Longley is one of my patron saints but it’s awfully dreary when people start reviews with gushy praise about well-established writers. Takes the suspense away. Anyhoo, ML’s poetry draws me with its singing line, its engagement with the long-lasting facets of writing, its precise moral compass and rare sense of poetry’s role in social commentary in a medium saturated with declarative sentences and emotional confessions. The fact that you me and the dog worked this out years ago makes him terribly difficult to review. Where do you begin?
A Hundred Doors is an unusual book in that it comes seven years after his Collected, and has a few telltale signs of being an occasional collection rather than a directed whole. Longley himself has said, “I hope by the time I die, my work will 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.” There’s a lot of unpacking to do there, not least the slightly hidden injustice done to his books as individual collections, which do as much talking within their discrete domains as in the larger narrative between books. Reading that by the time I die again I get a bit of a chill from the knowledge that his work has already achieved this four-long-poems sweep, and AHD reads very much like someone turning over the barstools of their life. More later. And of course it’s more complicated than that: his best poems knot up three or more of those threads – I’m thinking “In Memoriam”, “No Continuing City”, “The Ice Cream Man”, “Anticleia”, “Ceasefire” and “The Butchers” for starters – though it wouldn’t be unlike him to be deliberately modest.
To get to the point, AHD isn’t his best book. “The Lifeboat”, “Call”, “White Farmhouse” and a handful of others stand well individually, but much of the volume is composed of the slight, cumulatively-effective lyrics ML took on in earnest in Snow Water. That said, “The Lifeboat” is a painfully good poem. The first section has Longley tread similar ground to “Detour”, in which he stage-manages his own funeral procession through Ireland’s small towns. Here, he gets even closer to the quick by imagining his own death in Charlie Gaffney’s pub in Louisburgh: ‘As I, at the end of the bar next the charity boxes, / Expire on my stool, head in hand, without a murmur. […] He doesn’t notice that I am dead until closing time / And he sweeps around my feet.’ All rather grimly whimsical (grimsical) until it turns sharply and self-chastisingly: ‘But it’s Charlie Gaffney / Who has died. Charlie, how do I buy a fishing license? / Shall I let the dog out? Would the fire take another sod? / The pub might as well be empty forever now.’ Suddenly the poem is direly wrongfooted and ML finds himself without his intended shepherd into death, while the pub’s innate life departs with its caretaker. ML’s voice takes on a helplessness, a frustration at all the things left to learn and the sudden impossibility of learning them, his treatment of death as a symbolic gesture exposed by sad ordinariness.
A couple of other poems deal head-on with ML’s seeming (and I damn well hope inaccurate) conviction that his time is short. The poem “Mars” does so with a kind of contorted time-logic, as the proximity of the planet reminds ML of seeing it with his wife Edna ‘so long ago / It reminded us of the Neanderthals.’ From this undefined moment in the past [is there a case for placing it on the same night as in “Epithilamion”, the first poem in his first book? The neatness is pleasing, and the poems share concerns of mortality and what lives on after death], ‘under a beech tree / That could have sheltered United Irishmen,’ they look forward to a time presumably close to the present when the beech tree has grown close to their home: ‘‘I hope it touches the house before it dies.’ / ‘I hope it touches the house before we die.’’ Very quietly it pulls the rug from under us as the tree’s relative immortality is drawn into focus beside the fleeting star-gazers. How many orbits are there in this eight-line stanza? The action is circled by Mars’ apsis, human evolution and Ireland’s political gyres, and in that light the tree’s movement seems like nature’s reclamation of the humans’ stony outpost than the religious blessing it initially resembles. [PS: this suddenly reminds me of MacNeice’s “Star-gazer” from his final collection, its comparison of the lifespans of stars and their watchers. I’m also put in mind of how much gentler and more hopeful AHD is by comparison.]
The poem “A Hundred Doors” is an odd yin [more info here]. Sean O’Brien has voiced his support for the ‘xenophobic sacristan’ who blows out ML’s candles and ‘shortens [his] lives’. I suppose the poem is really concerned with the small cruelty of picking his ‘flame- / Flowers […] only minutes / Old’ in a temple that dates back to the Attic sculptor Praxiteles, who himself predates Christ by a few centuries. Here, I think, is the rub: the (almost over-)subtle friction between the busy, prickly, workaday priest, the poet’s self-image as ‘The sentimental atheist, family / Names a kind of prayer or poem’ [italics mine] and the ancient sculptor who also devoted himself to Aphrodite (P was supposedly the first Greek to sculpt a full-size naked woman. Imagine that day); think of how these strains of religion, spirituality, love and poetry blend in ML’s work. It says a lot to me that he had decided this was the name of the collection over a year before its publication (though this is probably just standard practice). I reckon this is a buried and riddling little manifesto. Look at the line breaks in the last stanza:
The sacristan who picks my flame-
Flowers and blows them out, only minutes
Old, knows I am watching and he
Doesn’t care as he shortens my lives.
It’s very rare for him to disturb the metre and line so bluntly, and were it almost anyone else I’d suspect a bit of draftiness. But as it’s ML, and the title poem, I’d guess the note of tetchiness O’Brien detects is deliberate. The temple, P’s marble and ‘the intelligence of stone’ will outlast the candles, the poet and the priest alike, leaving only the ‘names and faces’ he mentions in the second stanza. A reach? Maybe. But ML invites this kind of investigative paranoia, and few poets leave these kind of mental monkey bars to swing around and make a fool of yourself on. Bless him for that.
I originally wanted to talk generally about the air of the book, the atmosphere. But I feel like the book really doesn’t insist upon any direction that isn’t imposed upon it (however gently) by the reader. Is this the best way to run a railroad? Define best. Define railroad. [I suppose that’s a no.] His poems to his children and grandchildren are sweet and occupy a prominent spot in the book, but aren’t overly memorable. His war poems similarly follow extant threads, and “Cygnus”, in praise of stoic pacifism, feels leftover from the other metamorphosis poems from The Ghost Orchid. But the lines still sing. As a practitioner of a neglected craft he is peerless, and even though the book lingers a little overlong on his own imagined death, there is a joy in the existing and future worlds that raises its sights even above Walcott’s White Egrets, which concerned itself more with retrospection and inwardness than blessing the world to come. There are few poets willing and capable of walking this difficult path between the lasting sense of the world as it will be long after the writer and ‘gosh birds are pretty. Hills too. Just think.’ His recent inclusion in the Forward Prize shortlist is well-deserved, even if I hope the competition is good enough to beat him.
AHD sports a cloudberry blossom on the cover. Cloudberries are tiny, rare and delicious and grow exclusively in northern, wintry climates.