Michael Longley, The Candlelight Master – review

One of the pleasures of this book is the way it gives us more of what Longley has been giving for so long: more orchids and otters, splinter-moments of Homeric epic, addresses to fellow artists, old friends and family members. For readers familiar with his work, any of Longley’s books, almost, indeed, any of his poems, will seem to reach out into many others. He’s a poet of individually mostly short, sometimes tiny pieces, but the way one leads into another gives his writing a paradoxical amplitude and reach. And however much he revisits the same preoccupations, he’s never simply recycling himself – his eye and feelings remain fresh, making us see the familiar from new angles.

This involves a refocusing of his imagination. He does still deal with violence, but it’s not at the centre of his attention in the way it was during the Northern Irish troubles. Good as they are, the poems in The Candlelight Master based on the Iliad and the Odyssey aren’t as haunting as the best Homeric poems in Gorse Fires and The Ghost Orchid. There’s been a shift in his writing about the non-human world, too. Its violence is occasionally seen but only in a very muted way; there’s nothing as electrifying as the last lines of ‘Pale Butterwort’ in The Weather in Japan, with their unforgettably aghast glimpse into nature’s ruthlessness and terror. However, the refocusing has brought an ever-finer touch in other ways. ‘Dandelions’, in a group of poems recalling the ‘Ghetto’ sequence in Gorse Fires, seems to me one of the absolute high points in Longley’s writing. It combines immense clarity with almost infinite delicacy and depth because of the way every line and phrase is alive with multiple implications, sometimes reinforcing and sometimes pulling against each other. Only its positioning within the group and our memory of the ‘Ghetto’ sequence relates it to the camps at all. Saying that “the children” – by implication the children of the camps – “can still be heard” but that their memories are growing fainter and fainter, the poet adjures us to

Listen. Listen.
Just look up to heaven
And think about the violets

One whispers, and another
The dandelions call to me
And the white chestnut branches.

The fineness of his touch appears in the way the poem trembles between the moral imperative to remember (“Listen. Listen”) and a sense that forgetting reflects the healing process of time. It appears too in the remarkable contrast between the natures of the two italicized passages. The first is a tiny snatch of dialogue whose urgent speech cadences invite the reader to picture and hear children with their heads together, one telling another how to resist the horror around them. The second, answering at a tangent, soars into pure lyricism that sounds like an enigmatic fragment of medieval Irish nature poetry. It’s a transformative moment in a poem whose every word resonates in the imagination and invites meditation.

Meditation, not interpretation. T S Eliot wrote that Henry James had “a mind too fine to be violated by an idea.” There are plenty of ideas in Longley but in the volumes since Gorse Fires his writing has become so refined, its ideas so subtly, sinuously and complicatedly alive in their own words and the silences between them that it seems almost impossible to say anything meaningful about them without quoting the whole poem they occur in. Even then, pointing and paraphrase feel like a violation. This, I think, is the direction in which Longley’s poetry has improved with age even as it’s ceded certain kinds of muscular power.

“Listen. Listen”, and “look”. Longley’s poetry, especially his later work, gets its beauty and distilled greatness from the sensitivity of his attention to the world around him. ‘The Anthologist’, a short piece about the eighth century Japanese poet and anthologist Otomo Yakamochi, focuses on Yakamochi’s listening, telling us that he listened to thousands of poems as he listened to birdcalls, insects, frogs and girls singing at work. The longer ‘To Otomo Yakamochi’ addresses him directly on the occasion of Longley’s receiving the inaugural Yakamochi Medal. It illustrates many of Longley’s qualities, including the quiet but total confidence of his address:

You, Otomo Yakamochi,
Poet and governor, and I
Minor bureaucrat, and poet too,
Meet across thirteen hundred years
To talk about birds and flowers.

Within the radiant simplicity of that last line I feel Longley’s sophisticated amusement at the thought that some of his readers will take it as a swerve into bathos and his own absolute conviction that it’s anything but – that his and Yakamochi’s love of birds and flowers reflects a profound connection with the life of the universe. The next stanza repeats a gesture Longley often makes – “giving” someone something by declaring in a poem that he’s doing so. He “gives” Yakamochi European birds and flowers. This lovely little fiction of generosity between poets of different continents and millennia reflect s the vast idea, fundamental to Longley as to T S Eliot or to the Greek Seferis, that all real artists, whether grand or humble, are involved in the same enterprise, drawing nourishment from and giving it to each other’s work. Obliquely and incidentally it’s a courteous reciprocation of the twenty-first century Japanese medal-awarders’ gift. The pretence of talking to Yakamochi himself brings conversational lightness to the large and (given Longley’s age) poignant thought that follows, “We gaze on our soul-landscapes / More intensely with every year”. Then the fifth stanza restates a fundamental part of Longley’s own aesthetic, something it has in common with Japanese haiku poets, and the Chinese poets he linked with in The Ghost Orchid

Anything however small
May make a poem, a snail, say,
Tucked into the marram grass,
In the distance Tateyama
Or Mweelrea, holy mountains.

Setting the snail against the mountains reminds us of Issa’s famous haiku about the snail climbing Mount Fuji. Longley goes on to imagine Yakamochi galloping along the White Strand, near Longley’s cottage in Carrigskeewaun. Echoing ‘Water-burn’, from The Weather in Japan, this adds to the sense of connections reaching across space and time, connections that give a movingly paradoxical twist to the last stanza:

A small townland becomes my life,
Carrigskeewaun, grandchildren
Wading in the tidal channel –
Otomo, my soul’s a currach
Disappearing behind the waves.

This stanza in turn echoes ‘Out There’ in The Ghost Orchid, which closes “I should have spent my life / Listening to the waves.” I’m sure that Longley deliberately meant to gather these old lines into the new poem’s field of meaning. Remembering them deepens the sense of approaching finality now. There’s a critical point to be made too, though. Lovely as the earlier poem is, I do feel that comparison of the two shows how much the later Longley has developed in his ability to give depth to the most deceptively simple words, to create an effortlessly rich shimmering of feelings around them.

Sensitive receptiveness is key to most of these poems, whether about flowers, artists, family or even all three at once, like ‘Fen Violet’, which addresses Longley’s daughter with the beautiful line, “You paint flowers, Sarah, as though they have souls”. His genius is to have perfected an art of celebration and acceptance. Two death-camp poems that don’t have this element seem to me essentially flat, carrying a hard punch on first reading but with nowhere to go after that. The contrast isn’t a simple one between positive and negative poems, though. The poems of celebration work so well partly because they’re not merely celebratory. There’s almost always a leavening touch of astringency, irony or humour, or more simply an awareness of different ways of seeing the same situation. Take “anything, however small / May make a poem”. “Can make a poem” would be soft-centred. “May”, heavily stressed at the start of the line, qualifies the encouraging claim by its implicit reminder that success in making a real poem also depends on work and inspiration. The beautiful ‘Matisse’ too gets its depth and humanity from the way celebration of genius is leavened by other perspectives. The aging, crippled painter is shown in his pomp in his wheelchair, making his cut-outs with costly materials and the help of beautiful assistants. Recreating the world, he’s like a king or even god (Longley uses the word ‘genesis’ to describe his creation) but there’s both humour and the poignancy of accepted loss in the final picture of the artist in his studio,

Memory replacing the outside world
And his imagination a lagoon
Where, immobile, he swam every day
Contemplating his submarine kingdom.



The Candlelight Master by Michael Longley. Jonathan Cape.80pp.; £10.00

I would like to thank Patricia Oxley for permission to post this review, which appeared in Acumen 99.



One Response to “Michael Longley, The Candlelight Master – review”

  1. Frances Nagle said:

    Jun 05, 21 at 9:32 am

    Excellent review – the book, the career, the human being. You’ve sent me back to my Longley again. Thank you.

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