MICHAEL LONGLEY AND THE WEST OF IRELAND
Michael Longley is but one of a great number of Irish writers from W. B. Yeats to Austin Clarke and Seamus Heaney, from James Joyce to Sean O’Faolain and Edna O’Brien who have been drawn to the west of Ireland. Yeats made Ben Bulben, Knocknarea, and the Sligo region an evocative presence in his early poetry. In his short story ‘The Dead’ James Joyce led Gabriel Conroy on a reverie across the Shannon River to Galway. Sean O’Faolain articulated the feelings of many when he spoke of going to the west as a return to the childhood of the race. For Michael Longley, who was born and raised in the city of Belfast on the east coast of Ireland, the western region of County Mayo has been a place of imaginative nourishment and a retreat from the violence that characterised much of his adult life in the city.
The publication in An Exploded View, 1973, of five poems under the general title of ‘Carrigskeewaun’ begins his association with that townland. ‘The Mountain’, ‘The Path’, ‘The Strand’, ‘The Well’, and ‘The Lake’ identify aspects of a chosen landscape. In ‘The Path’ he brings birds into precise existence: the necks of the mallards ‘strain’ over the bog, kittiwakes ‘scrape’ the waves, and in this ‘the circle/Widening’ all the named birds appear, until he is left with ‘only one swan to nudge to the far side of its gradual disdain’. In these casual and relaxed poems he happens upon what he records and is the one and only observer – ‘I stand alone’, ‘I call’, ‘I dislodge’, ‘I discover’, ‘I join.’
He relates to specific landmarks and directs his language at identifying particulars in a manner that is low-keyed, quietly focused and neutral in tone. The connections are often straightforward, as in ‘The Wall’ where he associates smoke from a turf fire with steam from a kettle and its accompanying domestic activity.
I join all the men who have squatted here
This lichened side of the drystone wall
And notice how smoke from our turf fire
Recalls in the cool air above the lake
Steam from a kettle, a tablecloth and
A table she might have already set.
The ability to manage such settings and through them to make connections gives Longley’s poetry an unforced movement that reflects his freely flowing mental associations.
In ‘Bogland’ Seamus Heaney, speaking for a people, claimed an endlessly nourishing heritage. Longley quietly identifies with a specific landscape. He is part of the scene, at one with its processes. The imagery is of tangling, silting, disintegration, erosion, ‘a place of dispersal’
Where the wind fractures
Flight-feathers, insect wings
And rips thought to tatters
Like a fuchsia petal.
The contrast in sensibility between Heaney and Longley is instructive – one commanding and magisterial, the other quietly blending into the countryside. In the end self-reflections are digested together, fully connected. If there is an elegiac feeling in Longley’s work it is based not so much on the casualties of violence as in the recognition of change and death. His sense of fragility is an undercurrent to the celebration of things as they are. There are tears in the nature of things, in the veins of living creatures. The Longley persona is not a pioneer traversing landscape, he is a quiet walker in a gentle region. His imagination tangles through a turf stand and he makes few demands on us beyond inviting us to share his appreciation.
When he relates to the spring tide the poem of that title becomes a testament of renewal and resurrection – the water ‘adjusted’, acting like a ‘preservative’.
The spring tide circles and excavates
A shrunken ramshackle pyramid
Rinsing cleaner scapulae, tibias,
Loose teeth, cowrie and nautilus shells….
The tide carries things before it and he comes and goes with it. The sense of belonging and of adjusting is unmistakable, the mood one of contented acceptance.
This is where Longley likes to be – in active response to and awareness of the landscape, his imagination endlessly stimulated. ‘Spring Tide’ has three twelve line, beautifully crafted stanzas, each composed of two sentences that reveal the poet’s control and restraint and his attention to image, rhythm, and picturing. He is level with the distant wave, attentive to the sea’s progression keeping things as they are – feathers hardly budge, down is left where birds have preened and where swans ‘unravel among the ferns’. The second stanza’s account of a sandy meadow excavated by the spring tide is equally detailed while in stanza three the spring tide deposits a colour at the end of the lane when he walks contentedly among grass and plantain. He goes with the spring tide, at one with its movements, moves in appreciation of what it brings to the landscape. This reflective measuring includes skills of the countryside – fishing for sand eels, drawing in kelp, ploughing by the tail, folk medicine or botanical descriptions of foxglove, dock, duckweed, orchid. The four ‘Mayo Monologues’ describe other aspects of the landscape – disturbed individuals, family tension, cruelty, bestiality. These portraits are placed in a realistic landscape – a kind of depressed, retarded people, a world existing out of sight, backward and reclusive. These bleak narratives offer no consolation, but we trust their compassionate tone. The poet has come into his own, handling disturbing events with oblique detachment and exploring a favourite, fruitful landscape.
In the poems in Gorse Fires, 1991, many of which are set in Carrigskeewaun, Longley focuses on what he can see and hear. The elegy ‘Between Hovers’ is scrupulously low-keyed in keeping with the reticent manner of his friend Joe O’Toole, whom it commemorates and who did not tell Longley he had cancer even when they ran over a badger. O’Toole might have spoken then of his own impending death, but in this reserved world one thing does not lead to another, is not put into words. O’Toole was psychic about car engines but not about feelings. As he guides the poet with the light from his porch, its sparkle shifts from one kind of water bird to another on Corragaunlake. Longley missed his friend’s funeral but knows that O’Toole lies over the hill in a particular churchyard, in a region where all the place names are comfortingly familiar. It is a natural and effective transition then to ‘this morning’, to another cemetery, to lines that extend the radius of the poet’s horizons – ‘Cloonaghmanagh and Claggan and Carrigskeewaun’ – and affirm the dead man’s habitual association with them. The poem begins with killing, continues through memories of the dead man’s neighbourly presence to direct connection with his remains in the cemetery. It concludes with a dying otter’s ‘gaze right through me’ at the island in Clew Bay, ‘as though it were only/between hovers and not too far from the holt’. The living do not communicate verbally. The dying otter confirms this impersonal through-looking. Just as Joe O’Toole did not mention a terminal disease, the poet does not elevate his voice in the elegy. Things are laid down side by side in an even-handed, unemphatic levelling – badger and man, place and action, poet and friend, badger and otter. The method is present also in ‘Migrations’: he has hidden the key to the house where lovers can find it, has left turf and water for their use, thinks of migrant water fowl getting ready to leave for the Arctic north and concludes by saying he will sleep on the other side of the hill from the lovers. It is as though we are seeing a painting of poet, lovers, birds and water. There is no verbal communication between the poet on one side of the hill and lovers on the other. Things are hidden. Nothing happens. What is, is.
The persona in these Gorse Fires poems wants to be part of the action: he lies above Corragaun, watches the otter in the undertow; he waits for the peregrine falcon to help him come to terms with silence, to get close to the ‘you’ of the poem, and is alert to seen and unseen swooping. The voice is the poet’s, who in ‘Detour’ wants his funeral as it passes to reflect the detail of the street in a market town, names above shops, the herd of cattle going by, vegetables, implements, human activities – ‘I shall be part of the action’ – as when the butcher’s wife drains the potatoes and calls her man to his dinner or when the publican goes to the cellar to change a barrel; from inside his coffin the poet will converse with the man in the telephone kiosk ‘about where my funeral might be going next’. Even in death he is open to new possibilities.
The strength of Longley’s poetry is evident in the off-key way of describing his funeral, as though he were seeing from within the hearse. It becomes a litany of what he has known, the corpse is as alert as he used to be, the imagination reliably at one with what is passing. This is very much a Longley kind of poem in which an observant self registers and joins with what he encounters. The skewed perspective recreates the unexpected angles of seeing in ‘Obsequies’ and similar poems. ‘In Aillwee Cave’ describes what exists overhead, above ground. In this overlapping and interactive layering the poems may be bedded in the ordinary and the physical but they are on the verge of levitation, of cutting free, just as the dead self in his coffin can relate to what is going on in the market town.
When poems achieve this interactive layering they become alive, when they only observe and comment their poetic richness decreases. In ‘Remembering Carrigskeewaun’ the details quicken into life: the hearth inhales, the chimney becomes a windpipe, a voice keeps recalling animals – the leveret coming of age, the snipe at an angle, the smile of the porpoises; home is a hollow between waves and memory, no longer than a day as he returns to Carrigskeewaun and the wonder of the Milky Way.
The introductory poem in The Ghost Orchid, 1995, ‘Autumn Lady’s Tresses’, the white-flowered orchid, illustrates the mysterious communication between the swan on Dooaghtry Lake and the otter at Allaran Point. The attendant images are all about glimmering, water unraveling, watery corridors, huge silence of the sand-dunes, sunlight folding into waves, peacock butterflies, thistledown, spirals of white-flowered orchids, all of them suggesting the insubstantial and the beautiful. The swan who communicates is a figure for the poet who also sends signals and makes connections, ‘Trying to tell it all to you and cover everything’, as he says in ‘Form’. Many other poems in this collection illustrate the same principle. ‘Watercolour’ focuses on being painted and concludes that various items in the painting become a witness to aesthetic wholeness. As disparate objects are brought together, the painting attests to the organic nature of a work of art, painting or poem. ‘Sitting for Eddie’ shows likenesses between unlikely objects, connections even through arguments and error. ‘Perdix’, a humorous story about the failure of wings, suggests that it is possible to be creative without scaling heights; one can write about things on the ground. One may, as Longley also says in ‘According to Pythagoras’, discover and express the ‘fundamental interconnectedness’ of all things.
In ‘Water-Burn’, the opening poem of The Weather in Japan, 2000, Longley, returning to the familiar world of Carrigskeewaun, says, ‘we should have been doing more with our lives’.
We should have been galloping on horses, their hoofprints
Splashes of light, divots kicked out of the darkness,
Or hauling up lobster pots in a wake of sparks. Where
Were the otters and seals? Were the dolphins on fire?
Yes, we should have been doing more with our lives.
What he does as a poet is speak lyrically about the natural world, its revelations of light and connection in ‘Water-Burn’, its grief over the death of a swan in ‘The Lapwing’; he and the lapwing ‘speak in tongues’. He is a quiet presence in Carrigskeewaun, delights in what he sees – a comber turning into a breaker, all the colours of the rainbow observable in water and sunlight suspended between him and the island of Inishbofin, between him and the otter. ‘Pale Butterwort’ is a delicate description of the shriek of the buzzard, the mating flight of dragonflies, and the butterwort spreading its leaves like a starfish and digesting insects. Longley perceives correspondences in the natural and the human worlds and reflects them in poised, run-on lines in which the perceiving and interpretative ‘I’ is central. It is he who is able to show seals where ‘they fold shimmering cheeks/Into the ripples and disappear’; it is he who goes below the surface to move quietly among them, their shepherd who rescues ‘one lamb from the seaweedy tangle’. The affinity with the haiku is signalled in the title poem of the collection: the weather in Japan ‘Makes bead curtains of the rain,/Of the mist a paper screen’. Longley possesses a considerate, warm, and complex personality which responds to individual events, makes connection, draws people and creatures together, and speaks in a civilised tone. In a plain, even-paced style Longley muses over things – seals and otters, the arrival of whooper swans, his cottage in this chosen place, duach and dunes, stone-age sea, congenial contexts where he wants to be buried.
Let boulders at the top encircle me,
Neither a drystone wall nor a cairn, space
For the otter to die and the mountain hare
To lick snow stains from her underside,
A table for the peregrine and ravens…
These lyrics in The Weather in Japan and in Snow Water, 2004, please through apt description, use of exact detail, and relaxed tone. They achieve urbanity through the presence of a civilised persona who quietly absorbs and depicts what he sees. ‘There’s no such place as heaven,’ he declares in ‘Petalwort’ a poem for Michael Viney, who left Dublin as a young man, has lived ever since near Thallabaun and recorded what he sees on the Mayo landscape. Longley also responds to local inhabitants and local history, such as those who crowd into a ceilidh at Carrigskeewaun – the ghost of Joe O’Toole, the thirteen O’Toole’s from Inishdeigil, each able to sing or play the fiddle, visitors from Connemara who have rowed across Killary Sound to hear the music, Longley’s ghost, and the various creatures and objects that distract him – plover, oystercatcher, Arcturus, the moon. The poem celebrates the social activity of ceilidhing, the music, the place, which is itself drawn into the conviviality. The coffins of the thirteen O’Tooles may be ‘shouldered’ in the last line, but the poem’s underlying elegiac mode is hidden in the dominant note of joyful commemoration. What continues is the music the poet imagines and that outlives human decease. What matters is linguistic play, exact imagery, details, as in ‘After Tra-Na-Rossan’, a lapwing’s
Reedy sigh above the duach, a tortoiseshell
Hilltopping on the cairn, autumn lady’s tresses.
Like a painter who goes back to the same setting – Paul Henry to Connemara, Vincent Van Gogh to Arles, Paul Cézanne to Mont Sainte-Victoire – Longley returns to his western landscape and his own voice. As in his portrait by Edward McGuire, he blends with the landscape, its colours run through him, its creatures belong to him, he is their attendant, flora and fauna obey his call. No one, not even Richard Murphy who had walked the western seaboard and celebrated its birds, creatures and people in crisp lyrics has achieved such rights of imaginative ownership.
Longley also writes ‘Woodsmoke’ on the same theme of affinity with the west of Ireland. Dedicated to the sculptor Helen Denerley, the poem is filled with descriptions of the ‘metallic menagerie’ composed of creatures she has designed, and is an eloquent tribute to the accomplishment of a fellow artist.
The mare and stag you made from scrap metal
Are moving in slow motion across your land.
He admires an imagination that enables her to create from particular objects, often discarded. She puts them to use and, as the poet says, ‘I am with you.’ Indeed there is a similarity between the sculptor picking up pieces here and there and transforming them in the smithy of her art and the poet selecting material from his western landscape to animate his poems. Friends die, he is conscious of ageing but welcomes his grandson, shows him familiar scenes – the wind and the rain, the shore bird calling from the mussel reefs, the otter rock, the tufted duck. ‘I have picked wild flowers for you.’
Emeritus Professor of Anglo-Irish Literature and Drama at University College Dublin, educated there and at Harvard, Dr Harmon is an internationally known scholar, critic, literary historian, translator, editor, and poet. He has held professorships at the University of Notre Dame, Ohio State University, the University of Washington, and others – and has been visiting professor at universities in Europe and in Japan. In 1990 Harmon took early retirement from university teaching in order to devote himself to writing. His many publications include Seán O’Faoláin. A Life (1994), The Dolmen Press. A Celebration (2001), Selected Essays, (2006), and Thomas Kinsella: Designing for the Exact Needs, (2008). He edited No Author Better Served. The Correspondence between Samuel Beckett and Alan Schneider (1998). His translation of the medieval Irish compendium of stories and poems, Accalam na Senórach has been published as The Dialogue of the Ancients of Ireland by Carysfort Press, 2009. Dr Harmon is also a poet; his chapbooks include The Book of Precedence (1994), A Stillness at Kiawah (1996), and Tales of Death (2001). Recent collections are The Last Regatta (2000), The Doll with Two Backs (2004), The Mischievous Boy and other poems (2008), and Love is not Enough. New and Selected Poems (2010), Loose Connections (2012).