The Stairwell, by Michael Longley, Jonathan Cape, 125 pp, £15, ISBN: 978-1904634904
On the occasion of his seventieth birthday five years ago, David Cabot, one of his long-standing friends, described Michael Longley as “the resplendent, uncrowned poet laureate of Ireland”. Those words of encomium echoed the sentiment of no less than sixty other fellow writers and artists who had also accepted to participate in a festschrift celebrating his career, Love Poet, Carpenter: Michael Longley at Seventy. With poems, anecdotes and short essays, they all paid homage to a man who had for nearly forty years been a remarkable presence in the Irish cultural landscape, whether it be as assistant director to the Arts Council of Northern Ireland or as an accomplished poet in his own right. The diversity of contributors, including respected artists from his generation, among whom Seamus Heaney, Derek Mahon, Brendan Kennelly and John Montague, as well as younger ones such as Paul Muldoon, Medbh McGuckian, Ciaran Carson and new emerging talents such as Leontia Flynn and Sinéad Morrissey, is testament to the importance of Longley’s work for Irish poetry in the second half of the twentieth century.
Longley has often been praised for his love poems, and for his attention to syntax and poetic form. Over the years, critics have also commended his observations of nature and the quality of his work as a “poet-translator”, notably of the classics. Asked some twenty years ago what were the central aspects of his work, he answered:
If I was going to be remembered by anything, I would hope it would be by a few love poems. It seems to me the hub of what I do, and if I may pursue the wheel image, out from the hub branch the spokes of other concerns, but they’re related to the love poetry: children, landscape, places I love, my friends, and so on.
There has long been a form of continuity in Michael Longley’s work, in his choice of images and subjects, especially since he resumed publishing poems in the early 1990s after a ten-year silence, and The Stairwell, his tenth collection to date, released by Jonathan Cape this summer, is in that respect no exception. The “(grand)children, landscape, places [he] love[s], [his] friends” are all present in the volume, as are other themes that have become recurrent in his poetry, notably the Great War as filtered through the experience of his father, and Carrigskeewaun, his “home-from-home-land” in Co Mayo (“After Mikhail Lermontov”). Longley also returns to the Iliad in what may be his most sustained effort to date to engage with the epic, and true to his earlier Homeric rewritings in Gorse Fires (1991) and The Ghost Orchid (1996), uses the Greek text for images and scenes that can serve as metaphors to events beyond human understanding: the violence of warfare and the loss of loved ones.
The collection is indeed overshadowed by death – the poet’s, as well as that of his friends and most importantly of his twin brother Peter, to whom the second section is dedicated, and both halves of the book are brought together by their elegiac mood. Seeing close friends and family die, the poet accepts his own mortality, writing for instance “I imagine my deathbed like my friends’ love bed” (“Deathbed”), and “Always I think it is the last summer” (“Ashes”). There are many poignant poems in The Stairwell, as Longley evokes personal memories with people who have since passed away, not least the ones written for Seamus Heaney.
Read together, “Boat” and “Psalm” narrate the end of a friendship, cut short by untimely death. The “old friend” with whom Longley was talking in the first poem is in “Psalm” lying underground on the day of his funeral, and the poet’s only means of conversation is to engage with, and allude to his friend’s work:
One wreath had blackberry clusters
Intertwined. Was it a blackbird
Or wren that briefly sang a graveside
Aria, godlike in its way, a psalm?
(He will defend you under his wing.
You will be safe under his feathers.)
The understated tone and restraint of the single stanza contrast with the deep emotional impact it makes on the reader, and “Psalm”, in all appearance a simple poem, is like so many of Longley’s elegies, a delicate and yet all the more so powerful attempt to convey the uncommunicable and give words to grief. It is both tentative and highly wrought, the work of a poet-craftsman. The collection thus lends itself to being revisited many times, each experience revealing new details that might have at first escaped the eye and inner ear of the reader.
If the evocation of ageing and dying pervades many poems – and funerals, imaginary and all too real, literally frame the collection – The Stairwell is not a dark volume, contrary to what one might expect. It is, and this might be one of the meanings of the title, a collection that invites us to consider and accept the presence of death within life, and their interconnectedness, which modern society often tends to forget. Among the elegies, whether in the first section or in the second one focused on Longley’s brother, there are also many poems celebrating life – ongoing and past lives, in the description of the Mayo landscape with its stoats, otters and its many birds, in the evocation of young grandchildren and their innocence, and that of childhood memories with Peter, “the naughtier twin” (“The Wheelchair”) with whom, for example, the poet fights in “The Boxers”.
The Stairwell is a beautiful and intense collection, written by a poet who is a master of his craft, and who, conscious of his own vulnerability, offers us poems that encompass the whole cycle of life, in its most delightful and uplifting moments, as well as in its most difficult ones. May we just hope that there will be many more.
Florence Impens completed a PhD on classical reception in contemporary Irish poetry at Trinity College, Dublin in 2013. She is one of the contributors to the forthcoming Oxford History of Classical Reception in English Literature in four volumes, where she will discuss the Classics and Irish poetry after 1960.