Like Yeats before him, Longley is the elegist and self-elegist par excellence of his generation. The Stairwell (2014) commemorated his late twin brother, Peter. In Angel Hill, Seamus Heaney is another kind of lost brother for Longley, the poet with whom he gave a reading tour of Northern Ireland in 1968 - a tour that Heaney described as the beginnings of pluralism, despite the Troubles that followed - and with whom he read in Lisdoonvarna two weeks before Heaneys death. The friendship, with its pilgrimages around the North in Heaneys muddy Volkswagen, is commemorated in Room to Rhyme, a powerful and intimate elegy in which the poet grieves for his subject and remembers his subjects own grief: When Oisin Ferran was burned to death, you / Stood helpless in the morgue and wept and wept. In Storm, the mighty beech in the poets garden, a longstanding symbol in Longleys work, has lost an arm; it is Wind-wounded, lopsided now. Where once they Gazed up through cathedral / Branches at constellations, now he and Heaney are Together ... counting tree-rings.
Counting is a motif of this collection, with its consciousness of lives slipping away and just beginning, its unsettling movement forwards and backwards through time. Longley might justly be seen as Yeatss inheritor here, too - the Yeats who counted his nine-and-fifty swans, who number[ed] the dead in Easter 1916, or counted those feathered balls of soot / The moor-hen guides upon the stream during Irelands civil war. Longley counts his passing years (in the superb Age), as well as whooper swans and waders, barnacle geese, oystercatchers and sanderlings, starlings and whimbrels. In the brief, haunting elegy for Patrick Rooney, a child killed in the early days of the Troubles, the children chanting In and out go / Dusty bluebells echo down the decades. With a keen naturalists eye (For fear of leaving particulars out) and a finely honed instinct for preservation, Longley, like the ornithologist in the poem of that title, is counting and re‑counting / The generations, listening / For their messages on the wind, Tracking in his imagination / Their return.
The young soldiers of the first world war, those he returns on leave to Angel Hill, resting against rusty railings / Like out-of-breath pallbearers, are a generation who have been better served by Longley than by any other living poet. (He was awarded the PEN Pinter prize earlier this month for writing that casts an unflinching, unswerving gaze upon the world.)
In these centenary years, he has proved himself the outstanding laureate of that war, in which his father fought, partly because the war has been part of his imaginative hinterland from the beginning, but also because he has remembered across the archipelago, elegising soldiers and soldier-poets from the Gordon Highlanders, the London Scottish, the Ulster Division, the Inniskilling Fusiliers. For Longley, memory of the war is always complicated; the Irishman, as much attuned to the problem of remembrance as to the urgent need to remember, is painfully aware of how much and how little poetry can do in wartime: in The Sonnets, a soldiers leatherbound book of Shakespeares sonnets stopped a bullet just short of his heart. The poetry is life-saving, but it is also shredded.
In 1963, recently graduated in classics from Trinity College Dublin, Longley wrote in praise of the kind of translation which is the final criticism, the appreciation of one poet by another carried to its logical conclusion - free translation at its best, the only real translation. The 1960s saw the beginning of a lifetimes appreciation in Longleys work of Homer. The Iliad has long been a touchstone for his writing on war; when Odysseus appears in a collection now, it feels like the return of an old friend. Longleys free translations, in which his handling of loose pentameter and hexameter lines is second to none, compress Homeric passages into moments of lyric intensity. In Angel Hill, Odysseus reappears Telling the truth and telling lies to Penelope, and In the middle of his rigmarole (from Book XIX of The Odyssey) comes The Brooch: A golden dog grasping a dappled fawn / In his forepaws, fascinated by it / As he throttles its struggle to get free. The 10-line poem contains the brooch, as the brooch contains the fawn, the whole exemplifying the intricate craftsmanship that is a hallmark of this book.
Often, Longleys Homeric preoccupations centre on the linked themes of recognition (or anagnorisis) and homecoming. He savours individual place names as he delights in assonance and internal rhyme: After Achnashellach comes Achnasheen, / Sheep grazing among molehills, seaweedy / Breakwaters ... His is a poetics of perpetual return and recognition - seeing again and afresh - that is never grounded in one place. He captures instead what one might term sacramental moments, in which last things are first things and where a surface impermanence plays over permanent depth: starlings are Heavenly riffraff; a bookshop is a lost cathedral; the Connemara ponies are also mythical creatures named by Odysseus; a nosegay and / Egg cup are offered like a chalice. His first collection, No Continuing City (1969) was deliberately elusive in its title.
It is fitting that, almost half a century later, when a Longley collection has earned a place name title, the name is at once of this world and otherworldly. Unafraid to capture the intimacies and specifics of this life, Longley is also one of the very few poets able to take us, time and again, to a place as Wild and melodious as the birdsong he celebrates.