Review – Michael Longley’s Angel Hill

Michael Longley, Angel Hill, 80 pp, £10.00, Jonathan Cape, 20 Vauxhall Bridge Rd, London SW1V 2SA

From the first words of Angel Hill you know you’re in the hands of a master. Joyfully rehearsing old themes and landscapes, Longley brings an ever-finer touch to their expression. The opening poem, addressed to Fleur Adcock, is typical: yet another celebration of an old friendship, yet another celebration of an artist, yet another poem about wild flowers and birds, it’s also completely fresh and alive in itself. Like all these poems, it’s humane and profoundly civilised, remarkable for its ability to hold in balance the intimacy with which it addresses an individual person and the wide imaginative spaces it steps into. Moving with ease from the bookish world of well-appointed desks to the wild world out of doors, Longley suddenly bathes both in Ovidian flower myth in a way I find breathtaking:

You gave me a gilded magnifying glass
For scrutinising the hearts of wild flowers.

Such combining of multiple perspectives within brief, superficially occasional poems reflects the depth of emotional commitment that lies behind Longley’s constant revisiting of recurrent themes.

Another lovely poem to a writer is “Inglenook”, inviting Edna O’Brien to join him in his holiday cottage in Carrigskeewaun. Imagining how a bitch otter might lope from the waves, Longley pictures “Her whiskers glittering with sea water”. The line leaps off the page for its evocativeness and beauty of sound. In this poem, though, even the plainest words are suffused with a tenderness that directs itself simultaneously at O’Brien and the surrounding world. In fact some of the plainer lines are richer in implication than this vividly outstanding one, though in the delicate economy of the poem it’s the presence of the striking line that animates the quieter ones. The invitation to O’Brien to

                                       Take my hand,
Balance on slippery stepping-stones

swarms with unspoken feelings, as we picture the awkwardness and frailty of these two elderly writers. A combination of limpid utterance with formal balance creates a stillness around the words within which unspoken meanings flower. Often these involve echoes of other poems by Longley himself, and it’s easy to feel that all his poems form a continuum of interplaying forces, a vast, complicated, pin drop sensitive chamber of echoes enormously extending the imaginative reach of whatever individual poem sets those echoes in motion.

As fundamental to Longley’s achievement as the skill of his writing is the tenderness with which his poetry looks on the world. He opens our hearts and eyes by opening his own. What results is the reverse of an outpouring of subjective emotion; it’s a sensitive receptiveness to what’s out there, given balance and perspective by a continual current of genial humour. He can be remarkably candid and unembarrassed, as in the moving “Room to Rhyme”, in memory of Seamus Heaney. His candour is the opposite of confessional, though, and much the better for being so.  It’s in the nature of confessional poetry to be essentially self-regarding. Longley’s is anything but. It’s also in the nature of confessional poetry to have an ambiguous and in my view often squalid or dishonest relation to shame. Longley’s poetry strikingly combines candour and intimacy with reticence, the two complementing each other in a way that demands immense poetic skill. For example, throughout Longley’s life he’s written love poems to his wife Edna, some of them highly erotic. Those poems must form a background to his remarking, at the beginning and end of the poem to O’Brien, that she called herself “the other Edna”. We know nothing about the private implications of the joke, but reference to it creates a flow of intimate feeling between the poet and the novelist, a hinterland of shared life that we feel as a warming presence in the poem, one that seems to include us even as it touches on things that are none of our business.

These poems aren’t uniformly good. A few that sparked real pleasure on first reading fell flat when I returned to them, whether because I was in a less receptive mood or because they were too dependent on a single impact. “Menu” and “Place-Names” struck me as doodles. And yet the slightest occasion can become magical in Longley’s hands, like the enchanting “Dream”:

I dream I am swimming
With a horse, tail and mane
Seaweedy, fetlocks
Blossoming in the depths.

Most of these poems gave me pleasure that deepened with each rereading; a few gave me something approaching awe. I think this book is even stronger than Longley’s last two, good as those were.

I wrote this review before my June entry on Angel Hill. Some of the ideas in the review are developed further in that entry, which you can read by clicking here.

I would like to thank Peter and Ann Sansom for permission to post the review, which appeared in The North 58.

One Response to “Review – Michael Longley’s Angel Hill”

  1. Edmund Prestwich» Blog Archive » Review – James Sheard’s The Abandoned Settlements said:

    Sep 11, 17 at 8:40 am

    […] intense lyrical subjectivity contrasts with both Longley and Clifton. Most of the poems in The Abandoned Settlements involve the ending of a relationship. […]

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