Giving thanks for small things
POETRY: THEO DORGANreviews A Hundred DoorsBy Michael Longley Cape Poetry, 48pp. £10
THE TITLE OF Michael Longley’s new book comes from the island of Paros. Helena, mother of Constantine, had a wooden church built there, and two centuries later Justinian the Great had the church rebuilt, commissioning Isidorus, one of the two architects of Hagia Sophia, to undertake the work. Isidorus farmed out the work to his apprentice, Ignatius, but was smitten with jealousy, legend has it, when he arrived to see the magnificent dome that crowned the great church. Enraged, he pushed the apprentice off the roof; Ignatius, grasping him by the ankle as he fell, took Isidorus with him. The island wisdom is that the church has 100 doors, 99 of which are known; the 100th, they say, will be found only when Constantinople is Greek again.
The past, for Longley, has always been alive in the present, as the “Marble stumps aching through glass / for their pagan temple” are still present in Justinian’s great church. What is made, whether temple or story, has the ache to endure built into it, an impulse the poet identifies and assists when he can, enshrining a new perception in a frame of words, holding an old story up again into the light. Priam will not die, he means to say, nor Odysseus, nor the poet’s father, that always recurring figure, as long as the poet is obedient to his duty.
There are four green fields in the world, according to Michael Longley: the killing grounds of the first Word War, Belfast and its hinterlands, undying Greece and the botanist’s paradise of Carrigskeewaun, in Co Mayo. Tending his fields assiduously as he does, Longley moves like a figure in The Ecloguesfrom pasture to pasture, quiet, unassuming, attentive to small things but raising his head from time to time to look history square in the face. Easy to see him in the timeless light of enduring Greece, but where Yeats found artifice and God’s holy fire in the mosaics of Byzantine Ravenna, Longley prefers to find time and redemption in small things. Take the opening lines of the title poem:
God! I’m lighting candles again, still
The sentimental atheist, family
Names a kind of prayer or poem, my muse
Our Lady of a Hundred Doors
For Longley naming is indeed, literally, invocation, the impulse to prayer and the memorial more urgent and natural than the mind’s rejection of the idea of God. Speaking in poems is a ritual instinct as rooted and human as the tenderness of neighbours or, for that matter, the jealousy of architects.
Carefully, with a botanist’s precision and a cool eye, Longley, at intervals through this new book, names daughters, friends, grandchildren and neighbours, granting each a benediction, the gift of his attention, wishing them all well. This naming of generations, the living, the dead and the soon to be dead, paces the book, gives the collection its measured cadence. Strung out on this cadence, luminous moments on a long walk under a blue sky, there are the by now familiar praise poems for what is not human, for otter and hare, spindrift and sea lavender, vixen and wild thyme and bird’s-foot trefoil – all that endures in the wind and the light, coexistent with the human but indifferent to our pretensions at lordship, at mastery and owning. Forty years’ visiting Carrigskeewaun has taught him to let go, to let be. Fifty years making poems has taught him to forgive all that is human, to take his place in the long column from dark into dark – like Coleridge’s mariner, he has learned to bless, to count himself coincident with all that is born and passes.
In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, where Blake enjoins us to “cleanse the doors of perception”, there are these lovely lines: “How do you know but ev’ry Bird that cuts the airy way, / Is an immense world of delight.” There is a measured elegiac air to Longley’s book that sometimes approaches the wistful, but the mortal soul’s inclination to sadness, to Weltschmerz, is pulled up time and again by a sense of gratitude for the world of delight, for life as pure gift. A sense of gratitude, perhaps above all else, for those who have shared the poet’s life. There are fine poems of friendship here ( The Signal Box at Dundalkfor Terence Brown, A Gustfor Eddie Linden), fine-wrought elegies for some who are already among the shades ( The Pokerin memory of Sam Thompson, The Holly Bushin memory of Dorothy Molloy) and elegant and moving poems to children and grandchildren, those starred inheritors, but I found myself most moved by the shy love poems addressed to his wife. Januaryenshrines that love and is worth quoting in its entirety:
The townland is growing older too.
It makes sense to be here in the cold:
Fuchsia’s flowerless carmine, willow’s
Purple besom. We are lovers still.
Mistiness and half a moon provide
Our soul-arena, a tawny ring.
The hundredth door, it may be, is the door into the heart, a white gate through which passes all that is and was, and will be:
Imagine Mary O’Toole
And me coinciding and
Walking through the white gate
To all of the islands.
A luminous book, then, a creaturely work of blessing and acceptance, crafted and generous and sure.
Theo Dorgan’s most recent books are Greek, a collection of poems from Dedalus Press, and Time on the Ocean, a Voyage from Cape Horn to Cape Town, from New Island