- Snow Water
One of the major poets from the Belfast Group run by Philip Hobsbaum in the early to mid-1960s at Queen's University, Michael Longley is often associated with his fellow Northern Irish poets Seamus Heaney and Derek Mahon. Longley has evolved his particular and distinctive poetic over a series of formally crafted volumes, beginning with No Continuing City in 1969. After an early fascination with compressed lyrics, rhyme, and para-rhyme, Longley's work, particularly after his twelve-year hiatus from writing poetry during the period 1979-1991, explored the wider range of freer verse forms beginning with Gorse Fires (1991) and continuing with The Ghost Orchid (1995). Additionally, his supple employment of the long line in such poems as "Laertes," Anticleia," and "The Butchers" (Gorse Fires), invests these later volumes with a lovely balance to his continuing interest in short lyrics and sonnet variations such as "Ceasefire" (The Ghost Orchid). With the publication of The Ghost Orchid and The Weather in Japan (2000), Longley's poetry explores his widest variety of forms and subjects. His compass has expanded to include, along with his continued interests in such subjects as classical mythology, World War I, the natural world, and an increasing fascination with Asian cultures. This interest is manifested in poems in The Ghost Orchid such as "Massive Lovers," "A Grain of Rice," "Chinese Objects," and "Chinese Occasions," and throughout The Weather in Japan (2000). The Asian insistence on concise forms, or karumi, and specific words accords with Longley's belief that semantically precise poetry achieves a truth useful in exploding stereotypes about false cultural and political identities in Northern Ireland.
With Snow Water, Longley's mature gifts as a senior poet are on full display. These include his masterly control of tone, lyric precision, and diction, as well as form. The volume is framed with two poems, "Overhead" and "Leaves," about a beech tree outside the poet's window. Both compare the poet to this [End Page 151] tree and portray him in the midst of current and projected inspiration, respectively. The poet's clear recognition of his aging self in these two poems emerges elsewhere in the volume through a series of elegies for dead friends, such as "Marsh Marigolds," "An October Sun," "Snipe," "White Water," and "Heron." The quotidian titles of these works suggest Longley's continuing interest in the everyday and his complementary ability to make the ordinary extraordinary, often by investing a seemingly static scene with surprising emotional movement. The intertwining of natural and human life in all their fragility in these elegies and other poems in the volume suggests Longley's conception of an holistic, interrelated world, the variety and singularity of which is diminished by the death of friends such as Penny Cabot, the poet Michael Hartnett, Sheila Smyth, the poet James Simmons, and Kenneth Koch. Many of these poems, are after all, love poems, in an expansive sense of the term, and they caressingly survey the natural landscape and its inhabitants, especially its avian citizens, around the poet's adopted home in the townland of Carrigskeewaun in County Mayo.
Over the past several decades, as an essayist, editor, poet, and director for Literature and the Arts for the Arts Council of Northern Ireland (retiring from this last position in 1991), Longley has argued—as an antidote to the poisonous political discourse in the province—for a conception of Northern Ireland as a varied regional entity that is enriched by cultural contributions from both Catholics and Protestants. While he undoubtedly continues to view his native province in this manner, Snow Water offers ample evidence that his regionalism has become expansive enough to encompass continents and to suture seamlessly wounds, personal and political, in so doing. For example, the speaker in "Two Skunks," who I take to be the poet himself, offers Longley's friend Helen Lewis, a Holocaust survivor, "a skunk spun out of glass / And so small as to be almost unbreakable," a sort of replacement for the dead skunk he has recently seen near the Delaware...