Time period: 1966-1972

Poet: Michael Longley

Permanent URL: http://pid.emory.edu/ark:/25593/17m3s


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Emily Dickinson, I think of you

Wakening early each morning to write,

Dressing with care for the act of poetry.

Yours is always a perfect progress through

Such cluttered rooms to eloquence, delight,

To words - your window on the mystery.

By christening the world you live and pray --

Within those lovely titles in contained

The large philosophy you tend towards:

Within your lexicon the birds that play

Beside your life, the wind that holds your hand

Are recognised. Your poems are full of words.

In your house in Amherst Massachusetts,

Though like love letters you lock them away,

The poems are ubiquitous as dust.

You sit there writing while the light permits --

While you grow older they increase each day,

Gradual as flowers, gradual as rust.

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To whom certain water talents --

Webbed feet, oils - do not occur,

Regulates his liquid acre

From the sky, his proper element.

There, already, his eye removes

The trout each fathom magnifies.

He lives, without compromise,

His unamphibious two lives --

An inextinguishable bird whom

No lake's waters waterlog.

He shakes his feathers like a dog.

It's all of air that ferries him.

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My father, let no similes eclipse

Where crosses like some forest simplified

Sink roots into my mind, the slow sands

Of your history delay till through your eyes

I read you like a book. Before you died,

Re-enlisting with all the broken soldiers

You bent beneath your rucksack, near collapse,

In anecdote rehearsed and summarised

These words I write in memory. Let yours

And other heartbreaks play into my hands.

Now I see close-up, in my mind's eye,

The cracked and splintered dead for pity's sake

Each dismal evening predecease the sun,

You, looking death and nightmare in the face

With your kilt, harmonica and gun,

Grow older in a flash, but none the wiser

(Who, following the wrong queue at The Palace,

Have joined the London Scottish by mistake),

Your nineteen years uncertain if and why

Belgium put the kibosh on the Kaiser.

Between the corpses and the soup canteens

You swooned away, watching your future spill.

But, as it was, your proper funeral urn

Had mercifully smashed to smithereens,

To shrapnel shards that sliced your testicles.

That instant I, your most unlikely son,

In No Man's Land was surely left for dead,

Blotted out from your far horizon.

As your voice now is locked inside my head,

I yet was held secure, waiting my turn.

Finally, that lousy war was over.

Stranded in France and in need of proof

You hunted down experimental lovers,

Persuading chorus girls and countesses:

This, father, the last confidence you spoke.

In my twentieth year your old wounds woke

As cancer. Lodging under the same roof

Death was a visitor who hung about,

Strewing the house with pills and bandages,

Till he chose to put your spirit out.

Though they overslept the sequence of events

Which ended with the ambulance outside,

You lingering in the hall, your bowels on fire,

Tears in your eyes, and all your medals spent,

I summon girls who packed at last and went

Underground with you. Their souls again on hire,

Now those lost wives as recreated brides

Take shape before me, materialise.

On the verge of light and happy legend

They lift their skirts like blinds across your eyes.

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Your uncle, totem and curator bends

Above your cot. It is you I want to see.

Your cry comes out like an eleison.

Only the name tag round your wrist extends

My surprised compassion to loyalty.

Your mother tells me you are my godson.

The previous room still moulds your shape

Which lies unwashed, out of its element,

Smelling like rain on soil. I stoop to lift

You out of bed and into my landscape,

Last arrival, obvious immigrant

Wearing the fashions of the place you left.

As winds are balanced in a swaying tree

I cradle your cries. And in my arms reside,

Till you fall asleep, your uncontended

Demands that the world be your nursery.

And I, a spokesman of that world outside,

Creation's sponsor, stand dumbfounded,

Although there is such a story to unfold

-- Whether as forecast or reminder --

Of cattle steaming in their byres, and sheep

Beneath a hedge, arranged against the cold,

Our cat at home blinking by the fender,

The wolf treading its circuits towards sleep.

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Exhaled at dawn with the cattle's breath

Out of the reticent illfitting earth,

Acre on acre the mushroom grew -

Bonus and bounty socketed askew.

Across the fields, as though to confound

Our processions and those underground

Accumulations, secret marriages,

We drew together by easy stages.

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I see as through 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.

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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 mist 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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Conveyed here in what ship of death

- Citations and their death throes,

Epitaphs, each last breath -

Our godforsaken heroes,

Outlandish dead beneath whose

Medals memory lies bruised.


Imagine among these meadows

Where the soldiers sink to dust

An aftermath with swallows

Lifting blood on their breasts

Up to the homely gables, and like

A dark cross overhead the hawk.

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So much is implied on that furthest strand -

The stranger's face of course, his outstretched hand,

Houses and harbours, shillings, pence and wars,

Troy's seven layers, the canals of Mars.

To lighthouse-keepers and their like I say -

Let solitude be named Man Friday:

Our folk may muster then, even the dead,

Footprint follow footprint through my head.

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