Time period: 1963-1966
Poet: Michael Longley
Permanent URL: http://pid.emory.edu/ark:/25593/17m2n
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
DEATH, LIKE ALL YOUR HABITS, CAME TO STAY,
DARED FACE YOUR MUSIC, TOOK YOUR BREATH AWAY.
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?
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.