In the latest issue:

Real Men Go to Tehran

Adam Shatz

What Trump doesn’t know about Iran

Patrick Cockburn

Kaiser Karl V

Thomas Penn

The Hostile Environment

Catherine Hall

Social Mobilities

Adam Swift

Short Cuts: So much for England

Tariq Ali

What the jihadis left behind

Nelly Lahoud

Ray Strachey

Francesca Wade

C.J. Sansom

Malcolm Gaskill

At the British Museum: ‘Troy: Myth and Reality’

James Davidson

Poem: ‘The Lion Tree’

Jamie McKendrick


Jenny Turner

Boys in Motion

Nicholas Penny

‘Trick Mirror’

Lauren Oyler

Diary: What really happened in Yancheng?

Long Ling

Fading OutJohn Redmond

Terms and Conditions

These terms and conditions of use refer to the London Review of Books and the London Review Bookshop website ( — hereafter ‘LRB Website’). These terms and conditions apply to all users of the LRB Website ("you"), including individual subscribers to the print edition of the LRB who wish to take advantage of our free 'subscriber only' access to archived material ("individual users") and users who are authorised to access the LRB Website by subscribing institutions ("institutional users").

Each time you use the LRB Website you signify your acceptance of these terms and conditions. If you do not agree, or are not comfortable with any part of this document, your only remedy is not to use the LRB Website.

  1. By registering for access to the LRB Website and/or entering the LRB Website by whatever route of access, you agree to be bound by the terms and conditions currently prevailing.
  2. The London Review of Books ("LRB") reserves the right to change these terms and conditions at any time and you should check for any alterations regularly. Continued usage of the LRB Website subsequent to a change in the terms and conditions constitutes acceptance of the current terms and conditions.
  3. The terms and conditions of any subscription agreements which educational and other institutions have entered into with the LRB apply in addition to these terms and conditions.
  4. You undertake to indemnify the LRB fully for all losses damages and costs incurred as a result of your breaching these terms and conditions.
  5. The information you supply on registration to the LRB Website shall be accurate and complete. You will notify the LRB promptly of any changes of relevant details by emailing the registrar. You will not assist a non-registered person to gain access to the LRB Website by supplying them with your password. In the event that the LRB considers that you have breached the requirements governing registration, that you are in breach of these terms and conditions or that your or your institution's subscription to the LRB lapses, your registration to the LRB Website will be terminated.
  6. Each individual subscriber to the LRB (whether a person or organisation) is entitled to the registration of one person to use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site. This user is an 'individual user'.
  7. The London Review of Books operates a ‘no questions asked’ cancellation policy in accordance with UK legislation. Please contact us to cancel your subscription and receive a full refund for the cost of all unposted issues.
  8. Use of the 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is strictly for the personal use of each individual user who may read the content on the screen, download, store or print single copies for their own personal private non-commercial use only, and is not to be made available to or used by any other person for any purpose.
  9. Each institution which subscribes to the LRB is entitled to grant access to persons to register on and use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site under the terms and conditions of its subscription agreement with the LRB. These users are 'institutional users'.
  10. Each institutional user of the LRB may access and search the LRB database and view its entire contents, and may also reproduce insubstantial extracts from individual articles or other works in the database to which their institution's subscription provides access, including in academic assignments and theses, online and/or in print. All quotations must be credited to the author and the LRB. Institutional users are not permitted to reproduce any entire article or other work, or to make any commercial use of any LRB material (including sale, licensing or publication) without the LRB's prior written permission. Institutions may notify institutional users of any additional or different conditions of use which they have agreed with the LRB.
  11. Users may use any one computer to access the LRB web site 'subscriber only' content at any time, so long as that connection does not allow any other computer, networked or otherwise connected, to access 'subscriber only' content.
  12. The LRB Website and its contents are protected by copyright and other intellectual property rights. You acknowledge that all intellectual property rights including copyright in the LRB Website and its contents belong to or have been licensed to the LRB or are otherwise used by the LRB as permitted by applicable law.
  13. All intellectual property rights in articles, reviews and essays originally published in the print edition of the LRB and subsequently included on the LRB Website belong to or have been licensed to the LRB. This material is made available to you for use as set out in paragraph 8 (if you are an individual user) or paragraph 10 (if you are an institutional user) only. Save for such permitted use, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt such material in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department.
  14. All intellectual property rights in images on the LRB Website are owned by the LRB except where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited. Save for such material taken for permitted use set out above, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt LRB’s images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department. Where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, reproduce or translate such images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the copyright holder. The LRB will not undertake to supply contact details of any attributed or credited copyright holder.
  15. The LRB Website is provided on an 'as is' basis and the LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website will be accessible by any particular browser, operating system or device.
  16. The LRB makes no express or implied representation and gives no warranty of any kind in relation to any content available on the LRB Website including as to the accuracy or reliability of any information either in its articles, essays and reviews or in the letters printed in its letter page or material supplied by third parties. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) arising from the publication of any materials on the LRB Website or incurred as a consequence of using or relying on such materials.
  17. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) for any legal or other consequences (including infringement of third party rights) of any links made to the LRB Website.
  18. The LRB is not responsible for the content of any material you encounter after leaving the LRB Website site via a link in it or otherwise. The LRB gives no warranty as to the accuracy or reliability of any such material and to the fullest extent permitted by law excludes all liability that may arise in respect of or as a consequence of using or relying on such material.
  19. This site may be used only for lawful purposes and in a manner which does not infringe the rights of, or restrict the use and enjoyment of the site by, any third party. In the event of a chat room, message board, forum and/or news group being set up on the LRB Website, the LRB will not undertake to monitor any material supplied and will give no warranty as to its accuracy, reliability, originality or decency. By posting any material you agree that you are solely responsible for ensuring that it is accurate and not obscene, defamatory, plagiarised or in breach of copyright, confidentiality or any other right of any person, and you undertake to indemnify the LRB against all claims, losses, damages and costs incurred in consequence of your posting of such material. The LRB will reserve the right to remove any such material posted at any time and without notice or explanation. The LRB will reserve the right to disclose the provenance of such material, republish it in any form it deems fit or edit or censor it. The LRB will reserve the right to terminate the registration of any person it considers to abuse access to any chat room, message board, forum or news group provided by the LRB.
  20. Any e-mail services supplied via the LRB Website are subject to these terms and conditions.
  21. You will not knowingly transmit any virus, malware, trojan or other harmful matter to the LRB Website. The LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website is free from contaminating matter, viruses or other malicious software and to the fullest extent permitted by law disclaims all liability of any kind including liability for any damages, losses or costs resulting from damage to your computer or other property arising from access to the LRB Website, use of it or downloading material from it.
  22. The LRB does not warrant that the use of the LRB Website will be uninterrupted, and disclaims all liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred as a result of access to the LRB Website being interrupted, modified or discontinued.
  23. The LRB Website contains advertisements and promotional links to websites and other resources operated by third parties. While we would never knowingly link to a site which we believed to be trading in bad faith, the LRB makes no express or implied representations or warranties of any kind in respect of any third party websites or resources or their contents, and we take no responsibility for the content, privacy practices, goods or services offered by these websites and resources. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability for any damages or losses arising from access to such websites and resources. Any transaction effected with such a third party contacted via the LRB Website are subject to the terms and conditions imposed by the third party involved and the LRB accepts no responsibility or liability resulting from such transactions.
  24. The LRB disclaims liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred for unauthorised access or alterations of transmissions or data by third parties as consequence of visit to the LRB Website.
  25. While 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is currently provided free to subscribers to the print edition of the LRB, the LRB reserves the right to impose a charge for access to some or all areas of the LRB Website without notice.
  26. These terms and conditions are governed by and will be interpreted in accordance with English law and any disputes relating to these terms and conditions will be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales.
  27. The various provisions of these terms and conditions are severable and if any provision is held to be invalid or unenforceable by any court of competent jurisdiction then such invalidity or unenforceability shall not affect the remaining provisions.
  28. If these terms and conditions are not accepted in full, use of the LRB Website must be terminated immediately.
The Ghost Orchid 
by Michael Longley.
Cape, 66 pp., £7, May 1995, 0 224 04112 6
Show More
Show More

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.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.