Time period: 1963-1966

Poet: Michael Longley

Permanent URL: http://pid.emory.edu/ark:/25593/17m66


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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.

You would know

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.

[Encoder's note: On the poem worksheet, the last line of the first stanza, "Your mother tells me you are my godson" has been underlined. The phrase "You would know" has been written in the left margin.]

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The freeze-up annexes the sea even,

Putting out over the waves its platform.

Let skies fall, the fox's belly cave in --

This catastrophic shortlived reform

Directs to our homes the birds of heaven.

They come on farfetched winds to keep us warm.


Bribing these with bounty, we would rather

Forget our hopes of thaw when spring will clean

The boughs, dust from our sills snow and feather,

Release to its decay and true decline

The bittern whom this different weather

Cupboarded in ice like a specimen.

[Encoder's note: On the poem worksheet, the word "Romantic" has been handwritten in the left margin near the final line of the first stanza.]

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(with apologies to S. Heaney Esq.)

And, summing up, I think of when

With cloud and cloudburst you confer,

By God's sheer genius lifted there,

Lighthearted starling, nervous wren.

It is perfection you rehearse --

God placed the limpet on a rock,

He dressed the primrose in its frock upside down with its leg showing

And closed the chestnut in its purse:

Creating one more precedent,

With no less forethought, no less care

He gave you feathers and the air

To migrate to his best intent.

To useful angles well aligned,

At proper heights compelled to tilt,

Across kind landscapes yearly spilt --

Birds, you are always on his mind.

Quick emblems of his long estate,

It's good to have you overhead

Who understand when all is said,

When all is done, and it is late.

May my sermon, like your customs,

Reach suddenly beyond dispute --

Oh, birds entire and absolute,

Last birds above our broken homes.

[Encoder's note: On the poem worksheet, the phrase "in its frock" has been underlined, with "upside down with its leg showing" handwritten in the right margin.]

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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 -


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These are the small hours when

Moths by their fatal appetite

Which thatbrings them tapping to get in,

Are steered along the night

To where our window catches light.

Who hazard all to be

Where we, the only two it seems,

Inhabit so delightfully

A room it bursts its seams

And spills onto the lawn in beams,

Such visitors as these

Reflect with eyes like frantic stars

This garden's brightest properties,

Cruising its corridors

Of light above the folded flowers,

Till our vicinity

Is rendered royal by their flight

Towards us, till more silently

The silent stars ignite,

Their aeons dwindling by a night,

And everything seems bent

On robing in this evening you

And me, all dark the element

Our light is earnest to,

All quiet gathered round us who,

When over the embankments

A train that's loudly reprobate

Shoots from silence into silence

With easy eaccomodate

Its pandemonium, its freight.

I hold you close because

We have decided dark will be

For ever like this and because,

My love, already

The dark is growing elderly.

With dawn upon its way,

Punctually and as a rule,

The small hours widening into day,

Our room its vestibule

Before it fills all houses full,

We too must hazard all,

Switch off the lamp without a word

For the last of night assembled

Over it and unperturbed

By the moth that lies there littered,

And notice how the trees

Which took on anonymity

Are again in their huge histories

Displayed, that wherever we

Attempt and as far as we can see,

The flowers everywhere

Are withering, the stars dissolved,

Amalgamated in a glare,

Which last night were revolved

Discreetly round us - and, involved,

The two of us, in these

Which early morning has deformed,

Must hope that in new properties

We'll find a uniform

To know each other truly by, or,

At the least, that these will,

When we rise, be seen with dawn

As remnant yet part raiment still,

Like flags that linger on

The sky when king and queen are gone.

[Encoder's note: On the poem worksheet, the typed word "Which" in the third line has been crossed out, and the word "that" handwritten in the left margin.]

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Amateur witches and professional virgins,

Sirens and shepherdesses - all new areas

Of experience (I have been out of touch) -

Ladies you are so many and various

You will have to put up with me, for your sins,

A stranger to your islands who knows too much.

Your coy advertisements for bed and breakfast

I take as read, if I feel inclined -

So easy-going am I through going steady

(Your photographs will never hang in my mind)

With one ear cocked for the weather forecast

I come ashore to you who remind me,

And, going out of my way to take a rest,

From seasickness and the sea recuperate,

The sad fleets of capsized skulls behind me

And the wide garden they decorate.

Grant me anchorage as your paying guest -

Landladies, I have been too long at sea.

When I sight you playing ball on the sand,

A suggestion of hair under your arms,

Or, in swallows, wearing only the waves,

I unpack strictly avuncular charms -

To lose these sea legs I walk on land:

I linger till my boat fills up with leaves,

With snow or sunshine (whichever I prefer).

I see your islands as the residue

Of my sailor days, of this life afloat,

My lonely motive to abandon you,

Darlings, after each whirlwind love affair

Becalmed in logbook and in anecdote.

You have kept me going despite delays -

On these devious shores where we coincide

I have never once outstayed my welcome

Though you all seem last resorts, my brides,

Your faces favourite landmarks always,

Your bodies comprising the long way home.

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