Angel Hill review: Remastering the past with timeless skill
Michael Longley’s new poems have a sense of space, while Ocean Vuong’s are roomy
Michael Longley, still a master of miniatures – there is an astonished, almost shortsighted intensity to the way he looks at what lies around him. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
In Sea Asters, one of the finest poems in his new collection, Angel Hill (Jonathan Cape, £10), Michael Longley mentions the asters’ “scruffy loveliness”, a phrase which suits the way he can unexpectedly edge unlikely material into lyrical exclamation. Here is that poem in full:
I have got to know the fawn’s
Salt-marsh skeleton, abstract
Vertebrae and white ribs
In a puddle jellyfish fill
At spring-tide, ghost-circles
Close to the sea-asters’
The poem’s gear-change, that moment when we see the skeleton better by noticing the jellyfish filling up the puddle it rests in, is a typical Longley conjuring act, as is the sweet grace note of the sea asters.
Longley’s skilfulness and experience are evident in poems where, in the choice of a single word, the focus of the description shifts, as in In the Mugello, where orchids are “harvest’s soul,/ Four under a hornbeam,/ Other orchids as well/ Decorating the verge,/ Pyramids, labia pink.” Or where a morning posy becomes “light-painted flowers,/ A field in a toothglass” (Nosegay). Or where the image of “the low sun as it frays/ Through a tree-creeper’s useful/ Fantail” shifts to an image of the poet, “my elongated shadow/ with its walking stick” (Solstice).
Past successes hover around many of the poems, an “elongated shadow” that the poet sometimes writes into: “Long ago I compared us to rope-makers/ Twisting straw into a golden cable”, he writes in The Necklace. Memory reminisces about the occasion of his early Epithalamion, “rhyme-words dancing/ Down the page ahead of the argument”, catching the way his work has been drawn out and on by its formal ambitions, and adding in effect a sort of snapshot of the poet at work in his youth, like a reissued album with new period detail.
For all its looking back, however, the book feels curiously timeless. When dates do enter two of the poems, it is with a riveting, discomfiting suddenness. In Badger (in memory of Martin McBirney, murdered 16.ix.74), Longley’s eye and ear are for the touchingly human. “From behind he was all behind, Martin./ Everyone got drunk after his funeral./ On the path to our house a badger paused./ ‘I can’t answer any of your questions,’/ I said, and the badger shuffled away.”
In his poems of the natural world, Longley is still a master of miniatures: there is an astonished, almost shortsighted intensity to the way he looks at what lies around him, in his familiar Carrigskeewaun habitat as well as in the Scottish locales this collection also visits. These new poems love correspondence: in a haiku, “The way a cowslip bends/ Recalls a cart track,/ Crushed sunlight at my feet.” (Cowslip), while Inlet notices “A mussel shell/ Filling up with rain/ As you reach the pool.” One of the book’s many sonnets contemplates his particularising, but spacious style:
Salvaging snail shells and magpie feathers
For fear of leaving particulars out,
I make little space for philosophising.
I walk ever more slowly to gate and stile.
Poetry is shrinking almost to its bones.
The young Vietnamese-American poet Ocean Vuong has had a remarkable success with his first book, Night Sky with Exit Wounds (Cape, £10), now reprinted for readers on this side of the Atlantic. Vuong writes in what may be one of the most unfashionable modes of recent decades, in the richly meditative style of Rainer Maria Rilke. And, almost unbelievably, he does so successfully.
Here is how his poem Torso of Air begins: “Suppose you do change your life.” Like Houdini wrestling his way out of an impossible-to-imagine confinement, the poem continues in the same vein: “& the body is more than/ a portion of night – sealed/ with bruises.” The book again and again admits and imagines violence and desire. But Vuong is swift, light, constantly surprising in his movement. This poem ends, happily, I think, with the image of “The eye/ staring back from the other side –/ waiting.”
Vuong has written a number of remarkable poems about his father, a figure he uses to broach the subjects of immigration and race. However, he complicates these subjects with his poems’ free treatment of the body and sexuality. Images are framed so that they seem to implicate us in what he has seen. In the aptly titled in-between world of Threshold, “On my knees,/ I watched, through the keyhole, not/ the man showering, but the rain/ falling through him: guitar strings snapping/ over his globed shoulders.” In Telemachus,
He could be anyone’s father, found
the way a green bottle might appear
At the boy’s feet containing a year
he has never touched. I touch
His ears. No use. I turn him
over. To face it. The cathedral
in his sea-black eyes. The face
not mine – but one I will wear
to kiss all my lovers good-night:
the way I seal my father’s lips
with my own & begin
the faithful work of drowning.
Another poem, Notebook Fragments, begins as a collage of jottings, some vapid (“Life is funny”) or jokey (“Why do all my books leave me empty-handed?”), before the poem develops momentum and focus, returning to an addressee, a lover, or the figure of a lover: “he had the hands/ of someone I used to know. Someone I was used to.”
Vuong’s roomy, cool, risky poems are more than promising, and this is an exciting and compelling book.
John McAuliffe’s fourth book is The Way In (Gallery, 2015). He is professor of modern literature and creative writing at the University of Manchester