Here Longley is an artist reviewing his relationship to art, light, life and death. He is a poet doing his job. This is the mythic job of a poet, to tell the tales of war, the old stories – Troy, WW1, the Holocaust, the Troubles; his job is to livethrough these many lives and to allow us space to walk with him. In this amazing collection he urges me to keep up with him, he walks, stick in hand, through landscapes of flowers and death. I try, amazed at his dexterous syntax that I must not mistake for a zig zag, when it is a straight line. I am new to Michael Longley (to my shame) but I needn’t worry as he shows us what he is and what he has done for over 80 years. He even compares his new work to his old, shows he has grown in his powers, not waned. This is a collection about the power of aging. He shows us how the lives of old poets companion us on our journey, Homer, Wilfred Owen, Catullus, Yeats, Yakomochi. Through this book you can experience Longley dancing with his precise, toned poetry muscles, syntax sharp, powerful and delicate.
“I am the candlelight master,
striking a match in the shadows.
A smoky wick, then radiance.
I am the candlelight master”
He tells us in this spellbinding collection that age doesn’t matter when a poet is expressed as an artist, and even when dead they are still with us if you are brave and fierce enough to follow their voices through space and time. Go with this poet, like I did. Adopt him as your grandfather, or meet him like an old friend. He took me across battlefields, to Troy, I was with him in the poem “Glossary” looking into the fire. In the midst of war and devastation there are poems of shocking brilliance, like Ravensbruck. He writes of the bones and feet crushing the bones with no mercy. Then turns to a young Mary, intimately touching her baby, both divine and vulnerable. He is as dirty as Catullus, deft in dialect. He returns to flowers to show us impermanence and magic, as ifflowers contain the secret names of god. One of my favouritepoems in the collection is Wasp Orchids, where he says he will not grow old to be without power. Responding to Yeats;who would like to retire as a bee, not a wasp, Longley answers;
“so would I except there
might be folk who need to fear
the fretful and cantankerous,
the warning black, and yellow”
At the end I am alongside Longley, facing life and death, alone. His skill allows it.
Reviewed by Jessica Mookherjee (author of Tigress (Nine Arches Press 2019)