A riotous birthday celebration
EAMON GRENNANreviews Love Poet, Carpenter: Michael Longley at SeventyEdited by Robin Robertson Enitharmon Press, 125pp. £15
ONE OF MY favourite Michael Longley poems is Tree House, from Gorse Fires– the 1991 volume in which the poet broke a 12-year silence with a series of spectacularly varied, beautifully cadenced pieces that, taken together, marked a stylistic change of direction, a voice enriched in manner, deepened in matter, even more open to the world than the work of his four earlier volumes. These earlier volumes moved from the precocious brilliance of his debut collection, No Continuing City(1969), through the increasingly experience-tested later collections – An Exploded View(1973), Man Lying on a Wall(1979), and The Echo Gate(1979) – in which his encounters with love and death, with the Troubles, with salvaged memories of the Great War, tested and enforced some exacting probes into the nature and implications of his own beleaguered art.
The renewal in Gorse Firesof a refined, humane yet tough lyric sensibility and imagination was greeted with unanimous pleasure and admiration by the literary community, and with universal approval by readers. It’s an approval that has made Longley a household name in the years that have followed, as he has written and published a series of prize- winning volumes, packed with a remarkable array of poems, light of touch yet sturdily made, their lyric range negotiating between classical poise and colloquial immediacy – from The Ghost Orchid(1995) through The Weather in Japan(2000), and Snow Water (2004), all leading to a dazzling Collected Poems(2006). In this time he’s been the recipient of numerous awards (including a Whitbread Poetry Award, the Irish TimesPoetry Prize, and the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry), and held the Ireland Chair of Poetry.
THE REASON I LOVE Tree Houseis because it epitomises a great many of Longley’s poetic virtues. Drawn from the episode in The Odysseydescribing the bed Odysseus has fashioned from a rooted olive tree (making “the ingenious bedroom/ Around that bushy olive tree”), it offers us in its 12 long lines a fluent, unhurried narrative, a relaxed acquaintance with the classical text translated to contemporary idiom, a love poem, an exquisite attentiveness to physical detail (“interwoven thongs of cow-hide coloured purple”), as well as an expression of deep feeling between a married couple, all absorbed into a brilliant ars poetica, the tree house itself the template for how Longley puts his own poems together. It seems right and apt, then, that a Festschrift for the poet on his 70th birthday should take its title from the last two words in this poem, with the equilibrium they imply between craft and human feeling: love poet, carpenter. It is an equilibrium gently but firmly asserted and confirmed everywhere in Longley’s work.
THE FESTSCHRIFT contains pieces by 60 contributors, all of them friends of varying intimacy (students, fellow poets, publishers). There are 40 poems (among them one by the present reviewer) and 20 prose pieces, and between them they compose an anthology of affection for Longley, a testament to the warm regard in which he and his work are held by his peers, his elders, his juniors. Writing pieces that address him directly, or resonate somehow with his own work, or evoke moments in their personal connection – the ceol, the ól, the craic – the 60 contributors generate a gorgeous, idiosyncratic collection, and the book becomes what it should be, what I imagine its editor, Robin Robertson, wanted it to be: a party, with party-pieces galore, one voice giving way to another – the accents of all the regions of Ireland, North and South, mingling with various Scottish, English and American intonations, their variety a tribute to the genial many-sidedness of their friend, whose own poems live their lives between Belfast and Carrigskeewaun, between England, the US, and Japan. The whole gathering is charged with the enthusiasm and humours of a jazz session, dedicated to one who composes as a poet his own eclectic, catholic mix of classical panache and the brisk colloquial democracy of jazz.
At this lively literary feast, Fleur Adcock aptly inaugurates the celebrations with a birthday poem that goes back and back along the Longley family line, but ends: “here are your ancestors. They don’t explain you”. In mid-throng Seamus Heaney recalls his own Latin education, and praises the “Homeric light” Longley has shed on “our Ilium now”, with “The pair of us, grandfathers too,/ More pastoral/ lyrical than epical”, while Derek Mahon, poised close to the door, offers his own light-footed take on a passage from the Odyssey(“Yes, this is Ithaca, and there’s the shrine/ to your beloved wood nymphs”). Meanwhile, John Montague paints moving memorial pictures of northern locales, humming with love the remembered placenames, “hilly Dungannon, holy Donaghmore . . . Beragh Station”, as Tom MacIntyre performs his light-handed colloquial magic in Find the Lady, Brendan Kennelly describes “Young Longley Laughing”, praising that enduring youthfulness, and Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill offers a dán that came to her “mar chat san oíche”. Paul Muldoon, in turn, presents, sealed with enigmas, Another Porcupine, Ciaran Carson provides a swift pen portrait of Longley the arts administrator, Andrew Motion steps up with a medals’ memory, Patricia Craig performs a quick prose riff on Michael Longley’s Belfast(“the pungency of the place”), and James Fenton remembers his “escape, from a tight spot” in that same, then dangerous, city.
A deal of Longley wit and humour spices these party pieces, too, most vividly in John Banville’s roguish recall of the poet’s design for a properly non-partisan pair of northern trousers. Americans Sharon Olds, Donald Hall, Dillon Johnston also appear, bearing gifts of praise for the bard – body and soul.
Greg Delanty provides a few bright slivers of an imaginary Greek Anthology (some poems from a “Longlius”!). Younger poets such as Justin Quinn, Caitríona O’Reilly, Nick Laird, David Wheatley and Alan Gillis offer their prose or verse tributes, each of them among the student “beneficiaries” of Longley’s teacherly wisdom, humour and sheer technical knowledge (of enjambments, caesuras, the dazzle of a long, syntactically lucid sentence, all the fruits of the poet’s own abiding love of Greek and Latin).
Medbh McGuckian is here too, offering, with her own oblique ceremonial touch, the lovely A Hand-stitched Balloon(“we love the veteran old trees for their aging/ Their orchard practice”), while all the other guests at this party, too numerous to name each one, perform in their turn, stirring up a properly festive session, creating a kind of cubist portrait of Longley, man and poet.
ASIDE FROM HIS poems on the darker shades of the North, the Great War, the Holocaust, aside from the unflinching, patient way he has confronted violence and been a well-tempered voice for peace, for reconciliation (simply think of Ceasefire), it is Longley’s extraordinary ability to give to the fauna and flora of his small corner of Mayo a depth-charged lyrical reality that is never sentimental, never excessive, always feels natural, that will stand as one of his most enduring gifts. So it’s fitting that to round out the proceedings there is the piece by Michael Viney called Michael in Mayo. In it, one eloquent naturalist writes in praise of his poet-peer, celebrating the celebrant of their chosen landscape and all its “magical spaces”, the sea-place they both love and that, in their different ways, they have brought alive in language, with the poet’s songs “Scattering on the snow crust/ Ideograms of ‘peace’/ and ‘love’, suchlike ideals”.
Best, however, to end this review with a wish the poet himself addresses to his perpetual “you”, his wife Edna, in a poem called The Hut. In it he asks only for “A windy wide-open snug, a shrine to daylight,/ Our time together measured by water falling/ And the silence beneath the roar”. For me, all of Longley’s poetry, inspired as it is by his own unique brand of secular reverence, is just such “a shrine to daylight”. Ad multos annosmay it stand open to all of us.
Eamon Grennan’s most recent collection of poems is Out of Breathfrom Gallery Press
On Monday in Arts: Gerald Dawe and Michael Viney pay tribute to Michael Longley