A Hundred Doors

Michael Longley expertly explores the passing of a generation in his latest collection, writes Ross Moore

Near the centre of Michael Longley’s new collection, A Hundred Doors, is a poem entitled ‘The Lifeboat’ in which the poet ‘imagined an ideal death’ in a familiar pub in Louisburgh. The ‘ideal death’ would involve expiring quietly over a pint in the company of his friend the publican, who will only notice the protagonist’s passing as he sweeps up at closing time.

The third stanza laments that this imagined scenario will never be realised. The publican himself has died, leaving the friend and former customer bereft. ‘The pub might as well be empty forever now’.

Elegies have been a central and celebrated strand of Longley’s poetry throughout his career. In this instance, by framing the poem for publican Charlie Gaffney around an imagined personal demise (which the poem then denies) Longley creates a conceptual balance and symmetry that moves the poem towards a sense of resolution, despite the speaker being at a loss.

This symmetry and formal resolution recurs among the 71-year old's most popular and anthologised poems. The now iconic ‘Ceasefire’ (The Ghost Orchid, 1995) and ‘The Ice-Cream Man’ (Gorse Fires, 1991) are two of his finest poems that display this tendency.

The latter poem lists different flavours of ice cream, which had been sold by the murdered ice-cream man, with a final stanza that then lists the names of some wild flowers of the Burren. The lists share proximity without forcing parallels. There is a sense of formal resolution to these poems, which remain aware of their limits in offering consolation or comprehension.

The townland of Carrigskeewaun in Mayo has been central to Longley’s work, as he celebrates and draws on the ecology of the area (his long-standing ‘second-home’) in his poetry.

Common to all Longley’s poetry, and perhaps enhanced by the careful respect he pays to the natural world in his work, is an almost unusual level of precision and exactitude. This is such that a brief nature poem might require a large degree of attention from the reader, a level of attention that readers (even poetry readers) are increasingly less accustomed to giving.

Longley’s ecological interest employs what has become a specialised vocabulary; poems in this collection mention ‘cinquefoil’, ‘dropwort’, ‘pollineum’ and ‘twayblade’. But as that other attentive and precise poet, Elizabeth Bishop, once wrote: ‘If a poem catches a student’s interest at all, he or she should damned well be able to look up an unfamiliar word in the dictionary.’

Frequently in his collections, Longley’s nature poetry converges with other concerns such as the First World War (in which his father fought), the Northern Irish Troubles, or his continuing engagement with the classics (an interest in The Odyssey was apparent from his first collection of poetry in 1969, and the title of this new collection is derived from a Greek story).

Longley has stated in interview that his work should: ‘look like four really long poems; a very long love poem, a very long meditation on war and death, a very long nature poem and a playful poem on the art of poetry. And like a plant, I want the strands both to entwine with each other, and every now and again to emerge as separate.’

In this collection, nature poems exist for their own sake or become elegies for departed friends. The focus of the collection remains personal remembrance and elegy, rather than the themes of war and civilization, the exception being a number of poems that arise out of his father’s experience of the First World War.

There are poems here written for friends and a sequence in celebration of grandchildren. ‘The Leveret’, written for a grandson, concludes:

‘I have picked wild flowers for you, scabious
And centaury in a jam-jar of water
That will bend and magnify the daylight.
This is your first night in Carrigskeewaun.’

Most poetry, on some level, is about its own procedures, and Longley’s unique poetic sensibility has been long honed by the mindful attention he pays to the environs of Carrigskeewaun. This is a closely focused poetry that reaches over wide angles.

To go back to ‘The Lifeboat’, when Longley touches on the economic he tends towards the small-holder, the sole-trader or publican. ‘The Lifeboat’ mourns the passing of publican Charlie Gaffney but it also mourns the passing of an entire way of life, mirroring the widespread closure of rural pubs around the country and the resultant loss of publicans who can answer ‘how do I buy a fishing licence?’ Longley’s precise and attentive methods result in a poetry of deep humanity.

Check out CultureNorthernIreland's What's On to find when Michael Longley is appearing at CQAF. A Hundreds Doors is published by Jonathan Cape.