The Stairwell

Michael Longley considers mortality in his new collection shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize

You can always locate Michael Longley somewhere between nature and the Greeks.

The Stairwell, published in August 2014, adds that most atrocious conflict of 1914 to 1918 into the more salubrious original mix, as the poet begins to stare into the mist of his own mortality. ‘I have been thinking about the music for my funeral’ is its opening line.

These poems never, however, linger with morbidity. Each moves successively away from the inevitable and is rooted in life itself. There are dedications for Longley's good friends, Seamus and Marie Heaney, as well as others. It is no wonder this diverse collection has been shortlisted for the 2014 TS Eliot Prize.

Longley stole the show – as of course, he would – at a reading organized by Queen’s University at the Lyric Theatre back in April 2014 in honour of the late Nobel Prize winner. Here he imagines Heaney and his wife both approaching Ithaca by sea. ‘What’s the Greek for boat?’ asks Seamus.

Like his old friend and professional rival – in truth, they were always equals – Longley retains his fondness for a joke, although you are never sure quite how intentional each one is. I recall him once leaving the stage before a reading at the Belfast Hebrew Congregation with the immortal line: ‘Excuse me, I really have to pee.'

Now, on a centenary, he thinks of his father, whose voice he can hear above the din and barrage of war – on battlefields ‘Where men and horses drowned in mud, / His bog apprenticeship mud turf’. A memorable reference finds him alongside the actor Ronald Colman, with whom Longley’s father went over the top, ‘about to go their separate / Ways… into No Man’s Land, and fame?’

But there are echoes of older preoccupations and a seeming ambivalence, that many others have also expressed, towards the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin. It is never stated but there seems in ‘Hailstones’ a difficulty with ‘God or, rather, Yahweh / Who scattered the granite slabs with hailstones’, throwing them ‘so accurately… Not one Jew was left uncommemorated’.

It is either one of the greatest tributes that art could pay the spirit, or else there is something not quite right. Even ‘so close to home’, Longley still seems unconvinced by God.

The second part of The Stairwell, where the poet dreams of ‘cutting down the trees / Of childhood’, is dedicated to Longley’s twin brother, Peter. Perhaps the second half will not live up to the first, given its subject matter, enmeshed as it is in the mud and bone of the First World War. Instead it features some of the most moving work Longley has ever summoned.

In ‘The Stray’, he recoils to nature again, reminding us of one of Peter’s cats, Milly, who disappeared three days before her owner passed away. Longley applies a French translation from Gwen John about a ‘little cat’ who has forgotten his ‘previous existence’, which is of course really about his brother:

Perhaps you are
Upset with me.
But I’ve tried to understand
All of your little heart.

On the day of his internment, Milly – ‘Not the friendliest Tabby’ – found her way home for Peter’s funeral. While we always sense Longley's distance from his twin, in some ways this is the most extraordinary part of The Stairwell. These poems are Longley effectively burying his brother.

Longley wants us to know what he has been reading and how connected it is with the First World War, but the notes explaining everything at the end of this collection are unnecessary and wouldn’t be aired at a reading. Poetry of this quality – deserving of all its recent plaudits and accolades – requires no explanation.

In a 1985 interview, Longley talked about how ‘the poetry I like always has to have melody or a musical element to it’, and his always excellent ear shows no signs of abandoning him at this twilight. if this collection is Longley peering into his own mortality, via Passchendaele and his absent twin, lovers of poetry and its strangely significant Northern Irish scene will hope there is still some time left.

The Stairwell is out now, published by Jonathan Cape. The winner of the 2014 TS Eliot Prize will be announced on January 12, 2015