A Hundred Doors
Wake Forest University Press, 2011
80 pp., $12.95
Faber & Faber, 2011
55 pp., $22.50
What to Read for St. Patrick's Day
Sometimes it becomes necessary to take those long-held rituals and holiday observations and sweep them away. Just clear them out. Experience the whole thing differently. Find a new way to honor or remember or celebrate. These past few weeks have brought the expected notices for St. Patrick's Day: specials on corned beef and cabbage, green beer, green bow-ties, various holiday events to be held in Irish-like pubs that are closer in spirit to Dubuque than Dublin. In Chicago, they dye the river green. This sounded novel and exciting during my first year in the area. And then it didn't, although I wish the best to those who continually enjoy this limited-range phenomenon, year after year. Knock yourself out. Here's one admittedly biased suggestion: let's celebrate Ireland and the Irish by involving ourselves on the big day with something they have long valued, and that they are exceedingly good at—literature. A lot of the names are instantly recognizable: Wilde, Yeats, Synge, Joyce. Patrick Kavanagh and Edna O'Brien more recently. Ireland has been an incredible cradle for poets: in our time, Heaney, Muldoon, Boland, Mahon, McGuckian, Chuilleanáin (writing in English), and Ní Dhomhnaill (in Irish).
I would like to commend here two less recognized voices who in any other context, in a less splendidly crowded field, would have a far greater international readership: Michael Longley, who has had for several years an American publisher (Wake Forest University Press) and has at least some following among U.S. poetry readers, and Bernard O'Donoghue, less known here but highly regarded in Britain. Last summer, when I first encountered O'Donoghue's book reviewed here, it was featured on bookstore display tables in the UK. In multiple bookstores. Tell me which volumes by American poets rate that treatment. Those who know Irish poetry would typically place Longley and O'Donoghue among the premier contemporary English-language poets without hesitation. Both would be ideal discoveries for a St. Patrick's Day change of pace; both are filled with the sort of music that Ireland's poets regularly draw from language. Maybe these poems will refresh the way Longley describes the sea breeze in "At Dawn," when he walks among the "wind-rattled gates": "The westerly blew me wren-song, then / Wing-music."
Prominent in Longley's A Hundred Doors are the crisply described landscapes of Carrigskeewaun, a townland in County Mayo, northwestern Ireland. The keen-eyed and keen-eared poet renders the "bird's-foot trefoil / Among the wild thyme," the "otter-rumours" and "insomniac curlew." Often there is lyric pleasure in the thing clearly apprehended, as if taken from a naturalist's notebook:
Frosty Carrigskeewaun. I am breaking ice
Along the salt marsh's soggy margins
And scaring field fares out of the holly bush […]
It is simply seen but linguistically charged: notice the 'r' and 'g' sounds cinching the first two lines, and in the third, the internal rhyme (scaring / fares) and the accelerating effects of those short syllables, as if the last prepositional phrase sends the birds flying in its movement. Here, on facing pages, a swan becomes "dawn-memory, / Little zenith-lingerer," present next to a swan's egg with its "alabaster emptiness" in a collector's cabinet.
This human or relational presence in the natural world is a representative feature in Longley's work. Many of the poems with Carrigskeewaun settings commemorate his grandchildren's visits there, and times with family and friends generally. There's a lullaby for this person, a garland for that one. He writes of his second grandson, "Your forefinger twitches inside its mitten"; another poem commemorates another grandson's first night there. Two side-by-side poems, "Foxgloves" and "Mars," treat history in vastly different scales. The first describes the return home of "our first-born," now a grown woman, who spots a bedside photograph of her mother pregnant with her, taken by the speaker, her father, forty years ago. The focus is on the young couple that the parents were then, with the years and children ahead of them: "Because the marram grass is damp and sandy / I have spread a yellow oilskin under you." "Mars" is more cosmic by contrast, as the poet contemplates the planet's orbit and the growth of a beech tree within prior eras (Neanderthals, United Irishmen) and a single, personal life span. A few poems here are touching elegies: one pays tribute to the proprietor of a pub in Louisburgh, while a more ceremonial poem honoring the Irish playwright Sam Thompson focuses on a brass-handled fire poker.
The title poem refers to a Byzantine church on the Greek island of Paros, and a few poems commemorate a jaunt to the United States: "Visiting Stanley Kunitz" is a touching record of one poet honoring another ("What flower can I offer you / From Ireland? … Let it be / Spring gentian"), and "Footnote" captures a manuscript errand in the New York Public Library's Berg Collection, carried out for Longley's spouse, Edna Longley, an influential literary critic. Here he is reading the writing of Edward Thomas, one of the great English poets of the Great War, and that fighting has haunted Longley through his career. One poem versifies the citation for his own father's Military Cross, and in another he and his father, "both old soldiers now," are compared with Socrates at Delion and Idomeneus and King Priam from the Iliad. A powerful four-line poem transposes Christ's washing his disciples' feet to the Belgian front: "He has an endless supply of talcum / And old newspapers for lining their boots. / He is promoted after Passchendaele."