Quietness and Penetrative Power – Michael Longley’s A Hundred Doors

A Hundred Doors by Michael Longley. Jonathan Cape. 64 pp; £10.00

Michael Longley’s poetic voice must be one of the most instantly recognizable in English poetry. And yet the tone of his writing, especially in this new volume, is extraordinarily modest. Sometimes, as in “Call”, he barely seems to impose his own will on poems which appear almost to assemble themselves as he notices things around him, people or animals cross his path and thoughts surface. The frequent use of questions is a part of this tentativeness. They are rhetorical in that they aren’t part of an ongoing process of enquiry, but unlike rhetorical questions in the usual sense they aren’t designed to force you to a particular conclusion but to put you in the position of the poet himself, hesitating between possibilities. They are one of the ways in which Longley creates the imaginative breathing spaces around ideas that make these poems so enormously rich in suggestion.

Suggestion draws the reader into a kind of imaginative collaboration with the poet, and collaboration of different kinds seems to me fundamental to Longley’s art. Several poems seem clearly addressed to his wife, Edna Longley, to whom he has written so much over the years. One, “Puff-ball”, can be read as a most beautiful act of implicit homage to her role in his work:

When we picked mushrooms at midnight
Among intersecting fairy rings,
You said moonlight had ripened them.

Later I found the moon’s image –
The full moon’s – a giant puff-ball
Taking shape as in a low cloud.

In a literal way, this is a magically clear and tender evocation of a moment shared between the poet and his wife. Post hoc ergo propter hoc – a fallacy in logic but not in poetry – the poem suggests that he finds the moon’s image in the second stanza because of what she says in the first. The word “image” irradiates the literal anecdote with the further suggestion that it is also an allegory of poetic composition. The idea of finding the puff-ball / poem taking shape expresses the poet’s delight in the poem as a gift that seems to create itself as least as much as the poet creates it, so that there is a kind of collaboration between poet and subject. The “intersecting fairy rings” touch on another of the great beauties of Longley’s imaginative world – the delicacy with which poem after poem evokes the points of intersection of different lives and different times, both in Carrigskeewaun itself, where “We sleepwalk around a townland whooper swans / From the tundra remember, and the Saharan / Wheatear”, and in other settings, and because of how many of the poems suggest what Longley, paraphrasing Ovid, has called “the fundamental interconnectedness of all things”.

Readers familiar with Longley’s work will find him retreading familiar ground in almost all these poems. This is part of the secret of the volume’s almost miraculous combination of quietness and penetrative power, and of its ability to release the multiple rings of suggestion that spread from even its briefest pieces. Fidelity to the actual, love of the small, the local and the particular is one of the charms of his writing, an aspect of his affinity with Edward Thomas. It’s reflected in how much naming of individual people and places there is in his poetry. But the particular never stays merely particular. In his quiet, unvatic way Longley shares Blake’s gift for seeing a world in a grain of sand, or in Carrigskeewaun. As he puts it in “The Wren”, “A day here represents a life-time”. The literal is constantly reforming itself as metaphor, fantasy or vision. Even when that doesn’t happen overtly, by endlessly returning to the same scenes, ideas and preoccupations, always looking at them with fresh eyes, opening his imagination to them so that they speak to him and through him in constantly changing ways, he has impregnated the particulars of his poetry with more and more associations and resonances, made them seem more and charged and luminous. I half want to use the word “symbolic” because of the way more general meanings and implications shine through these luminous particulars, but I hesitate to do so because it might make these meanings seem more fixed, stable and susceptible to systematic exegesis, less sensitively alive, tentative and shifting, than they actually are.

I have no doubt that this will be one of the outstanding collections of the year.

I wrote this review for Acumen 70, and would like to thank the editor for allowing me to post it here.


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