John Burnside, review of Collected Poems of Michael Longley, in The Irish Times (7 Oct. 2006)

Details: John Burnside, ‘Recovering civilisation’, review of Michael Longley, Collected Poems, in The Irish Times (7 Oct. 2006), Weekend - available online [orig. access date unknown].

While reading this very welcome Collected Poems, it struck me that a not atypical Longley poem might begin with the word “when”, placing the reader in a specific moment, or at a specific event, before moving on to evoke another, parallel event, one that seems to belong to a different sphere of activity.

For example, the poem Swallow opens thus:
When the swallow detoured into the kitchen
Kissing corners, highlighting the dusty shelves
With its underside, those exhausted feathers
That never quite made it through the open door,
We too were on the verge of moving house:

A few pages later, the poet is roused from his bed to witness the Northern Lights:

When you woke me up and showed me through the window
Curtains of silk, luminous smoke, ghost fires,
A convergence of rays above the Black Mountain,
The northern lights became our own magnetic field -
Your hand on my shoulder, your tobacco-y breath
And the solar wind that ruffled your thinning hair.
While According to Pythagoras begins:
When in good time corpses go off and ooze in the heat
Creepy-crawlies breed in them. Bury your prize bull
(A well-known experiment) - and from the putrid guts
Swarm flower-crazy bees, industrious country types
Working hard, as did their host, with harvest in mind.
An interred war-horse produces hornets. Remove
A shore-crab’s hollow claw, lay it to rest: the result
Is a scorpion charging with its tail bent like a hook.
Worms cosy in cocoons of white thread grow into
Butterflies, souls of the dead. Any farmer knows that.

This construction occurs frequently enough to seem significant, as Longley strives to marry two quite distinct ways of experiencing time: one on the human scale, the other sidereal. What he seems to do in such poems is to take human and natural history - two currents we usually experience as quite separate, even incompatible - and set them side by side, so that the life of insects, small animals, even plants, is juxtaposed with what we think of as larger - human - concerns, such as philosophy, or war.

This enterprise recalls Edward Thomas (see, for example, Thomas’s poem, “Swedes”, in which the hoard of vegetables is compared to the tomb of Amen-Hotep), and Longley’s debt to Thomas is carefully acknowledged, both directly and by allusion, so that the great, and still under-appreciated war and nature poet becomes one of Longley’s enduring themes, alongside the plant life of the Burren, the exemplary beauty of crafted objects (Amish or Shaker artefacts, rope, linen, an Indian carving), and, latterly, the Co Mayo countryside.

Another of Longley’s recurring subjects - one that blithely invites accusations of mannerism - is the Far East, especially Japan. Indeed, one of his collections is titled The Weather in Japan, while another, Snow Water, begins with an invocation of the tea ceremony. Yet, like Charles Wright, whose fondness for Chinese art and philosophy permeates his work, Longley knows that, while an Oriental poet might find himself in an iris garden, gazing up at the full moon, he is just as likely to complain about his haemorrhoids or the persistent effects of a hangover. And, in truth, what he relishes in the Japanese tradition is exactly what he loves in Carrigskeewaun or Belfast: that is, the names of things, and the alchemical power of the well-chosen word or phrase to renew our wonder at those things-in-themselves. Longley is not, in other words, a western aesthete, scribbling haiku about sparrows and chrysanthemums in his little notebook, any more than he is the nature poet as minimalist. It can seem inviting, given the sometimes extreme economy of much of his recent work, to see him as a miniaturist - admittedly a superb miniaturist, but a miniaturist nonetheless. At the same time, his many poems about animals, birds and plants invite the label of “nature poet”, with all the connotations of slightness that this categorisation suggests. Yet the heart of his enterprise remains that quest to make us turn around, in the midst of our preoccupations, and see where, and so what, we are.

This is, perhaps, why Longley values craft-work so much. Like the Shakers, whose guiding dictum is “Work as though you had a thousand years to live, and as if you were to die tomorrow”, he knows that to make something as well as it can be made is an ecologically significant act, a confirmation of dwelling. The making of a lyric, as much as the making of an Amish rug or a Shaker barn, is a renewal of the real and the elusive in a world that has fallen blindly in love with the virtual and the available.

Inevitably, this kind of making is informed by a strict, almost austere economy, one that demands of the reader as much care and attention as was present in the writing.

A lazy reader can miss so much in a Longley poem; a reader looking for flattery, or an invitation to feel clever, glances off the surface of his work like a noisy housefly scouting a kitchen window, mistaking its lit surface for the bright space beyond. Yet there is something beyond high craft in these poems: what Longley is doing, when he makes a poem in celebration of an indigenous wood-carver or of the Irish linen industry, is recovering an endangered idea of civilisation. His response to violence - to “The Troubles”, to the concentration camps at Terezin and Buchenwald, to the Great War - is both idiosyncratic and wise, as expressed in the poem “All of These People”:

Who was it who suggested that the opposite of war
Is not so much peace as civilisation? He knew
Our assassinated Catholic greengrocer who died
At Christmas in the arms of our Methodist minister,
And our ice-cream man whose continuing requiem
Is the twenty-one flavours children have by heart.
Our cobbler mends shoes for everybody; our butcher
Blends into his best sausages leeks, garlic, honey;
Our cornershop sells everything from bread to kindling.
Who can bring peace to people who are not civilised?
All of these people, alive or dead, are civilised.

This poem stands as well as any for Longley’s vision: a vision of honest making as a means to the good life, of how language shapes us for better or worse, of the need to pay attention, moment by moment, to the smallest details. Civilisation consists, in this vision, of such an attention to the divine, and of the diversity of belief, of species, of language and custom, of artifice. Longley may concentrate on the details, he may be a poet of the natural world, operating within a strict and self- enforced economy, but his vision is as important as that of any poet working today.

Collected Poems is vital, because it counters the impression that might derive from a careless reading of the recent, slim, slyly self-effacing collections, and reminds us that Longley is not only a lyric poet of the first rank, but a clear-sighted observer who knows the real world when he sees it, even as he knows that it cannot be grasped, only celebrated, or interrogated, or mourned - which is to say, given its due - as it passes.

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