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Blog Review 38: Tim Cumming Reviews ‘The Stairwell’ by Michael Longley

Here are the names of some of the flowers of Carrigskeewaun – sandwort, saxifrage, asphodel; and here are some of its songbirds – red bunting, blackcaps, chiffchaffs, a wren, “its tumultuous/ Aria in C or/ Whatever the key/ In which God exists”.

In Longley country, the small forms of the world spread and grow from book to book. His poems are miniatures with big dimensions, nests of small ephemera with long shadows and persistent themes, though they can also be decorative, lovely to hear and to look at, and even if slight, riveted with perfectly placed detail. Longley’s art and craft is an exact science with tangible effects.

The poems in The Stairwell don’t waste their breath, don’t tire themselves with unnecessary movement. No sleight of hand so much as an opening of the palm – in the poem ‘Deathbed’, we get a mind picture of the poet’s friends sharing their bedroom with a family of robins; you don’t see that in Grand Designs. Such miraculous contact – between species, between histories, between mortals and mythology – tends to happen quite often in Longley’s poems.

In this year of politicized Remembrance, it’s refreshing to read more of his work drawing on World War One – he comes to that area by way of the Classics, and by way of family history – the epic and the local, the mythic and the folkloric creating a synergy that absorbs your attention and doesn’t lose focus. In the same way, he approaches the Classics without overdoing the make-up and effects – all that blood and sinew. Longley is a Classicist, so the poet in him doesn’t need to strain at the root; he harvests the small leaves because they cast the most interesting shapes. Maybe this is why there are no epics teetering in his oeuvre. He gives us glimpses, side-glances, flashes from the Classical pantheon, and from love life, family life and friendship, out of which touch-sensitive landscapes unfold, a world of sympathetic parts, laced with the birds, flowers and correspondences that run through his books.

Longley’s poems present untroubled surfaces beneath which greater tides push and pull – Thanatos and Eros grappling on postcards home. In The Stairwell’s title poem, he begins: “I have been thinking about the music for my funeral” which could be portentous, but Longley’s conversational line takes us to the acoustic of the stairwell, the place of ascent and descent, to the popular tunes of the trenches, to his Dad, and to the fadeout – “songbirds circling high up in the stairwell…’ He puts us at our ease, and every time I read that last line, I look up. That’s what I call poetry.

The second part of the book comprises elegies for his twin brother – 23 poems, beginning with ‘The Wheelchair’, then ‘The Tree’, ‘The Arrow’, ‘The Story’ and down through to the final poem, ‘The Fire’, in which the poet-twin must push the button to propel his brother’s coffin into the furnace of the crematorium (Longley describes himself as “a sentimental disbeliever”). It’s clear, intimate, moving poetry that’s very close to your ear but speaking in an epic voice; personal and particular, but widescreen, and there’s nothing you can’t hang on to it from your own life. It’s sentimental and dry – self aware, human in nature, and marbled with the pressures of memory and connection. A brother buries his twin, and raises him again in verses. It’s good to be reminded of the basic power of poems.

Tim Cumming
Tim Cumming was born in 1963 and has published seven collections since 1991, including Apocalypso (Stride) and The Rapture (Salt); an artist and filmmaker as well as poet, he is anthologised in various Forward Prize books and in 2010’s Identity Parade.

longley stairwell

The Stairwell by Michael Longley is published by Jonathan Cape, 2014, £10

(to read previous Magma blog reviews, please click on the ‘reviews’ tag immediately below)

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