’ and to remain ‘independent of the mental habits of the reader’. Identifying, listing and dwelling on these connections is an act of imagination and of love, while for Longley hate and destruction seem to abide in a ‘no-man’s land’ of abstract concepts and inflated rhetoric.
He begins his Collected Poems with a celebration of his marriage, the book is infused with over one hundred and thirty dedications and references to particular friends and it ends with two poems which welcome and invite his grandsons into his life. The importance of family, friends and community and of the physical incarnation as well as the mystery of love flows throughout the book and is openly expressed in, but not confined to his love poems.
Having ‘read Homer at school and [been] taught by W. B. Stanford, a great Homeric scholar at Trinity’ it was natural that the relevance of the classics to present day situations would be obvious to him. However, he writes that
re-acquaintance with the Odyssey in my late forties allowed me to give expression to sorrows… Moments in the Odyssey chimed with emotions that I would have found almost impossible to deal with otherwise: heartbreak, paranoia, bitterness, hatred, fear. Homer gave me a new emotional and psychological vocabulary.
Longley’s classical references allow his readers to integrate or re-integrate particular stories into our experience and this gives us an alternative way of visualising the future. Recent evidence suggests that ‘projecting the future may not be the [only] … function of memory, but it certainly is one of its primary functions’. What we are able and what we consciously choose to remember therefore determines what we can imagine for the future. Longley integrates the stories of the past with events from his own private life and leaves the possibility that they are also relevant to a wider community.
Through understatement, a key feature of his politically sensitive poems, and through his use of classical reference Longley’s work provides a neutral ground in which mediation can take place, if it is sought. It is only the name of the poem ‘Ceasefire’ for example which links it to the conflict of Northern Ireland. In it he moves from establishing the common humanity and dignity of opposing parties.
Put in mind of his own father and moved to tears
Achilles took him by the hand and pushed the old
King gently away, but Priam curled up at his feet and
Wept with him until their sadness filled the building.
Taking Hector’s corpse into his own hands Achilles
Made sure it was washed and, for the old king’s sake,
Laid out in uniform, ready for Priam to carry
Wrapped like a present home to Troy at daybreak.
When they had eaten together, it pleased them both
To stare at each other’s beauty as lovers might,
Achilles built like a god, Priam good-looking still
And full of conversation, who earlier had sighed:
I get down on my knees and do what must be done
And kiss Achilles hand, the killer of my son.
Although Achilles has killed Priam’s son, Longley allows that the sadness of both men ‘filled the building’. Their mutual recognition, ‘Achilles built like a god, Priam good-looking still / And full of conversation’ is the opposite of the kind of jingoism and propaganda which demonises the enemy. This recognition then allows both parties to ‘do what must be done’ to move beyond war and injustice. Priam’s unbearable suffering is somehow borne and the result for him is the return of Hector’s body for his funeral rites. The community benefits also - and Longley’s readers are now included in this community - with the recognition of how much fellow humans have suffered and yet how they can move beyond that. The territory of the past, pre-Christian and Mediterranean is recognised in this poem as part of the continuum and literary history which ‘provides both touchstones of excellence … and also stepping stones’ to the present. It requires the active participation of the reader to draw connections but Longley allows for the creative imagination of his readers which can ‘discover patterns of human experience in literature remote in time and location which can have a cogent relevance for the here and now’. ‘Ceasefire’ shows how the stories of the past make room for a ‘new and psychological vocabulary’.
The distance which the classics provide also allows Longley to discuss hatred and violence in a measured way. Where ‘to write carelessly and self-indulgently in a place like Northern Ireland could have terrible consequences….[Longley tries to remain] mindful of how much some fellow-citizens have suffered’. This important socio-political role for the arts and for imagination is expressed by the philosopher Richard Kearney who writes that
it is the new language of the artistic imagination which, in turn, can summon politicians to envision our society in new ways. If it is indeed the business of imagination to make politics distrust itself – reminding it that its principles are not literal facts but constructs of imagination – it is also its business to encourage politics to remake itself by remaking its images of the good life.
But Longley does not take his references purely from the ancient past. There are also obvious connections between Anglo-Irish poets such as Yeats and MacNeice. His interest in Yeats dates back to his school days ‘when he had requested as a third-form prize for English the Collected Yeats’. Terence Browne notes that ‘Longley’s according poetry a kind of sacral numen in a secular world may also have its source in this early reading of Yeats’.
Longley’s innate awareness of the role of the imagination in shaping a new political reality also seems to echo, but in a more democratic and less feudal way, Yeats’s views on the responsibility of the artist. He also shares with Yeats an ability to incorporate specific Irish place names into their poems and weigh ‘a place name in his hand, like a magical talisman, in a distinctly Yeatsian fashion’. Yeats’s desire to provide a unified vision and heritage for both Catholic and Protestant in Ireland lead him to focus on the pre-Christian heroes of Irish mythology. Longley’s frequent references to Homer, the Odyssey and the classics are similarly pre-Christian and therefore potentially unifying.
The shape of the Collected Poems, as well as the dedications throughout and individual poems themselves, shows that Longley is very sensitive to the idea of creating community. His generous dedications and inclusions of family, friends, his sensitive remembrance of the victims of violence, as well as his use of Gaelic place names and of the distinctly English concepts of ‘king and queen’ show exactly how it is possible to imaginatively create and integrate a community.
The first poem in the Collected Poems is ‘Epithalamion’, the celebration of his marriage, and from this personal experience the Collected Poems imaginatively reaches further out out until he can conceive of ‘a townland / That encloses Carrigskeewaun and Central Park.’
He recognises interconnectedness as a moving, changing flux of life and expresses it in terms of biology, and his sensitivity to nature helps to highlight the impact of non-linear connections and complexities of small events on the wider world. This automatically reflects back on the importance of small gestures in the human community and allows for the possibility that a single person can make a difference. His unanswered question in ‘Autumn Lady’s Tresses’, is about the actual connections between different elements. Between
‘the solitary swan on Dooaghtry Lake’
‘dolphins whose waves within waves propel
You and me along the strand’
‘Cowrie shells for decorating your sandy hair?’
The connections, he implies, are there but it takes imagination to trace them, just as it takes imagination to trace the common humanity between warring factions.
Longley’s poetry displays an awareness of the importance of the list or catalogue, especially where there has been a breakdown of natural relationships. From ‘Persephone’ in his first collection which envisages the winter preparations of the mole, swallows, bat, squirrel, weasel and ferret, the stoat and fox to the listed delights which he will share with his grandson in Carrigskeewaun in ‘The Leveret’, the penultimate poem of the Collected Poems, Longley instinctively reaches for the list to try to capture the full importance of the present moment. Psychologists tell us that ‘Normal people’ suffer from inattentional blindness which means that they ‘don’t consciously see any object unless they are paying direct, focused attention to that object’. Michael Longley’s lists force us to stand back from general conceptualising and to see more of the details of the actual world.
In his poem ‘Badger’ for example he makes us instantly aware of the physicality of the animal as he pushes ‘the wedge of his body / Between cromlech and stone circle’. He is differentiated from other animals, and is ‘not like the fox’ or the hare. He doesn’t just represent nature, he is a particular expression within it. This difference, underlying the entire poem, between a concept and a concrete reality occurs throughout Longley’s poetry. He does not ignore the concepts through which we see the world but he manages to put the importance of individuals ahead of these concepts.
The mention of the ‘cromlech and stone circle’ seems to be a reminder of how far mankind has travelled, but the cultural ratcheting which springs from our desire to control the environment and which has brought us from stone circles to disused mineshafts to skyscrapers, is just another obstacle to be negotiated by the badger. He pushes his body into the earth and between man made structures. Without our desire for control of the environment he lives in ‘the depths of the hill’ and continues with the important work of ‘manag[ing] the earth with his paws’. The badger’s management of the earth provides a new take on the traditional argument of colonists over the centuries who have justified their claim to land because of their superior management of it. For the badger, nothing is wasted, ‘mineshafts’ are once again used, and in the natural order of things his own body will add to the organic matter of the earth when he returns underground to die. The violent intervention in section three where he is pulled out by the snout is described but not commented on. As an observer of life and death Longley draws our attention and leaves us to draw our own conclusions.
The poem also contains a list of flowers and plants which the badger eats, again paying attention to the particulars of the environment and attention to particulars is a shield against generalisations, and ultimately against dogma. In the poem ‘The Ice-cream Man’ the list itself becomes a healing device which soothes his daughter’s shock at the murder of the local ice-cream man.
I named for you all the wild flowers of the Burren
I had seen in one day: thyme, valerian, loosestrife,
Meadowsweet, tway blade, crowfoot, ling, angelica,
Herb Robert, marjoram, cow parsley, sundew, vetch,
Mountain ravens, wood sage, ragged robin, stitchwort,
Yarrow, lady’s bedstraw, bindweed, bog pimpernel.
Naming the particular flowers uncoils a lifeline, back from the murder, to the time when she would rhyme off ice-cream flavours, a time of normality for the child. The list of twenty-one flowers is unexpected and becomes an insistent demand that attention be paid to these small things which can still be counted and counted upon. By the end of the poem the list itself has become both a wreath to commemorate the dead and an aid to allow the living to continue. There is also a slight biblical echo of a responsibility which has been given to man and subsequently forgotten, to name and also to care for the creatures of the earth.
In ‘Master of Ceremonies’ Longley shows the ongoing effects of a breakdown in connection between family members, between warring nations and even on a physical level, between parts of the body. Longley’s grandfather ‘Had thrown out his only son, my sad retarded uncle’, and later demoted him in hindsight from son to nephew. This family rupture is seen against the background of the international breakdown of World War I, where the uncle
Went over the top slowly behind the stretcher parties,
And, as park attendant where all hell had broken loose,
Collected littered limbs until his sack was heavy.
The horror of the disconnected limbs and the warring nations is shocking but is something which can be conceptualised and placed aside. Less easy to forget is the personal story of the grandfather who continues to regard Lionel as a ‘nephew’ long after Lionel’s head ‘got blown off in No Man’s Land’. As a poet living amidst civil violence for decades, Longley rejects the possibility that death will be read in the light of ‘one dominant inheritance – the blood sacrifice and the hope of eventual freedom rooted in struggle’. ‘Master of Ceremonies’ shows his family’s personal connection with war and the dehumanising effects of a breakdown in community. It also allows him to connect to other victims, in the acknowledgement of the loss to humanity which war and family breakdown represents.
His love poems seem to offer welcome moments of personal regeneration and provide an oasis from the conflicts of his life in Northern Ireland. In ‘An Amish Rug’ there is a sense of longing for simplicity, a different way of life where
…a one-room schoolhouse were all we knew
And our clothes were black, our underclothes black,
Marriage a horse and buggy going to church
And the children silhouettes in a snowy field.
Of course this idyll can only remain a dream but Longley wants to share this dream of a simple life with his wife. Longley questions the mythology of passion in ‘The Linen Industry’ asking
What’s passion but a battering of stubborn stalks,
then a gentle combing out of fibers like hair
And a weaving of these into christening robes,
Into garments for a marriage or funeral?
But in deflating the early moments of pleasure he brings in the story of a shared lifetime, and ultimately of the whole stretch of human existence. He projects a fragile happiness and allows for the continued awareness of the wonder of his lover. He becomes ‘shy of [her] breasts in the presence of death’ as if he were Adam seeing Eve for the first time in a lapsed world. The harvested flax and the white linen petticoats become a symbol of the life ahead and the work it will involve while the bow on her bodice becomes ‘a butterfly attending the embroidered flowers’ showing the rewards and the moments of inspiration which he hopes their work will bring.
Longley’s metaphor of the bow becoming a butterfly, is a symbol for the imagination, for poetry and for the protean nature of language. It quietly hints that creation is ongoing, fragile and partly dependent on the imagination of individuals. It also allows that this delicate act of imagination can change the emotional climate of the planet. It acknowledges the shared vocabulary which a lifetime with his partner yields and which he calls elsewhere ‘a sodality of the imagination’. It celebrates the subterranean roots which play such a large part in the interconnectedness of things. In his poem ‘Laertes’ it is this shared vocabulary which enables the despondent father to recognize his son. Instead of blurting everything out Odysseus calls on shared memories
of a childhood spent traipsing after his father
And asking for everything he saw.
Laertes’s recognition of his lost son is then swift and unquestioned, overcoming and decommissioning fifteen years of absence. The absence has not resulted in an inability to communicate and this explains why the need for a list or catalogue of facts is obsolete. Their solidarity has not been broken and they can rely on natural connections without the need for facts and figures.
Longley’s Collected Poems melt, rather than shatter, what is frozen inside our skulls. They work more like the ‘contrapuntal runnel’ which he wishes his words to be in ‘The Leveret’ and reflects the possibility that there are enough harsh voices and that to be heard it is sometimes necessary to whisper. He whispers about a no man’s land of abstractions and ideologies in which human life and the environment can become worthless. His family’s experiences in both world wars introduce this idea showing an unmanaged area full of the ‘littered limbs’ and the severed head of his uncle Lionel in ‘Master of Ceremonies’. The idea broadens in the poem 'Pine Marten' to contain the
stuffed pine marten in the hotel corridor
making it across No Man’s Land where
A patrol of gamekeepers keeps missing him
In the poem ‘Harmonica’,
‘A tommy drops his harmonica in No Man’s Land’
and the movement of our souls which ‘are air’ gathers enough force to play
‘an orchestra of harmonicas’ in this waste land.
This movement of souls is articulated through art which tries to draw our attention back to the incarnated world and to the mystery behind it. In ‘The Wren’ he acknowledges that
We sleepwalk around a townland whooper swans
from the tundra remember, and the Saharan
We sleepwalk around a townland whooper swans
from the tundra remember, and the Saharan
Michael Longley’s Collected Poems records ‘all but nine of the poems in [his] eight volumes’ dating from 1969 to 2004, as well as two new poems as an epilogue. It deals not only with his experiences and interests during those thirty-five years from No Continuing City to Snow Water, but also with experiences and events of his earlier life, notably his father’s life and death, as well as his hopes for the future, one of which is noted in the final poem ‘The Wren’, that he be imprinted on the instinctual memories of his grandsons, that he ‘burble under [their] siesta / Like a contrapuntal runnel’.
The voice which emerges from these poems is singular, considered, understated and respectful of life. Each of the three hundred plus pages of the Collected Poems presents a continuous counterpoint against the babble of popular rhetoric which is prone to using abstract principles in its justification of intolerance. His singular voice whispers through each of the poems reaffirming the importance of imagination in building community, the necessity of drawing attention back to the small details of creation when relations have broken down and the dignity with which it is possible to face the future. It defines humanity as beings capable of community and states that this is both a reassurance and a responsibility.
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