CBR Bingo: Bird
I joked a couple years ago that the best day is Wake Forest Press Book Club Day, in part because you never know when it’s going to happen. Wake Forest Press focuses on publishing Irish poetry, particularly the Irish poets who aren’t, say, Seamus Heaney or Eavan Boland and claimed by a Big Five publisher. Because it’s a small operation, books come out a bit irregularly and also during the pandemic, shipments were sometimes oddly spaced (I once got three volumes all at once–that was a VERY nice day).
Anyway, this is a roundabout plug for WFP Book Club which gives you a 20% discount and free shipping for essentially preordering around 3 books of poetry a year, ranging from individual collections to Selected/Collected volumes.
The treat this time was Michael Longley’s latest, The Slain Birds. Longley is a grand old man of Northern Irish poetry at this point (though now he mostly lives in Co. Mayo); he’s published over a dozen collections of poetry, and he was a good friend and collaborator with Seamus Heaney. He’s a wonderful, charismatic reader of his own work and a marvelous storyteller, and one of the charming things about him is that he’s also married to renowned literary critic Edna Longley, and his homages to her and her intelligence in his poetry are heartwarming.
The Slain Birds takes its title from Dylan Thomas’s “Over St John’s Hill,” which is itself a poem rich in birds, closing with the lines: “and I who hear the tune of the slow, / Wear-willow river, grave, / Before the lunge of the night, the notes on this time-shaken / Stone for the sake of the souls of the slain birds sailing.” Most reviews that acknowledge where the title comes from leave it at that, but the poem is, I think, a more significant inter text for Longley than a mere source of a nifty title phrase; Thomas’s original is filled with the fragility of the lives of these birds, though the threat to them is primarily natural predation, particularly of the ever-present, ever-circling hawk, and the heron fishing in the waters. Thomas yearns for, but cannot quite believe, in the biblical promise that not even a sparrow falls without God’s notice; Longley is similarly an atheist wrestling with the fragility of life–not, perhaps, his own, but that of his grandchildren, of young men who died in WWI, of his deceased twin brother’s widow, and, indeed, of the birds. The collection opens with a slain bird, in this case an owl struck by a car, and it remains a ghostly presence throughout the collection. Nor is it the only one: birds recur throughout the volume, including in Longley’s historical poems about WWI and WWII, such as “Plovers”:
An anonymous Tommy
On the first day of the Somme
Guarded, for half an hour,
For an eternity,
A plover’s nest, to protect
The eggs from being trampled,
The rainbird’s eggs.
Under heavy fire, the plover that pretends
A broken wing dies of a broken wing.
I found this a stronger, more cohesive collection than Angel Hill, a poem with erratic flashes of vivid beauty and tenderness, but also a lot of what felt like filler. Longley’s output these days tends towards short poems, few longer than sixteen lines, and this brevity can at times be a stunning act of compression or something that feels a bit underbaked and glib; The Slain Birds tended more towards the former than the latter. It is in part Longley’s focus on the way humanity loves nature, but also the way humanity wounds it, that helps give the collection this clarity and backbone, as well as his engagement with other artists and poets:
poem ending with a line of Christopher Smart
Let us gather sea asters for his ankle and wrist
For flowers are particularly the poetry of Christ.
Many of the other great Irish poets of the late 20th, who defined the era along with Longley, are gone: Eavan Boland, Seamus Heaney, Derek Mahon, Ciaran Carson, etc. It makes each book from the surviving masters feel all the more precious, and it was a joy to read this one.