On Michael Longley

Colin Burrow

There are few contemporary poets as likeable as Michael Longley. That’s not because his poems are simply amiable, but because he looks at things hard and clearly and invites his readers to share his acts of seeing. In his new book, Angel Hill (Cape, £10), even a cataract operation is an opportunity to celebrate sharpness of vision: ‘My eyeball’s frozen. I lie/At the bottom of a well./Leaves decorate the ice.’ Longley’s poems often describe the natural world, but they rarely do so from the perspective of a lone visionary eye. Usually he is in the company of friends, or, as in the cataract poem, of a surgeon who ‘reaches into my mind’, or (latterly) grandchildren, whose excitement he provokes and shares. That tempers what can be a frustration in reading a poet of the natural world: locked up in his own experiences, counting birds or tracking otters, thickly bejerseyed against the cold, and probably not caring much for others, the common-or-garden nature poet can seem to lack human affection. That’s not true of Longley. So the slight but lovely poem ‘Hedge-Jug’ in A Hundred Doors (2011) begins by invoking an ‘us’ before it goes on to describe a group of long-tailed tits at work on their ever growing nests of lichen and moss:

Cocooning us in their whisper of contact-
Calls as I carry you into the house, seven
Or six long-tailed tits flitter out of the hedge.
How can there be enough love to go round,
Conor Michael, grandson number four?

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