- The Ghost Orchid by Michael Longley
Cape, 66 pp, £7.00, May 1995, ISBN 0 224 04112 6
The West of Ireland is a good place in which to hide. Fast-moving columns of sun and rain cause landmarks to appear and disappear; the roads have potholes which could hide the many vagrant horses, donkeys and sheep; and young boys hang from the signposts till they are wildly twisted about. To find your way is pleasantly difficult – but even more pleasant is the difficulty of being found. Among other splendid things,‘the West’ is the land of transplanted urban dream kingdoms, a paradise for poets who do not wish to be disturbed. Michael Viney’s documentary, The Corner of the Eye, opens with a slow sweep across this landscape, a picture of distances fringed with purple and a few tawny cows nosing through the foreground, then switches to a little white cottage in the midst of it all, and then to the face of the dwelling’s occupant, and the film’s subject, Michael Longley. Sitting in the blue light from a window, Longley discusses – in a manner which the film’s opening sequence seeks to imitate – the process of exploring unfamiliar places. He remembers how, as a native of Belfast, he came to Carrigskeewaun in Mayo at a time when the Troubles were starting to break out in Northern Ireland. What first mesmerised him about the West was the horizon, the sense of unlimited space, the lines of hills. Then, as the years passed, he became more fascinated by the middle distance, by walls and trees and roads until, finally, his love affair with the landscape ended with him on his hands and knees looking ‘into the faces of small flowers’.
It is appropriate that there are two faces on this book: on the inside of the dust jacket, a black and white image of Longley, everyone’s idea of what a poet should look like, a fierce-eyed observer with a beard like a bank of reeds; and then, on the cover, the ghost orchid, like some sort of lost and melancholy alien, so sensitive to being observed that its eyes and brains, elaborately folded on scribble-like stalks, are tinged with a permanent blush. Longley’s poetic kingdom is by now a familiar one – a world of otters and lapwings, of sandy expanses and wild flowers, of clouds re-arranging shadows on the bog between the mountains. Reminding us that microscopes are more reassuring than telescopes, much of The Ghost Orchid is an exploration of such miniature things as flies, anemones, snowflakes, ‘boxes the size of tears’, equations which can be written on the back of a postage-stamp and names which can be written on a grain of rice. Formally, these minute objects are mirrored by ‘small’ poems, some no more than one sentence, some no more than two lines long. As a result of this repeated ‘zooming-in’ process, the reader experiences feelings of both intimacy (only when we know a place really well can we number every blade of grass) and importance (such godlike knowledge makes us feel proportionally large). At times the emphasis which the book places on scale is worthy of Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland:
We are completely out of proportion in the tea-house
Until we arrange around a single earthenware bowl
Ourselves, the one life, the one meeting, a ribbon of water
And these makeshift ideograms of wet leaves, green tea.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.