NOVEMBER 10, 2017
BECAUSE OF CIRCUMSTANTIAL, perhaps superficial similarities, and because of their personal intimacy, Michael Longley’s name is often found following Seamus Heaney’s, indeed sometimes only understood in the context of Heaney’s, particularly in the United States: both Northern Irish poets whose poems have sought to confront, or comprehend, in their way, the euphemistically named Troubles of the 1970s; both born in 1939, as the world was on the brink of World War II; both members of a constellation of young poets in Belfast in the early 1960s, which Philip Hobsbaum retrospectively mythologized as “The Group,” but of course Heaney was the one to become Oxford Professor of Poetry and Nobel laureate — the sweetheart of Irish poetry and heir to Yeats’s techne. Nor does Longley shy away from comparison, or juxtaposition, in conversation and in poetry.
Speaking with one interviewer he recalls the sense of competition of the early “Group,” the “pang of jealousy if somebody got a poem in the TLS,” and himself a “kind of wan paleface beside Seamus and his frogspawn.” “We were like sprinters,” he reflects, “keeping an eye on each other.” And so, when Heaney was signed by Faber, he “was jealous, yes, but delighted, too.” He continues:
Seamus is probably the only poet in the history of the world who had a poem published in the same week in the Listener, the New Statesman and the TLS. I mean, he’s gifted, but unbelievably lucky […] My feelings were not so much of jealousy as a fear of being left behind.
Some half-century on, their early sense of friendly competition can still be found in Angel Hill, Longley’s latest collection, where Heaney remains a constant companion. In the poem “Bookshops,” for instance, he remembers fondly, “our first pamphlets jostling for attention”:
Then 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 furtive compulsion to “move mine to the front,” “if nobody’s looking,” before Heaney’s, Derek Mahon’s, and James Simmons’s collections (Heaney’s Death of a Naturalist perhaps unsurprisingly coming first in the list), is affectionately mocked by the retrospective confirmation that indeed nobody was looking, nor really cared which book of poetry was at the front. Somewhat ironically, now, at the head of a career spanning nearly 50 years, when Longley is beginning to receive the reputation he deserves and accumulate his own accolades — only this year he won the PEN Pinter Prize for poetry which “has been wholly suffused with the qualities of humanity, humility and compassion, never shying away from the moral complexity that comes from seeing both sides of an argument” — Heaney is more present in his poetry than ever.
But Heaney is only one of many presences in Angel Hill, and understanding Longley’s poetry simply in relation to Heaney does Longley and his work a great injustice. What matters of his relationship with Heaney is not the playful sense of competition, nor that Heaney was catapulted into poetic superstardom at an early age, casting a long shadow on his fellow members of “The Group,” acknowledged by the public and academic worlds as the poet of the Irish situation with his collection North (1975); nor even that, in the poem “Menu,” as Longley recalls, Heaney “took the bigger claw” when they shared lobster in Boston or New York, but what Heaney describes in his Nobel Lecture as the “squeeze of the hand, the actuality of sympathy and protectiveness between living creatures.” In “Room to Rhyme,” for instance, a poem written in memory of Heaney, it is clearly love which bound, and continues to bind them:
I blew a kiss across the stage to you
When we read our poems in Lisdoonvarna
Two weeks before you died. Arrayed in straw
The Armagh Rhymers turned up at the end.
The reciprocation of this kiss is demanded in grief, in remembrance of Heaney’s own grief at a sectarian murder:
When Oisin Ferran was burned to death, you
Stood helpless in the morgue and wept and wept.
Awaken from your loamy single-bed:
Kiss me on the lips in Lisdoonvarna.
Calling Heaney forth from his “loamy-single bed” in the final stanza of a poem whose opening stanza recalled a kiss blown “across the stage” is a beautiful enactment of Longley’s belief in the “actuality of sympathy and protectiveness between living creatures,” but also in the idea that this love bridges two worlds and continues to do so, leaving the trace and sensation as of a blown kiss, and that the key to this conversation between two worlds is love and remembrance. For Longley, the act of poetry is committed to both of these. A clue is in the title. Angel Hill, or Cnoc nan Aingeal in Gaelic, is a burial ground in the Scottish Highlands, a landscape reminiscent to Longley of his home in Carrigskeewaun, and near to the home of his daughter, the painter Sarah Longley, who with “easel and brushes,” “big sheets and charcoal for drawing,” presides, “looking after the headstones.” Sarah is another important presence in the collection, but almost more as a collaborator, as the dedication suggests:
In your pictures, Sarah,
And my poems, the Irish
Otters of Carrigskeewaun
And the Scottish otters
Of Lochalsh keep in touch.
Their work, their love for one another, and their shared love of place, somehow communicates Carrigskeewaun to Angel Hill, as Longley’s blown kiss across the stage seems somehow to contour the worldly with the otherworldly. Longley’s poem “The Snowdrops,” in particular, responds to Sarah’s painting of the snowdrops on Angel Hill. “I couldn’t help but be aware,” Sarah explains to one interviewer, “of the poignancy of beautiful spring flowers bursting into life among gravestones. I’m not especially scared of my own mortality and find comfort in the close proximity of life and death.” The poem knows of this proximity too, the inauspicious beauty of the “wintry-love tokens” for men “home from the trenches,” young “Gordon Highlanders,” “out-of-breath pallbearers” who lost their lives or the lives of their loved ones in the mud and barbed wire of World War I, in which Longley’s own father took part and survived. The poem is peopled with ghosts, and as the dead men clamber “up the steep path to this graveyard,” themselves arriving to pay tribute to the dead, the dividing line between life and death is blurred. The poem is unearthly and pays homage to the shimmering, almost El Greco–like iridescence of the snowdrops in his daughter’s painting. There is also a strange, playful awareness in the poem “Strangers” that both he and Sarah might never have existed to commemorate the dead on Angel Hill if his own father was numbered among the ghosts they speak of, since he “caught one in your ‘courting tackle’ / And nearly lost my sister, twin and me.”
If Longley is an elegist of war it is not in the manner of Heaney, but rather of Edward Thomas, a poet that Longley describes in his earlier collection Snow Water (2004) as a nature poet who turned into a war poet “as if / He could cure death with the rub of a dock leaf.” Longley knows of course, as Thomas did, that rubbing a dock leaf on a corpse will do nothing, but he also believes, as Thomas did, and John Clare before him, that human beings are not entities set apart from nature, beamed down to harness its resources with the use of tools, perceiving it by turns as potential wealth or potential threat, but are in fact a part of nature, and a part of a landscape, as a shock of snowdrops in a graveyard are a part of a landscape. His poems are a hymn to those in “loamy single-bed[s],” but they never forget their existence was a part of the natural world. The spiritual is not set apart from the corporeal. Heaney famously wrote of waiting until he was nearly 50 to “credit marvels,” the “[s]hifting brilliancies” of his poem sequence “Squarings” from Seeing Things (1991), but Longley has been crediting the quiet beauty of Carrigskeewaun for nearly half a century.
To make a still more tenuous comparison, if Heaney’s “[s]hifting brilliancies” are somewhat akin to the sublime Wordsworth experienced in the Lake District, Longley sees the miraculous in minutiae, in the small but eternal behaviors of the natural world, a sympathy for all living things. In this sense, he could be considered an eco-critical voice, but there is no political agenda in his admiration of nature, which makes it all the more persuasive and convincing. Longley resists the temptation to become spiritual in the face of nature and effuse about a spirit of nature that “rolls through all things,” leading, as he knows this can, to a kind of abstract, pantheistic, broad-brushstroke morality and poetry. Just flipping through the titles of Longley’s poems confirms this. The collection is populated, not only by snowdrops and ghosts, but also by nosegays, pine martens, sheep, corncrakes, swallows, donkeys, barnacle geese, mistletoe, hazel, woodbines, badgers, storms, dusty bluebells, a siskin’s egg, and even a trilobite. His love of the diversity and detail of nature is hard-earned and comes with an accompanying, encyclopedic knowledge. His daughter remembers, when she was 13, during the heat of the Troubles, the murder of an ice cream man in Belfast on the Lisburn Road. The next day she placed carnations on the spot, where hundreds of flowers were already blossoming, and her father named her all the wild flowers of the Burren. There is solace to be found in the names of flowers, not necessarily as a form of forgetfulness, but there is perhaps also the implication that savoring the names of wild flowers is not altogether removed from a disdain for violence: it is an act of love. After fixing a swallow’s nest, “[t]he Ornithologist,” Longley writes:
stays with them on Inishkea
Stormbound, counting and re-counting
The generations, listening
For their messages in the wind.
This is the loving, habitual, dedicated observation of nature that we find in Longley’s poems too. “Counting,” in fact, is a recurring theme. In “Another Portrait,” we find “Michael Viney counting porpoises,” Longley and Heaney count “tree-rings” in “Storm,” he and his wife, Edna, have been “[c]ounting oystercatchers and sanderlings” for 50 years, and finally, in “Age,” Longley has counted the “whoopers / and the jackdaws over Morrison’s barn.” There is not only the ominous sense that the number they find of these things may be decreasing all over the world, but that this, as he writes of his work in “Age,” is “poetry […] shrinking almost to its bones.” In a world where nature has been commodified, where green spaces are shrinking everywhere and species are becoming extinct at an alarming rate, it is a humbling, and deeply moving experience to read the work of a poet who has spent years “salvaging snail shells and magpie feathers, / For fear of leaving particulars out.” Longley’s poetry has no relationship with the fads of literary taste, but it has certainly never been more pertinent to us.