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Snow Water.

Snow Water by Michael Longley, Wake Forest University Press, 2004, $11.95 paper, ISBN 193063014X.

Two days after the first IRA ceasefire in Northern Ireland in 1994, the Irish poet Michael Longley published a poem in the Irish Times. "Ceasefire," a Homeric passage condensed into a sonnet, closes with an unrelenting downward pull of rhyme: "'I get down on my knees and do what must be done / And kiss Achilles' hand, the killer of my son.'" Rarely have classical allusion and syntactical movement enacted this exactly the compromise of an era.

While less call exists for such gestures in his most recent volume, Snow Water, Longley's poetry still sounds a voice for those who have suffered (and suffered over decisions) in the past. In Snow Water some of the strongest poems are war poems that pay homage to poets of the Great War, most prominently Edward Thomas ("The nature poet turned into a war poet as if / He could cure death with the rub of a dock leaf"). Longley himself is often described as a nature poet, which somewhat belies the complexity of his stance. As he claims, "The most urgent political problems are ecological: how we share the planet with the plants and the other animals. My nature writing is my most political.... Describing the world in a meticulous way is a consecration and a stay against damaging dogmatism."

In the past thirty years Longley has penned over a dozen volumes of poetry, including Gorse Fires which won the Whitbread Prize in 1991 and Weather in Japan (2000) which garnered him the T. S. Eliot Poetry Prize and the Hawthornden Prize. Younger Irish poets look to him rather than to his peer Seamus Heaney as a model of quiet reflection on the familiar. Whatever Longley attends to--whether war poetry revivified, the minutiae of the landscape he lives in, its flora and ornithology, or Homeric retellings--he describes with the same honoring accuracy. As for much of Irish poetry, the political is always part of the evocation.

Snow Water opens with a four-line poem ("Overhead") that positions the poet amid the natural world and, less explicitly, Irish literary heritage:</p> <pre> The beech tree looks circular from overhead

With its own little cumulus of exhalations. Can you spot my skull under the nearby roof, Its bald patch, the poem-cloud hanging there? </pre> <p>"Overhead" must have borrowed from an early (eighth- to tenth-century) Irish nature poem, an anonymous lyric entitled "The Scribe," which begins "Over my head the woodland wall / Rises; the ousel sings to me ... for here I write / A scripture bright in great woods now." His verse-craft bears a profound resemblance--in scope and subject--to the writing of early Irish nature poets. Like his contemporaries Mahon and Heaney, Longley does not follow the stylistic example of Yeats, whose work, as Heaney claims, possesses a "vitreous finish" that "deflects all other truths except its own." Accurate in description and precise in diction, Longley's poems have the quality of Basho's haikus, as illustrated in the taut twenty-five-syllable poem: "Old Poets regurgitate / Pellets of chewed-up paper / Packed with shrew tails, frog bones, / Beetle wings, wisdom."

In Snow Water the terrain shifts from Hibernian landscapes to mythic Troy, and yet such geographical and temporal transitions create little fracture. Landscapes and soundscapes blend together. In "Harmonica," Longley transports figures from ancient Greece to the front of World War I, song linking the two:</p> <pre> A tommy drops his harmonica in No Man's Land. My dad like old Anaxamines breathes in and out

Through the holes and reeds and finds this melody. Our souls are air. They hold us together. Listen. </pre> <p>These verses contain syllables that count in more ways than one (except for a stray "wee" which proves useful in its minimizing intention but sounds too cute a note). The shortest poem, "Lost," is only ten syllables in length (eight words): "my lost lamb lovelier than all the wool," its brevity suggesting that not only has the lamb been lost but also the rest of the poem (a potential sonnet?). Its pithiness enacts the distillation that takes place when Longley squeezes expansive Homeric narratives into English verse forms.

The pages of this book are feathered by peregrines, plovers, lapwings, dippers, and woodruffs, to mention only a few. And the poems are sometimes bird's-eye views of the garden or the "fallen branches" upon which the birds come to rest. The suggestion of sturdiness and growth, rootedness and flourish, provides a fitting metaphor for these verses, which reveal a poet both prolific and wise, a heartening combination.
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Author:Tyler, Meg
Publication:Harvard Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 2005
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