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.
Longley’s search for balanced arrangements in this stanza, which characterises his whole career, is reminiscent of Alice who, mouse-size or house-size, always retained a sense of proportion. In The Ghost Orchid, it is simply good manners not to embarrass things by presenting them as too small or too large. Rome is compared to a belly-button, brown trout sip at the stars and in ‘Sun and Moon’ (an elegy which becomes a kind of Creation story) the eponymous celestial bodies float on the same scale as ‘turtles and dolphins and fish’. There is no sense of awkwardness, of things too large or too small for the poems to assimilate.
‘I fight all the way for balance,’ declares a speaker in Longley’s first book, No Continuing City. ‘I am meant to wander inland with a wellbalanced oar,’ announces another in The Ghost Orchid. Equilibrium has always been the highest value in his work, closely followed by what we might call equidistance. Coming from a divided land, such even-handedness is no bad thing; for Longley, however, it is, and has been from the start, the value. This diplomatic virtue is also identified in his poetry with what we might call ‘between-ness’. In his last collection, Gorse Fires, this was especially obvious in poems like ‘Between Hovers’ and ‘Otters’:
An upturned currach at Allaran Point
And a breaking wave are holt and hover
Until the otter, on wet sand in between,
Engraves its own reflection and departure.
The poems often focus on a vanishing-point at the dead centre of everything. But this composed and impressive evocation of medial zones became possible for Longley only by hard work. His first book, with its sophisticated stanza-shapes, classical references, extended metaphors and knowing tone, made a great effort to be formally sound – and succeeded in being little else. The poems were squeezed into highly-polished rhetorical armour and then struggled to get off the ground. Multiple contrast was a favourite ploy: lots of blacks and whites, weddings and funerals, freeze-ups and thaws. One poem ends: ‘O where would Beauty be without her Beast?’ A sophomoric sophistication was sounded everywhere:
Ladies, you are so many and so various
You will have to put up with me, for your sins,
A stranger to your island who knows too much.
Longley’s early poems were like sleek, expensive chessboards, with sharp formal patterns and diverting contrasts, but devoid of activity because the pieces were somehow mislaid. Occasionally a reflection might eddy across their surface, as startling and artificial as the chequered pattern of a harlequin’s jacket – as in a line noticing ‘the leopard’s coat accepting light through leaves’. As his poetry developed, however, the rigid boards began to fragment and disappear, and the pieces were found. Chess broke out on the dunes. Between makeshift lines on the undulating sand, the pieces would lean at strange angles – the pawns with ‘the faces of small flowers’ or small animals, the queen hovering nearby. It was not quite the chaos of Looking Glass chess but it remained a symbolic landscape, which was used to ward off chaos.
The military theme in his work fits into this picture. Like Ted Hughes, one of his major influences, Longley had a father who fought in the First World War and the imagery of the Somme – corpses, helmets, gas-masks – keeps on turning up in his Irish landscapes. Anyone who digs around Longley’s poems is liable to find well-preserved stone soldiers. Like Hughes, he shares an interest in war poets – Keith Douglas, for example – and refers to them approvingly in several poems. One of Longley’s favourite manoeuvres is to connect the First World War (or, say, the Trojan War) with the conflict recently ended in Northern Ireland. Several fine poems at the heart of The Ghost Orchid – ‘Ceasefire’, ‘The Fishing Party’ and ‘The Scales’ – are either direct or indirect comments on the Troubles and, taken together, seem ambivalently balanced between forgiveness and retribution.
One of the wisest shifts Longley made in his early poetry was from allegory or fable to a kind of super-metonymy. His second collection, An Exploded View, was decisive in this respect, filled with marks and parts of every kind: ‘fingerprints’, ‘teethmarks’, ‘footprints’, ‘cattle tracks’, ‘a sanderling’s tiny trail’, ‘the toe-/ And fingernail parings of the sea’. Instead of trying to represent reality with point-by-point analogies, Longley furnished his poems with fragments – as we have seen, increasingly small fragments – of creatures and things. It was as if the teller of Cinderella‘s story were to omit all the narrative paraphernalia, the Ugly Sisters, the Fairy Godmother and the giant Pumpkin Carriage, and replace it with a virtuoso description of her lost slipper. This new emphasis on the microcosmic detail allowed Longley to suggest whole universes with minimal effort, and enabled him to achieve the poise which he sought in No Continuing City. In the blurb to his third collection, Man Lying on a Wall, Longley talks about the title poem: ‘The man lying on the wall might be resting between sleep and waking, dream and reality, fact and fiction, freedom and responsibility, life and death.’ More than enough to be going on with ... But the great thing was that, in the poem, all these amorphous, bloodless abstractions, are suggested rather than named. Instead of specified meanings we get ghostly glimpses of significance, like the bleached image of an otter which flashes in our minds when we see its prints on the sand.
But how do you orientate the fragment so that the reader will look beyond it? Usually, Longley accomplishes this by pace. His poems proceed with such an even solemnity, like soldiers at a state funeral, that the reader respectfully takes off his cap and starts looking heavenward. At times, in The Ghost Orchid, action is anticipated by almost liturgical formulae. Not ‘here are a few crabs’ brains for you’ but: ‘I want to wash the hagi petals in my bowl, then balance / Before your lips an offering of crabs’ brains on a shiso leaf.’ Not ‘here are a few duck eggs’ but ‘I’ll hand to you six duck eggs Orla Murphy gave me / In a beechwood bowl Ted O’Driscoll turned.’ To avoid seeming too wispy and brief, the poems talk a good deal about weight. There are, for example, ‘The Scales’ in which God literally weighs human beings at the Last Judgment; the inventive elegy ‘Sun – Moon’ which begins: ‘Could water take the weight of your illness ever’; and the bewitchingly drowsy opening to ‘The Ship of the Wind’ which combines the impression of weight with a typically faded image of ‘The oars, heavy with seaweed, at rest in humid mists’.
I have always thought that the party-game in which people are meant to be identified by one or two letters – a weak person, say, as a ‘fl’: ‘flimsy’, ‘flibbertigibbet’, ‘flotsam’, ‘fly-by-night’ etc – could well be applied to poets. If Paul Muldoon is a ‘qu’ – ‘quicksilver’, ‘quirky’, ‘exquisite’, with some of his favourite words being ‘quibble’, ‘quidditas’ and his own neologism. ‘quoof’ – then Longley would be a ‘so’: ‘sober’, ‘solemn’, ‘somnolent’, ‘sonorous’, ‘soliloquent’, with some of his favourite words being ‘solitary’, ‘soldier’ and ‘sound’. The brooding, Northern European, Bergmanlike atmosphere of this book, whose strange, placid mood hovers between resignation and acceptance, can almost be caught in the word ‘so’, since it can be voiced either as a wistful question ‘so?’ (so, what?), or as a resounding, final statement: ‘so’ (just so). The slow, sleepy loneliness which pervades The Ghost Orchid brings to mind one point in The Corner of the Eye, where Longley says that spending winter in his Mayo cottage can make him feel intensely alive, and that once you feel intensely alive you start to feel lonely. Or maybe the other way around.
‘An imaginative solitude that is almost a solipsism’: this is what Harold Bloom, in his Poetics of Influence, describes as a burden for the strong poet ‘in his own final phase’. If The Ghost Orchid is not a book by a strong poet in his final phase, it is certainly a book by a poet writing strongly about final phases. There are many calm meditations on death and some eerily cold imagery: ‘When snow falls it is feathers from the wings of Icarus.’ The Ghost Orchid is haunted by a queer, falling whiteness, which brings to mind another word Bloom uses, apophrades, ‘from the Athenian dismal or unlucky days upon which the dead returned to inhabit the houses in which they have lived’. The fragments which Longley used so successfully in his middle period return here: ‘Thick as the snowflakes on a wintry day when God / Comes down and shows mankind his arsenal’. This is similar to the symbolic fall of snow at the end of Joyce’s story ‘The Dead’. Sand-grains, long subjected to the whitening friction of the sea, are blown about in the wind with feathers and fingernails and grains of rice, as if some old, disintegrating film footage were being projected on the sky and a storm of memory’s blind spots fell across reality.
The unity which this imagery gives The Ghost Orchid makes it a slightly better collection than Gorse Fires, but still not as good as his fourth book, The Echo Gate, which contains what I think is his masterpiece, ‘Mayo Monologues’. Tellingly, this was a poem about other people, a sequence which caught the desperation of rural voices as well as Frost’s ‘A Servant to Servants’ did. Its note of edgy pessimism has all but vanished from Longley’s work – replaced by an unrelieved serenity, an endless shanti. Longley is at his best when he stops circling his own persona. He is, for instance, a brilliantelegist, as ‘Wreaths’ in The Echo Gate proved. Here he proves it again in ‘The Pleiades’, a poem which contains some remarkable movements of thought:
The moment I heard that Oisín Ferran had died in a fire
In his flat in Charlemont Street in Dublin, my mind became
The mind of the old woman who for ninety years had lived
In the middle of the Isle of Man and had never seen
The sea ...
But for all their personality and accommodation of pain, these poems are never really shattered, their composure is never broken. They remind me of Brando’s character in Last Tango in Paris, taking his chewing-gum out of his mouth before falling to his death; they seem more frightened of appearing foolish than of passing away. Longley’s poetry has always been about avoiding awkwardness whatever the circumstances, about striking a balance even when a balance is not the best thing to strike. He has achieved polish, poise and compression, while writing very few bad poems. But the small flowers of The Ghost Orchid are too compliant with his poetic vision: the face on the green stem too easily becomes his own.