Snow Water

by Michael Longley
ISBN: 0224072579

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A Review of: Snow Water
by Michael Kinsella

Michael Longley has written some of the finest war poems in the English language. Born and brought up in Belfast, Longley, like many Irish poets, has felt a responsibility to respond to the violence in Ulster. "Wreaths" from The Echo Gate (1979) is a well-known sequence of harrowing poems that bring us into the homes and lives of those who have suffered. The intimacy and the pity of the sequence are in its details-the wife of a murdered civil servant who "took a hammer and chisel/ And removed the black keys from his piano"; the tangerines, dates, chestnuts sold by a greengrocer before he was shot dead in his shop; the spectacles, wallets, small change of the ten linen workers massacred by a roadside. And then there is the famous "Ceasefire" from The Ghost Orchid (1995). The poem is, in part, Longley's response to the quieting of hostilities in the North. But, more generally, it is a plea for the intelligence of humility and restraint, reminding us of the trouble we must go to, in the end, to resolve all conflict:

Put in mind of his own father and moved to tears
Achilles took him by the hand and pushed the old
Gently away, but Priam curled up at this feet and
Wept with him until their sadness filled the building.

Taking Hector's corpse into his own hands Achilles
Made sure it was washed and, for the old king's sake,
Laid out in uniform, ready for Priam to carry
Wrapped like a present home to Troy at daybreak.

When they had eaten together, it pleased them both
To stare at each other's beauty as lovers might,
Achilles built like a god, Priam good-looking still
And full of conversation, who earlier had sighed:

I get down on my knees and do what must be done
And kiss Achilles' hand, the killer of my son.'

This is a monumental poem. Those numerals not only suggest the passing of the hours, they are like the pillars of some great memorial building. Rarely has a poem ever incorporated such a sense of emptiness and stillness. Longley's ability to contain such quiet in his work might well have been learned from his own period of silence when he did not publish a poem for twelve years, a period of silence which ended with Gorse Fires (1991). This is not to underplay the seriousness of this artistic "crisis", as he has called it, but to recognize how that silence has likely informed his writing.
Like his war poems, Longley's elegies are compassionate, even intimate in their awareness of the despair of others. We might think of the much anthologised "In Memoriam" from No Continuing City (1969) or a later piece such as "The War Graves" from The Weather in Japan (2000), both of which are expressions of loss and love for different types of father figures-his actual father and those literary fore-fathers of the trenches, Edward Thomas and Wilfred Own. As in the "The Snow Leopard" (in memory of Fiona Jackson, 1970-1995) with its final mythicised image-"The snow leopard that vanishes in a whirlwind of snow,/ Can be seen stalking on soft paws among the clouds"- Longley's elegies are very often as tender and as magical as his love poems. "In Mayo" from Man Lying on a Wall (1976) and "An Amish Rug" from Gorse Fires (1991) are two wonderful examples, both gentle accounts of married life. And there can be a shyness to these studies of love and passion, even in Longley's more erotic pieces like "The Linen Industry" from The Echo Gate (1979).
The erotic also finds its way into Longley's botanical studies. "Botany", for instance, is a wonderful caressing of duckweed, foxglove, dock and orchid. And part of the pleasure of reading Longley's verse is the sheer multiplicity of natural things-plovers, butterflies, bats and badgers, spring tides and a whole climate of change. Nature for Longley is both marvelous and shocking, excessive and beautiful in its violent energies-swans mating, an otter gazing right through the poet. This view of the natural world exposes the cosy charm of greeny pastoral. And although he would call himself an amateur, cataloguing the flora and fauna of the west of Ireland, where he has turned his second home at Carrigskeewaun into his own Galapagos, it is one of the things he does best. Perhaps the most celebrated catalogue in Longley's work is "The Ice-cream Man" from Gorse Fires. There the poet lists "all the wild flowers of the Burren" as a response to the sectarian murder of a Belfast man; a record of names, as Longley has said elsewhere, that is meant to go on forever: "thyme, valerian, loosestrife,/ Meadowsweet, tway blade, crowfoot, ling, angelica . . ." However, for the blurb to Snow Water to suggest that "what Longley says of Edward Thomas might easily be said of him: The nature poet turned into a war poet as if/ He could cure death with the rub of a dock leaf,'" is to misunderstand nature as perhaps the most complex theme in Longley's poetry.
Were we to take the hint from his poem "The Waterfall, from The Weather in Japan (2000), and read his "life's work, at the one sitting," including Snow Water, what we find is that nature is a synthesis of the beautiful and the predatory in plant and animal life; it is what we consider most brilliant and most troubling about human nature; it is, at once, apolitical and the holding field for political diversity. (Indeed, we might note that the "unnatural", the whole idea of anything being outside nature, is something conspicuously absent from Longley's language.) This is a poetry that stresses the fundamental interrelatedness of all things-sex, death, art, conflict, nature. And it is precisely because of this synthesis that the poet cannot claim that nature, or for that matter poetry, has curative powers. Through the natural regenerative forces of biology, through poetic arrangement, wounds may be attended to, cleansed, dressed, redressed-Longley as nurse. But this poet is too modest and self-effacing to advertise either as miracle cures. There is something far more compelling going on in Longley's work in general, and in Snow Water in particular, than the promotion of nature as a source of reparation.
As with his previous collections, the poems in Snow Water are fastidiously made. A superb example is "Pipistrelle":

They kept him alive for years in warm water,
The soldier who had lost his skin.
At night

He was visited by the wounded bat
He had unfrozen after Passchendaele,

Locking its heels under his forefinger
And whispering into the mousy fur.

Before letting the pipistrelle flicker
Above his summery pool and tipple there,

He spread the wing-hand, elbow to thumb.
The membrane felt like a poppy petal.

This is a delicate murmur of a poem. Look at the way the words "At night" are allowed to flicker outside the other lines of the poem like the presence of the bat itself. Breathtaking in its tenderness, compassionate as the small comfort the soldier gets from the bat's visits, who else but Longley could have linked the membrane of the animal's tiny "wing-hand" with the symbol of remembrance for those who died in war: the poppy. If this poem and others in Snow Water are about small comforts, they are also some about the heartbroken-"An October Sun", for example, an elegy for another wonderful Irish poet, Michael Hartnett. Longley writes, "Something inconsolable in you looks me in the eye." He then goes on to say that "good poems" are "comfortlessly constructed", yet he insists, "Michael, your/ Poems endure the downpour like the skylark's/ Chilly hallelujah, the robin's autumn song."
This pessimistic note, the "inconsolable", does not, however, signal that Longley has changed direction, as some critics and reviewers have been keen to suggest; their views tell us nothing more than how readers of his poetry have been inclined to over-emphasise the role of consolation in Longley's work. What we have instead, in "An October Sun" and in Snow Water, is what we have come to expect, a poetry of human responses and perspectives. The poems, like the poet's favourite themes-war poems set in ancient and modern times, elegies, love or marriage poems, sonnets on creatures and artists-melt into each other.
The lines of verse are, as always, immaculately cadenced. The measured rhythms of the poet's voice emphasise a need for vigilance and restraint. (It's quite impossible to imagine a Longley lyric that has lost all self-control). For it is ritual that sustains this poet, the power of naming and arranging. After all, "poetry", as Longley has said in Poetry Ireland Review, "is mainly about putting the right word in the right place." In other words, poetry is about composure, with all its attendant meanings.
One way of retaining composure is through ceremony. And just as in The Weather in Japan, with its Zen wisdom and poems as tight as haiku, in Snow Water Longley continues to import the exquisite formalities of oriental culture into an Irish setting-the poet's "wee transcendental mountain cottage" in Mayo. There he lives a scrumptious life, overdosing on "jasmine tea and/ moon cakes", a "connoisseur" of highly refined delights, taking pleasure, as in the title poem, in delectable brands of tea, "favourites include Clear/ Distance and Eyebrows of Longevity." But the poems in this collection are not only about the genteel ceremonies of "tea steam and ink stains." Ceremony, in Snow Water, has a solemnity. "Sleep & Death" is one example. There we are returned to Troy to watch the preparation of Sarpedon's corpse. The body is washed in "running water", preserved in oil, wrapped in "imperishable fabrics", before "his family will bury him with grave-mound/ And grave-stone, the entitlement of the dead." There is a similar, but more magical and musical ceremony for the dead in "Ceilidh", where in a final dream-like image, the poet sees, "Through the tide and over the Owennadornaun/ Are shouldered the coffins of the thirteen O'Tooles."
Funerals and marriages often form a strange and interesting confluence in Longley's work. In Snow Water, the public and private side of the ceremonial is part and parcel of "The Pattern". The poet, on his thirty-sixth wedding anniversary, finds his wife's Vogue pattern for her wedding dress: "Complicated instructions for stitching bodice/ And skirt, box pleats and hems, tissue-paper outlines,/ Semblances of skin which I nervously unfold". The ritual he goes through of unfolding the tissue paper, the re-reading of the dress-making instructions, seem to be part of a respectful, slightly sexual, re-living of old intimacies. Like the unwrapping of things, the giving of a gift, that had been swaddled in the poet's underclothes, becomes part of a symbolic performance in the poem "Two Skunks". Here the presentation of the small glass ornament signifies the closeness between two old friends.
The ceremonious in Snow Water's nature poems is less easy to spot, but is perhaps all the more interesting because of it. The recurring images-and these are not, by any means, the only recurring images-of swans, or the poet's counting of snow geese, or the snowy owl, or white butterflies, or the white feather of a heron, or the cleansing Snow Water of Troy, or the image of an iron sculpture covered in snow, or snowy weather or the final epigram to the book, "feathers on water/ a snowfall of swans/ snow water", are all a part of a careful poetic ritual which gives Snow Water a delicate and beautifully orchestrated movement.
Like the notes of music and sycamore leaves carried to all corners of the battlefield (as in "Sycamore") or a harmonica playing, out in no man's land, a music-hall favourite that "lasts until the end of time," (as in "Harmonica") there is an awesome, tender and terrible symmetry to Longley's exquisite observations, which are, in effect, similar to the other stories he has told in catalogues. What we find in Snow Water is an appreciation of nature which is not simply some sort of taxonomy, but rather a ceremony that is meant to go on forever, trickling through the lives and the lost lives of those in the poetry. Here is poetry of "elegance and pain", white as a cenotaph.

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