BOOKS / Contemporary Poets: 7 Michael Longley

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The Independent Culture
Born in Belfast in 1939, a contemporary of Seamus Heaney and Derek Mahon, Michael Longley made his name with four collections published between 1969 and 1979, including An Exploded View and The Echo Gate. For many years he worked for the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. After a 12-year silence, he returned triumphantly last year with Gorse Fires, whose elegiac hush, sensitivity to landscape, and mix of Ulster history and classical mythology are in evidence again here.



The headstone for my parents' grave in Drumbo churchyard

I have imagined only: a triangular slab from the spiral

Staircase in the round tower that nearly overshadows them,

A stumpy ruin beside which I have seen myself standing

And following everyone's forefinger up into the sky.


Because he had survived in a coracle made out of feathers

I want to ask him about the lock-keeper's house at Newforge

Where a hole grows in the water, and about the towpath

That follows the Styx as far as the Minnowburn Beeches

And the end of his dream, and about the oars like wings.


As though her ashes had been its cargo when the ice-boat

Was rocked at dawn like a cradle and hauled from Shaw's

Bridge past Drumbo and Drumbeg, all the way to Aghalee,

I can hear in the frosty air above Acheron ice cracking

And the clatter of horses' hooves on the slippery towpath.


The wreck at Thallabaun whose timbers whistle in the wind

The tunes of shipwright, sawyer, cabinet-maker - adze

And axe and chisel following the grain - is my blue-print

For the ship of death, wood as hard as stone that keeps

Coming ashore with its cargo of sand and sandy water.

(Photograph omitted)