Michael Longley, The Stairwell – review

My feeling is that overall the imaginative pressure of The Stairwell isn’t quite as high as that of earlier books by Longley, including his last, A Hundred Doors. It’s still a remarkable collection that rewards close and repeated attention. The poems grow in the mind both by their own internal resonances and by the way they resonate with the rest of Longley’s work. Immaculate timing and perfect attunement of language make the best of them extraordinarily sensitive registers and transmitters of imaginative experience. Take the start of “Ashes”:

The first creature I meet when I arrive
Is a stoat slipping underneath the gate,
dominating the garden’s quietude

I can’t concisely define why that works so well. It’s above all to do with a subtle interplay between sound and meaning. What’s easy to see, though, is how the contrast between the furtiveness of “slipping” and the assertiveness of “dominating”, emphasised by aural and grammatical rhyming, heightens the impact of the stoat’s domination, filling the garden’s quiet with secret fear. The implied viewpoint trembles between those of the human visitor, the stoat and the stoat’s unseen potential prey. We’re made to feel how relative power is. The stoat is as wary of man as a rabbit is of the stoat. At the same time, the use of “meet” rather than “see” puts the stoat and the man on equal terms, and this is profoundly true to Longley’s vision, a reverence for non-human life that forms an affinity between him and Merwin. The rest of the poem is as good, as alive to other lives, as mobile in tone and feeling, as sensitive to the relations of meaning and sound, as these lines are.

Other poems are equally strong and show Longley extending his range even as he revisits old themes. “Night Walk” and “Homeland”, both “after Mikhail Lermontov”, work appropriative and transformative magic by the brilliance of their auditory imagination and by substituting Irish and personally numinous images for Lermontov’s Russian ones (I can only read the originals in translation, so I don’t mean any disparagement of Lermontov by saying that). In new poems on his father’s experiences in the First World War, Longley seems to realise with fresh sharpness just how young his father was then. There are fine Homeric poems, each of which takes Longley’s adaptations of Homer in original tonal and stylistic directions. “Crickets”, a version of Homer’s simile comparing old men to crickets, is reminiscent of Merwin in its almost complete lack of punctuation. Its tone undulates between humour, hints of awe at the natural world’s mysterious depths, and a kind of airy lightness. In sharp contrast, in the sonnet “Face”, the octave is an elegant but shockingly violent rewording of Homer’s description of a soldier speared in the face. The sestet compares this soldier to a Tommy with his face blown away. It’s the quiet last line that packs the heaviest punch though. Asking “What can surviving hands reach up / To touch? Tongue-stump? Soul-meat?” Longley answers, “Homer’s ghost has nothing to say”. From a poet who reveres Homer as Longley does, that’s devastating. Its ripples collide with those of all his other Homeric poems, his poems on the value of poetry and art, and his poems about death.

The book ends with a series of poignant meditations on the death of Longley’s twin brother, Peter. Death is everywhere, as it always has been in Longley’s work, but everywhere it heightens the sense of the value of life.

I’d like to thank Peter and Ann Sansom for permission to post this review, which appeared in The North no. 53.

Leave a Reply