Review:  Michael Longley's 'A Hundred Doors' by Sean O'Brien

Review: Michael Longley’s ‘A Hundred Doors’

by Sean O’Brien

A Hundred Doors by Michael Longley

Michael Longley’s reverence for the living and the dead is as evident as ever.

The entirety of “Horseshoe”, from Michael Longley‘s ninth collection, A Hundred Doors, reads: “I find a rusty horseshoe where skylarks / Rise from the sheep-shitty path, God-sparks, / Sound-glints for bridle and bridle hand. / I am the farrier in this townland.” Read aloud, the lines begin to commit themselves to memory; something every poet wishes for. They read so naturally as to seem hardly art at all – which is the art in which Longley has been instructing himself for many years, evolving from classically educated formalism towards the conversational intimacies of his later work.

This is not a camouflage of naturalness to make art seem at home, but a proof of the continuity of poetic language with the world, a task perhaps especially urgent for an atheist, albeit, as he says, a “sentimental” disbeliever. There is a Yeatsian tilt to the poem’s third line, and there is also a contemplative immersion here that recalls Edward Thomas’s “Tall Nettles”, another poem where seeming inconsequence masks a subtle power of evocation and suggestion. It is impossible to say finally whether Longley’s poem marks celebration or loss, so acclimatised is it to its world.

The central landscape of Longley’s work has for many years been Carrigskeewaun in County Mayo. Now, he writes, “Sitting up in bed with binoculars I scan / My final resting-place at Dooaghtry,” while also preparing to introduce his grandsons to a place that has taken on a sacred quality. Although he declares “I am writing too much about Carrigskeewaun”, and notes a tendency to “burble”, he cannot help but try for a further exact rendering of a place that will be his afterlife in the imagination of the grandchildren: “I want you both to remember me / And what the wind-tousled wren has been saying / All day long from fenceposts and the fuchsia depths, / A brain-rattling bramble-song inside a knothole.”

As well as urgency there is acceptance. The poet and his wife observe a beech tree growing near the cottage and hope it touches the house before it dies, or, more probably, before they do. Poems about tending to an Italian garden stand alongside several elegies for friends and other poets. The late Dorothy Molloy, whose first collection was published just after her death, receives a gallant assurance as Longley once more contemplates the Mayo landscape: “The poets you loved are your consorts now. / Golden plovers – a hundred or more – turn / And give back dawn-light from their undersides. / The edge of the dunes wears a fiery fringe.” But “The Lifeboat” exacts something other than this decorous beauty: in fact it brings Longley close to blankness, for he has imagined that he might meet his end in a favourite pub and “expire on my stool, head in hand, without a murmur”. But it is his friend Charlie Gaffney, the landlord, who has died, and the world is robbed of an irreplaceable ordinariness: “Shall I let the dog out? Would the fire take another sod?”

The instinct to preserve, which is nearly synonymous with poetry, is also present in the superstition Longley records in the title poem. Visiting the church of Our Lady of a Hundred Doors on Paros, he lights candles for family members, looking beyond Christianity to older forms of belief suggested by fragments of statuary, seen “aching through glass / For their pagan temple, the warm / inwardness Praxiteles brought out, / The intelligence of stone”. There is a villain in the picture, a “xenophobic 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”. Here there is somehow a wrong note, a hint of petulance, and perhaps a misreading of the sacristan’s behaviour. Many churches in Greece and elsewhere receive a stream of unbelieving visitors who go through the motions of lighting candles, without conviction or understanding, while taking mobile-phone calls, making noise and generally confirming the believer’s sense that they’re barbarians. Though courteous to a fault, the poet can hardly complain if he is mistaken for one of all the others.

Yet Longley’s reverence for the living and the dead alike has been one of the constants of his work. He is still returning to the first world war, in which his subaltern father served with distinction and troops from both the north and south of Ireland took heavy casualties. “Citation” gives details of the leadership in a raid on German positions that gained the elder Longley the Military Cross: “Kept alive by his war cry and momentum,” Longley writes, “I shiver behind him on the fire-step.” The euphemistic phrase “mopping-up” transfers itself from this poem to the single unrhymed couplet of the next poem, “High Wood”: “My father is good at mopping up. / Steam rises from the blood and urine.” Longley has written before now of Ulysses’ brutal return to Ithaca, slaughtering Penelope’s suitors and hanging the disloyal housemaids, but much earlier he also produced a brilliant version of a poem by Tibullus, “Peace”, which imagines the kind of pastoral contentment he has sought to discover at Carrigskeewaun, knowing that the transience of our joys must not be allowed to rob us of one drop of their sweetness. The lover and the killer must both have their due.

This review was originally published on 9th April 2011.

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The original review at The Guardian online.

Sean O Brien on the British Council’s literature site.

Michael Longley at the Poetry Archive.