POEMS BY MICHAEL LONGLEY

Time period: 1963-1966

Poet: Michael Longley

Permanent URL: http://pid.emory.edu/ark:/25593/17m2n

Sources: Belfast Creative Writing Group 1963-6; Michael Longley papers, 1960-2000


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DR. JOHNSON ON THE HEBRIDES

The Hebridean gales mere sycophants,

So many loyal Boswells at his heel -

Yet the farflung outposts of experience

In the end undo a Roman wall,

The measured style. London is so far-

Each windswept strait he would encompass

Gives the unsinkable lexicographer

His reflection in its shattered glass.

He trudges off in the midst and the rain

Where only the thickest skin survives,

Among the rocks construes himself again,

Lifts through those altering perspectives

His downcast eyes, riding out the brainstorm,

His weatherproof enormous head at home.


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LEAVING INISHMORE

Rain and sunlight and the boat between then

Shifted whole hillsides through the afternoon -

Quiet variations on an urgent theme

Reminding me now that we left too soon

The island awash in wave and tnthem.

Miles from the brimming enclave of the bay

I hear again the Atlantic's voices,

The gulls above us as we pulled away -

So munificent their final noises

These are the broadcasts from our holiday.

Oh, the crooked walkers on that tilting floor!

And the girls singing on the upper deck

Whose hair rook the light like a downpour -

Interim nor change of scene shall shipwreck

Those folk on the move between shore and shore.

Summer and solstice as the seasons turn

Anchor our boat in a perfect standstill,

The harbour wall of Inishmore astern

Where the Atlantic waters overspill -

I shall name this the point of no return

Lest that excursion out of light and heat

Take on a January idiom -

Our ocean icebound when the year is hurt,

Wintertime past cure - the curriculum

Vitae of sailors and the sick at heart.


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CAMOUFLAGE

Our towns decayed, our gardens overgrown,

Weather we lament, the ivy creeping -

No matter what the setting, we are shown

(Whose one peculiar knack is weeping)

To differ from the beasts because they own

Those landscapes with which they are in keeping.

The leopard's coat accepting light through leaves,

Giraffes whose necks presume that certain trees

Are tall, whose elongated stance relieves

Those boughs of height's responsibilities, -

Such attributes a balanced world conceives,

Itself reflected, its streams reflecting these.

We's say they choose a mood to linger at:

Like white for weddings, black for funerals,

It turns to habit - Then to habitat,

So deftly not a single one recalls

What he's exemplar of: more likely that

One long enlightened dawn these animals,

Betrayed by awkward mornings for an age,

By their furs and feathers long forsaken,

Put the usual scenery to advantage

But are nonetheless obliged to waken

(Amid the sanctuary of camouflage)

To a change of colour, a risk taken.


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PERSEPHONE

1

I see as through a skylight in my brain

The mole strew its buildings in the rain,

The swallows turn above their broken homes

And all my acres in delirium.

2

Straightjacketed by cold and numskulled

Now sleep the welladjusted and the skilled -

The bat folds its wing like a winter leaf,

The squirrel in its hollow holds aloof.

3

The weasel and ferret, the stoat and fox

Move hand in glove across the equinox.

I can tell how softly their footsteps go -

Their footsteps borrow silence from the snow.


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TO DEREK MAHON

You alone read every birthmark,

Only for you the tale it tells -

Idiot children in the dark

Criminals in their prison cells -

These are the poems we cannot write.

Though we deny them name and birth,

Locked out from rhyme and lexicon

The ghosts still gather round our hearth

Whose bed and board makes up the whole -

Thief, murderer and clown - icon

And lares of the poet's soul.


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A WORKING HOLIDAY

Water through the window, the light and shade

Fill up my head once more as I distil

All that sunshine in the glass of lemonade

John left overnight on the windowsill.

And though it was the far end of my teens

I can hear him ringing bells, hear his shout -

Though my Greek's now locked in the past tense

Down the long corridors I just make out

Our classics master - "very eccentric" -

Breaking the dreams of our three week's stay

To get us up for breakfast and for Greek -

"Because this is a working holiday."

Into the back of my mind it all fits -

The house by the lake, Mrs Quirk

- The Keeper of the Two Colossal Tits -

Who came in to cook and do the housework.

The scholarly boy we all misunderstood,

His voice breaking, ahead of us a year,

Buck teeth champing the subjunctive mood.

His nickname was LAGOS - the Greek for HARE.

David swam naked in the pouring rain,

His foreskin like a turkey's wattle.

John's glass eye a shard of porcelain -

My comrades, in the morning doing battle

With the Greek New Testament again - Acts

Of the Apostles - each of us a warden

Of views beyond our books which now contract

To Mrs Quirk by lunchtime in the garden

Gliding towards us like a huge balloon,

Behind her the water where the boat was -

The old boat which, even that afternoon,

Would be too frail to stomach all of us.


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WORDS FOR JAZZ PERHAPS

I Elegy for Fats Waller

Lighting up, lest all our hearts should break,

His fiftieth cigarette of the day,

Happy with so many notes at his beck

And call, he sits there taking it away,

The maker of immaculate slapstick.

With music and with such precise rampage

Across the deserts of the blues a trail

He blazes, towards the one true mirage,

Enormous on a nimble-footed camel

And almost refusing to be his age.

He plays for hours on end and though there be

Oases one part water, two parts gin,

He tumbles past to reign, wise and thirsty,

At the still centre of his loud dominion -

THE SHOOK, THE SHAKE, THE SHEIKH OF ARABY.

II BILLIE HOLIDAY (An Epitaph)

DEATH, LIKE ALL YOUR HABITS, CAME TO STAY,

DARED FACE YOUR MUSIC, TOOK YOUR BREATH AWAY.

III BUD FREEMAN IN BELFAST (November 1965)

Fog horn and factory siren intercept

Each fragile hoarded-up refrain. What else

Is there to do but let those notes erupt.

Until your fading last glissando settles

Among all other sounds - carefully wrapped

In the cotton wool from aspirin bottles?

IV TO BESSIE SMITH

You bring from Chattanooga Tennessee

Your huge voice to the back of my mind

Where, like sea shells salvaged from the sea

As bright reminders of a few week's stay,

Some random notes are all I ever find.

I couldn't play your records every day.

I think of tra-ra-rossan, Inisheer,

Of Harris drenched by horizontal rain -

Those landscapes I must visit year by year.

I do not live with sounds so seasonal

Nor set up house for good. Your blues contain

Each longed-for holiday, each terminal.

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