Scruffy love­li­ness

John McAuliffe is riv­eted by Michael Lon­g­ley’s ear for the hu­man.

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - ARTS & BOOKS - John McAuliffe John McAuliffe’s fourth book is The Way In (Gallery, 2015). He is pro­fes­sor of modern lit­er­a­ture and cre­ative writ­ing at the Univer­sity of Manch­ester

In Sea Asters, one of the finest poems in his new col­lec­tion, An­gel Hill (Jonathan Cape, £10), Michael Lon­g­ley men­tions the asters’ “scruffy love­li­ness”, a phrase which suits the way he can un­ex­pect­edly edge un­likely ma­te­rial into lyri­cal ex­cla­ma­tion. Here is that poem in full:

I have got to know the fawn’s Salt-marsh skele­ton, ab­stract Ver­te­brae and white ribs In a pud­dle jel­ly­fish fill At spring-tide, ghost-cir­cles Close to the sea-asters’ Pur­ple golden-hearted Scruffy love­li­ness.

The poem’s gear-change, that mo­ment when we see the skele­ton bet­ter by notic­ing the jel­ly­fish fill­ing up the pud­dle it rests in, is a typ­i­cal Lon­g­ley con­jur­ing act, as is the sweet grace note of the sea asters.

Lon­g­ley’s skil­ful­ness and ex­pe­ri­ence are ev­i­dent in poems where, in the choice of a sin­gle word, the fo­cus of the de­scrip­tion shifts, as in In the Mugello, where orchids are “har­vest’s soul,/ Four un­der a horn­beam,/ Other orchids as well/ Dec­o­rat­ing the verge,/ Pyra­mids, labia pink.” Or where a morn­ing posy be­comes “light-painted flow­ers,/ A field in a tooth­glass” ( Nosegay). Or where the im­age of “the low sun as it frays/ Through a tree-creeper’s use­ful/ Fan­tail” shifts to an im­age of the poet, “my elon­gated shadow/ with its walk­ing stick” ( Sol­stice).

Past suc­cesses hover around many of the poems, an “elon­gated shadow” that the poet some­times writes into: “Long ago I com­pared us to rope- mak­ers/ Twist­ing straw into a golden ca­ble”, he writes in The Neck­lace. Mem­ory rem­i­nisces about the oc­ca­sion of his early Ep­i­tha­la­mion, “rhyme- words danc­ing/ Down the page ahead of the ar­gu­ment”, catch­ing the way his work has been drawn out and on by its for­mal am­bi­tions, and adding in ef­fect a sort of snap­shot of the poet at work in his youth, like a reis­sued al­bum with new pe­riod de­tail.

For all its look­ing back, how­ever, the book feels cu­ri­ously time­less. When dates do en­ter two of the poems, it is with a rivet­ing, dis­com­fit­ing sud­den­ness. In Badger (in mem­ory of Martin McBir­ney, mur­dered 16.ix.74), Lon­g­ley’s eye and ear are for the touch­ingly hu­man. “From be­hind he was all be­hind, Martin./ Every­one got drunk af­ter his fu­neral./ On the path to our house a badger paused./ ‘I can’t an­swer any of your ques­tions,’/ I said, and the badger shuf­fled away.”

In his poems of the nat­u­ral world, Lon­g­ley is still a mas­ter of minia­tures: there is an as­ton­ished, al­most short­sighted in­ten­sity to the way he looks at what lies around him, in his fa­mil­iar Car­rigskee­waun habi­tat as well as in the Scot­tish lo­cales this col­lec­tion also vis­its. These new poems love cor­re­spon­dence: in a haiku, “The way a cowslip bends/ Re­calls a cart track,/ Crushed sun­light at my feet.” ( Cowslip), while In­let no­tices “A mussel shell/ Fill­ing up with rain/ As you reach the pool.” One of the book’s many son­nets con­tem­plates his par­tic­u­lar­is­ing, but spa­cious style:

Sal­vaging snail shells and mag­pie feath­ers For fear of leav­ing par­tic­u­lars out, I make lit­tle space for philosophis­ing. I walk ever more slowly to gate and stile. Poetry is shrink­ing al­most to its bones.

Richly med­i­ta­tive

The young Viet­namese- Amer­i­can poet Ocean Vuong has had a re­mark­able suc­cess with his first book, Night Sky with Exit

Wounds (Cape, £10), now reprinted for read­ers on this side of the At­lantic. Vuong writes in what may be one of the most un­fash­ion­able modes of re­cent decades, in the richly med­i­ta­tive style of Rainer Maria Rilke. And, al­most un­be­liev­ably, he does so suc­cess­fully.

Here is how his poem Torso of Air be­gins: “Sup­pose you do change your life.” Like Hou­dini wrestling his way out of an im­pos­si­ble-to-imag­ine con­fine­ment, the poem con­tin­ues in the same vein: “& the body is more than/ a por­tion of night – sealed/ with bruises.” The book again and again ad­mits and imag­ines vi­o­lence and de­sire. But Vuong is swift, light, con­stantly sur­pris­ing in his move­ment. This poem ends, hap­pily, I think, with the im­age of “The eye/ star­ing back from the other side –/ wait­ing.”

Vuong has writ­ten a num­ber of re­mark­able poems about his fa­ther, a fig­ure he uses to broach the sub­jects of im­mi­gra­tion and race. How­ever, he com­pli­cates these sub­jects with his poems’ free treat­ment of the body and sex­u­al­ity. Images are framed so that they seem to im­pli­cate us in what he has seen. In the aptly ti­tled in- be­tween world of Thresh­old, “On my knees,/ I watched, through the key­hole, not/ the man show­er­ing, but the rain/ fall­ing through him: gui­tar strings snap­ping/ over his globed shoul­ders.” In Telemachus,

He could be any­one’s fa­ther, found the way a green bot­tle might ap­pear

At the boy’s feet con­tain­ing a year he has never touched. I touch

His ears. No use. I turn him over. To face it. The cathe­dral

Lon­g­ley is still a mas­ter of minia­tures: there is an as­ton­ished, al­most short­sighted in­ten­sity to the way he looks at what lies around him

in his sea-black eyes. The face not mine – but one I will wear

to kiss all my lovers good-night: the way I seal my fa­ther’s lips

with my own & be­gin the faith­ful work of drown­ing.

An­other poem, Note­book Frag­ments, be­gins as a col­lage of jot­tings, some va­pid (“Life is funny”) or jokey (“Why do all my books leave me empty-handed?”), be­fore the poem de­vel­ops mo­men­tum and fo­cus, re­turn­ing to an ad­dressee, a lover, or the fig­ure of a lover: “he had the hands/ of some­one I used to know. Some­one I was used to.”

Vuong’s roomy, cool, risky poems are more than promis­ing, and this is an ex­cit­ing and com­pelling book.

Por­trait of Michael Lon­g­ley by Basil Black­shaw: for all its look­ing back, the poet’s book feels cu­ri­ously time­less

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Ireland

© PressReader. All rights reserved.