In the world of contemporary poetry, Michael Longley is often overshadowed by Seamus Heaney, his literary compatriot and friend. But underrating Longley is a mistake, as his most recent Forward prize nominated collection Angel Hill shows.
Longley isn’t concerned with the political or social complexities of the modern world, he’s concerned with the natural, historical, and personal fabric of the world itself. There’s something refreshing about the unashamed and uninvolved observance of Longley’s work, and, as his editor puts it, in these poems the “imaginations of poet and painter intermingle”. Precious little of Longley’s is even remotely political.
In 60 pages of often short and rarely structurally complex poems, Longley explores the world around him as he grows older. Split between his own home in Carrigskeewaun, and Lochalsh, in the Highlands, Longley’s verse is both a series of observations of his world as he ages within it, and an excavation of its history. He writes about his father who fought at Passchendaele, the children whose parents died in the troubles, the early years of his marriage.
The real strength of Angel Hill is the sense of controlled universality that Longley evokes without ever seeming overblown or exaggerated. Angel Hill encapsulates, in rich and powerful verse, everything that it is to be Michael Longley.
Almost all of the poems in the collection focus in some way on both the fl ora and the fauna of Longley’s world. Corncrakes, a rare and elusive bird found sporadically across the Highlands, swallows, nosegays and larks’ nests all feature. A veteran bird watcher and naturalist, much like Heaney, Longley consistently roots himself in nature. Trees, birds, flowers and mountains serve as reference points by which he defines his life. In ‘Age’, Longley writes “I have been writing about this townland/ for fifty years, watching on their hummock / autumn’s lady tresses come and go.” His life is defined, not by his work, but by the natural world with which he has framed his life.
Longley is 78 this year, and his age plays a vocal and important role in this collection. His grandchildren feature throughout, and, once more, Longley envisages himself within the natural environment. In the poem ‘Granddaughters’ he writes “You have buried me up to my shins / in autumn leaves. I am taking root.” He becomes, through his offspring, a part of the natural backdrop. Angel Hill is certainly in part a peaceful meditation on death – both his own, and that of his friends, including Heaney.
Although Longley isn’t much read, he should be. His poetry has peace to it, a sense of contentment. He looks at the world around him, at his own life and he sees in the trees and in the birds something appreciable, something worth versifying. It’s simple, but it isn’t empty. It has all the craft and meaning of someone who’s been writing poetry for fifty years. It is, at its best, timeless.