Fran Brearton, review of Angel Hill by Michael Longley, in The Guardian (17 June 2017)

[Bibliographical details: Fran Brearton, ‘Angel Hill by Michael Longley review - elegies on conflict, grief and nature’, review of Angel Hill by Michael Longley, in The Guardian (17 June 2017) - available online [orig. access date unknown]. Sub-title: ‘The essence of humanity is captured by one of the finest poets of his generation through the Troubles, the first world war and the beauty of wilderness.’ Photo: ‘Complicated memories ... Gordon Highlanders during the first world war, 1916’ (Alamy).]

Angel Hill, or Cnoc nan Aingeal in Gaelic, is a burial ground in the Scottish Highlands, a ‘soul landscape’ that lends its name to Longley’s 11th collection, which this week was shortlisted for the Forward poetry prize. A final resting place among the clouds, Angel Hill is close to the home of his daughter, the painter Sarah Longley, who with ‘easel and brushes’, ‘big sheets and charcoal for drawing’ is ‘looking after the headstones’. In Longley’s “Snowdrops”, the hill is peopled by ghosts who are themselves visiting the dead: ‘Murdo, Alistair, / Duncan, home from the trenches, / Back in Balmacara and Kyle, / Cameronians, Gordon Highlanders / Clambering on hands and knees / Up the steep path to this graveyard.’]

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 Heaney’s death. The friendship, with its ‘pilgrimages around the North’ in Heaney’s muddy Volkswagen, is commemorated in “Room to Rhyme”, a powerful and intimate elegy in which the poet grieves for his subject and remembers his subject’s 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 poet’s garden, a longstanding symbol in Longley’s 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 Yeats’s 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 Ireland’s 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 naturalist’s 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 soldier’s ‘leatherbound book’ of Shakespeare’s 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 lifetime’s appreciation in Longley’s 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. Longley’s 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, Longley’s 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.

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