Richard Scott reviews
A Hundred Doors
by Michael Longley
A Hundred Doors is Michael Longley’s ninth collection of poetry and it begins with a visit to his beloved Carrigskeewaun in County Mayo, a place that he has always said ‘changed his life radically’. In the first poem ‘Call’ he is seated at the edge of the millennium wondering if it is too late to call a friend at midnight, he hears ‘a meadow pipit calling out’ and then his consciousness is dragged deeper into the landscape; Longley becomes aware that ‘three dolphins are passing the Carricknashinnagh shoal’ offshore. ‘Call’ starts with the explicit suggestion that the poet has merged with the landscape, but as the poem continues we see Longley imagining himself into his friend’s sitting room as the New Years Eve fire makes the cottage too hot, thinking ‘how snugly the meadow pipit fits the merlin’s foot’; a subtle reminder that everything in nature has its place, perhaps ours is home, or at the very least a responsible way away from certain aspects of the natural world.
The landscape, animals and plants are heavily political for Longley, who has said that ‘the most urgent political problems are ecological: how we share the planet with the plants and the other animals’. The book is indeed dense with wildflowers and birds, but, as is his want, these are not simple bucolic references, they often hint at something much darker. In ‘Gardening In Cardoso’ the ‘Wildflowers become weeds’ as:
the wild fig tree,
It roots under the casa
Squeezing our waterpipes
(‘Gardening In Cardoso’)
Longley wants to convey the landscape’s power and its struggle to reclaim a place in both poetry and amid our human interventions. But then there are poems like ‘A Swan’s Egg’ where nature seems very helpless in the face of human recklessness. Longley imagines himself an egg collector filling a cabinet ‘with bird silences,/ Feathery non-exsistences’ but he doesn’t judge or condemn he simply lets the horrific image of this awful and now illegal antique trophy pervade the poem.
Longley is adept at writing poems about Greek mythology and the poem ‘Cygnus’ arrives towards the end of the book like a gift for those who were waiting. The poem is utterly violent and horrendous, Longley has never been one to let historical violences and battles acquire a rose coloured tint, Achilles ‘kneels on ribcage and adam’s apple/
And thrapples Cygnus’s windpipe with his helmet-tongs’. But Cygnus, the son of Neptune who was fabled to be equally as impervious to harm as Achilles, survives his bastardly suffocation by transforming into a swan:
Protrude as a knobbly beak through which he wheezes
And he is transformed into a –
Whilst Longley uses the mythological to reference current and ongoing violence he also does not forget the wars of his lifetime. In ‘Citation’ he calls his father’s military cross citation ‘better than a poem’ and goes on to list his father’s heroism, Longley would appear to be suggesting he is in his father’s debt as the last two lines of the poem flash forward to present day ‘kept alive by his war cry and momentum/ I shiver behind him on the fire-step’. A Hundred Doors is rich in family, there is a talismanic poem dedicated to each of his seven grandchildren.
The two finest poems in A Hundred Doors are the elegies to the poet Dorothy Molloy and the surrealist painter Colin Middleton. Both elegies are suffused with a respect for death, how it alone can stop creativity. In ‘White Farmhouse’ Longley writes how:
Middleton knew that he was dying,
And fitted all the colours he had ever used
Into his last painting
And in ‘The Holly Bush’ Dorothy Molloy who only produced one book in her lifetime, ‘Your first and last slim volume’, keeps company with the poets she loved. The figures themselves fall into the landscape as ‘Golden plovers – a hundred or more – turn/ And give back dawn-light from their undersides’. These birds are performing a solemn but joyous eulogy for Molloy. And in ‘White Farmhouse’ Middleton’s colours soon merge with the land and disappear ‘between Octobery hedges’. Longley’s ten year long writers block couldn’t stop him from going on to produce some of his most incredible work, so it stands to reason that he sees old age and death, whilst being incredibly natural and part of the landscape, as the single thing which stops artists and poets in their tracks.
As the book ends Longley muses upon his own career, in ‘Proofs’ he asks what he would add to the proofs of his collected poems, a some fifty years of writing. The answer is:
A razor shell,
A mermaid’s purse, some relic of this windless
Sea-roar-surrounded February quietude?
Again fragments from the natural world are elevated to become poetry’s equal in Longley’s mind.
These poems are dense on the page, many of them refusing to break into stanzas, rather taking a heftier truncated appearance; they are like charms, full of herbs and wildflowers but also of human experience and a worry of death. Longley was correct when he wrote in the poem ‘Ghost Orchid’, ‘Ours was a language of flowers’.
Richard Scott was a student on the Faber Academy Poetry Course and has recently been selected as a 2011 Jerwood/ Arvon poetry mentee. He lives in London and works as a musician.