An independent small press poetry review

NHI independent review
Jonathan Cape
Random House
20 Vauxhall Bridge Rd
ISBN 0 224 05035 4

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For those, like me, who have never previously encountered Michael Longley's poetry, let me here attempt a description. His subject matter is his own life (lives) and the life (lives) about him, seen (occasionally) through the lens of a classical education. As to his style, his facility with rhyme in the earlier poems reminds me of Larkin. When noticed that is. The rhymes unremarked I was more often drawn immediately into the world of the poem; only on subsequent readings did I note the elegant carpentry; or, when contemplating technique or observation, I found myself lost in simple admiration...

	...The weasel and ferret, the stoat and fox
	Move hand in glove across the equinox.
	I can tell how softly their footsteps go 
	Their footsteps borrow silence from the snow.
from PERSEPHONE. Note how the unemphasised footsteps, repeated as footsteps are, are made in the poem also to be silent. Masterly. Poets having spoken to Michael Longley, speaking through him, comparisons leap to be made - with the accurate nature poems of Hughes, with Heaney's history-burdened Northern Ireland - but he is his own man, grown through and out of them all. It is he, alone, who has to put his father's life into terms that he can understand, so that he might come to terms with his father's lifetime dying. So he looks into both the life and death of others; even looks forward, one eyebrow raised, to his own funeral. And returns to his own preoccupations - Greek mythology re-applied, the casualties of war, nature's busy indifference. I must emphasise that his effectiveness does not rely solely on rhyme. Take the imagery employed in JOURNEY OUT OF ESSEX (OR JOHN CLARE'S ESCAPE FROM THE MADHOUSE), where, just when you'd expect him to pay homage to Clare by employing like end-rhymes, instead he relies wholly on ideas
	I am lying with my head
	Over the edge of the world,
	Unpicking my whereabouts
	Like the asylum's name
	That they stitch on the sheets...
or as in GALAPAGOS
	Now you have scattered into islands 
	Breasts, belly, knees, the mount of Venus,
	Each a Galapagos of the mind...
His nature poems have the smell of authenticity; they brought many a smile of recognition. And I too have had relatives repeat, and repeat, their war stories until those stories have become my own haunting. While his poems dredged out of Ireland's troubles bring the grim acknowledgement of a bad news grimace. The one consistent emotion here is despair.
	...He collapsed beside his carpet-slippers
	Without a murmer, shot through the head
	By a shivering boy who wandered in
	Before they could turn the television down
	Or tidy away the supper dishes.
	To the children, to a bewildered wife,
	I think 'Sorry Missus' was what he said.
from WOUNDS. Note how effective the understatement is, the domestic preoccupations, the lack of accusation.

Longley's poetry, however, is much more than a reconciling himself to such barbarity: his is a rounded out poetry, as diverse as his times. ON MWEELREA, for instance, one is unsure whether it is the landscape or the sexual act that is being described, but the both being confused making the mountainscape vital.

If fault there is then Longley has a tendency to take some poems, especially those lacking a narrative drive, beyond their natural resolution. Small complaint though; because the sheer volume of poetry selected here merits more praise than this poor pen can invent. Indeed Michael Longley describes his own work more accurately than I - in SELF-PORTRAIT

	I articulate through the nightingale's throat,
	Sing with the vocal chords of the orang-outang. [sic]
There is so much more here that I wanted to quote. I only hope that I have managed to convey the riches to be found in this Selected Poems. Do get hold of a copy.

reviewer: Sam Smith.