Poetry round-up: Precious touchstones from the past
Masterful new collections by Michael Longley, Sean Hewitt and Enda Coyle Green
Michael Longley: The Candlelight Master returns to the scene of earlier poems. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
Michael Longley’s new book opens with a trio of admiring poems about painters, each of them persevering in later life and still making new work: Orpen “on the bomb crater’s rim”; Matisse’s “imagination a lagoon / Where, immobile, he swam every day”; and Pierre Bonnard, bedbound and anxiously “arranging” for a nephew “to add / To The Almond Tree in Flowers / Blue and white a little yellow”.
Like Bonnard’s nephew, The Candlelight Master (Cape, £10), returns to the scene of earlier poems, adding grace notes and contexts to classic anthology pieces. Flower-Names revisits and would extend the famous list of his elegy The Ice-Cream Man. “Oh,” Longley writes,
How I wanted that catalogue to go on forever
A prayer, a litany of remembered Burren flowers.
The ice-cream man’s murder desecrated nature,
Overshadowing crowsfoot, thyme, bog pimpernel
And all our lives and all such coincidences.
His best-known poem, Ceasefire, first published in these pages in 1994, hovers in the wings of War, which returns, gloomily, to “old Priam / Beg[ging] Polydorus not to fight” and to vengeful Hector who sees “his brother / Polydorus on the ground / Mortally wounded, blacking out, / His intestines in his hands / His eyes misted over with tears.”
Longley’s Homeric poems grant a perspective which includes both Europe (and its wars) and Ireland (and the Troubles), and much else: “Inishturk becomes Ithaca”, as Moly puts it. The Greek lyric poets have been just as important, licensing his most intimate and his most mischievous writing. A sonnet, Et, dwells on a marriage, “enacting that mysterious syllable” which “dominates and insinuates / separates and joins”. Hochmagandy (after Catullus) indulges his other, joyfully boisterous side: “Think whit ye like: fir I’m gaun to scrawl / Filth about yiz all on the knockin-shop-front.”
One of the book’s finest moments is After Amergin, recounting the original Irish poet’s first step onto Irish shores, as recounted in the Book of Invasions (though an end-note claims it as part of the Ulster Cycle). Longley’s version introduces a dozen new images, incorporates motifs used throughout the collection (especially, the otter and the burial mound), and also operates as a reflection on his part in the spiralling and continuing poetic influences of his generation’s work.
It begins: “I am the trout that vanishes / between the stepping stones. / I am the elver that lingers / under the little bridge. / I am the leveret that breakfasts / Close to the fuchsia hedge.” The poem moves, brilliantly, indoors – “I am the sooty hailstone / melting by the fire” – and ends, with a kind of guttering suddenness, “I am the otter dying / on top of the burial mound.”
These poems feel mortal, and tender, but there is nothing posthumous about a poem like Birthday Party: “We shall walk hand in hand beyond / where the burial mound once was.”
Seán Hewitt’s debut Tongues of Fire (Cape, £10) gracefully ambushes the sacramental with experiences of the sensuous natural world. The places he dwells on reveal themselves as sites of discovery: in Dryad a wooden statue, in a wood, becomes an image for the ways in which memory and new experience co-exist and inform each other. First visited as a schoolboy, the place is returned to with lovers, and comes alive:
As I looked up, the sky hidden under a rain
of leaves, each tree stood over me
in perfect symmetry with his body.
Each was like a man with his head bent,
each watching and moving and making slow
Hewitt’s gift in these longer poems is to follow an image’s natural transformations in a winding narrative, bringing together the sacred and the profane. Another compelling long poem, Adoration, brings its speaker to the kind of Berlin club described with such pained and comic gusto in Rob Doyle’s novel Threshold, but Hewitt’s quest for transcendence and transformation has a very different dimension. The clubbers become “a congregation / undoing their bodies over / and over into beaming shapes” before the poem transports us to a heath and a day “distilled then taken gloriously / inside – host of the world – / and then a kiss – something / soft and secret and unseen.”
Across the collection, in longer narratives and short lyrics, darkness and falling are illuminated by shafts of light, whether the setting is in the woods, a family home, a club or the hospital wards where the book first finds a damaged lover and then grieves for his father. The consistency of the effect, unusual in a first book, communicates a distinct, developed mythopoeia.
A sense of individual voice also defines Hewitt’s variations on Buile Suibhne, the medieval sequence whose poems have been translated previously by Clarke, Flann O’Brien, Heaney and Trevor Joyce. He adds his own note to the translators’ chorus in Suibhne Is Wounded and Confesses: “There was a time when / I preferred the blackbird and the boom / of a stag belling in a storm. I used to think / that the chanting of the mountain-grouse / at dawn had more music than your voice, / but things are different now.”
If Hewitt’s poems look for darkness, and come alive in its presence, like those solar lamps which are only activated in the dark, then Enda Coyle Green’s second collection takes blue as its theme, as is indicated by its clever title, Electric, Indigo, Baby (Dedalus, €12.50). These poems make their glimpses of other lives suggest larger stories.
It could easily be heavy-handed, but the colour blue floats nicely across the collection, taking on different meanings. In Bruise, a child’s injury “blooms in colours / which owe nothing / to the sun this mid-March / afternoon, or last night’s sky – / there’s no resemblance / to a jewel owned by a king, / or a feather on a rain-sleek slate, / neither hint nor tint of the cloak / worn by God’s mother / in every known painting.”
Longer pieces like Window Seats and the central sequence The Blue Album similarly locate character and mood, interleaving description with statement, as when a stanza beginning “Tall trees stand sentinel” ends “inside two hours / my mother will have died” . And a short lyric, Break, cherishes the stillness of uneventful downtime: “With so much blue / still to be filled / the sky finalises / an arrangement of clouds.”