Landscapes of the Soul

MRB August 17, 2017 0

A review of Angel Hill

Michael Longely, Angel Hill, Random House, 2017, 80 pp., $14.95.

Victorian culture—permeated with spiritualists and séances—concerned itself with death on a personal and intimate level. The public readily welcomed death into their homes as the art of taxidermy provided mounted mice and stuffed swallows for middle-class and upper-class collectors. While taxidermy existed in various incarnations since the Middle Ages, the Great Exhibit of 1851 in London included an impressive taxidermy display from John Hancock, elevating the craft to previously unseen levels of interest. Taxidermy allowed a way for people to remain close to nature or beloved pets beyond even death. But as the art of taxidermy developed, it amassed scientific credibility as well: endangered and extinct species could be documented with detailed accuracy thanks to preserved corpses. Taxidermy promised a means of remembering the dead through a safeguarding art. Today we remember the dead through Facebook memorial pages, archived blogs, and Instagram hashtags. We hang on to the digital documentation left behind by our loved ones or fret over the maintenance of the deceased’s social media. As we continuously update our software, our concerns increasingly turn to the tech world. We have transitioned our responsibilities for the dead into the digital landscape, but death remains a natural phenomenon, and it is in the natural landscape that responsibilities begin.

In his eleventh and most recent collection, Angel Hill, Irish poet Michael Longley meditates on family, friendships, and nature as he explores the land as a “soul-landscape.” The soul-landscape is the “home from home,” the place that represents family, friends, and self. While traditional undertakings of pinpointing a land’s identity result in an understanding of the land as a home to a political community or as a reflection of the individual self, Longley examines the connections the land forms between self and others. These connections are not political or even cultural (although each certainly lingers in the background at times); instead, these connections reveal the spiritual links between people, places, flora, and fauna. But as Longley negotiates these links, he increasingly contemplates the living’s mirror image: death itself, and his meditation creates a welcomed space for death within that living web.

Longley’s poems combine clear descriptions with lyrical ecstasy to create miniature scenes with an astounding amount of depth. Longley’s profundity emerges from his realization of the macro in the micro. By establishing long-reaching connections in small scenes and moments, Longley reveals the landscape’s web that connects us all. Longley locates the ties between place and loved ones in poems like “Inlet,” “Inglenook,” and “Trilobite.” Although it may seem like space should separate the love individuals have for one another or that a person can only be home in the local, Longley shows how this web of life closes the space—real and imaginary—that separates us. In “Train,” the moving landscape of hills and waters is dotted with sheep, deer, and heron, but he deftly connects them all through his title, using transportation to map cities like Achnashellach and Achnasheen as well as family—“from one daughter to another.” In this map, locations and creatures live not in isolation but amongst a larger network that is connected by trains, generations, and life itself. Longley makes clear that while love may be initially formed in the local, it can be continued and nurtured over large spaces through letters, poems, and memory; this love can transcend the limits of space and time.

Death appears as a natural part of the local landscape: a deer’s skeletal remains, a ghost among the pine martens, and a funeral procession with donkeys for Rosemary Garvey. Longley tracks the memory of donkeys walking from Connemara “[o]n the way to Lennane, the Famine Road.” He remembers Rosemary Garvey caring for them in a contemporary Ireland marked by its history, but he does not immerse the reader in Irish history alone. He pivots and locates the humble donkey in mythic Greek epics—Homer’s Ajax, “obstinate, immune to wallopings”—before he fast-forwards two millennia and lands the reader in the middle of Rosemary Garvey’s funeral, “[h]er coffin has become a jennet’s creel.” The donkey couples antiquity and modernity, past and present, and life and death; Rosemary Garvey remains a part of the living landscape, the soul-landscape, even in death, linked by and to her beloved donkeys. Longley continues to dissolve our constructed boundaries, turning his attention to the deaths that divided the living: the victims of the Troubles. Dedicating “Badger” and “Dusty Bluebells” to victims of the IRA and the RUC respectively. He then links both to the history of political violence in Ireland through “The Mother’s Lament,” a secular stabat mater doloroso. Just as depictions of Mary were used by medieval and Renaissance artists to emphasize the Christ Child’s humanity, the lamenting mother reminds Longley’s audience of the mothers who mourn victims of political violence and those victims’ inherent humanity. The mother’s suffering is transformed into universal suffering, and the partisan death is rendered a human death. The synthesis of political violence and maternal love allows Longley to represent all sides not only as humans but also as people of the same long-reaching community. Furthermore, Longley recognizes that these presences do not end with death; they continue to permeate the families, communities, and landscapes.

As a result, Longley seems to posit that the artist is responsible for constructing, maintaining, and perpetuating these memories, for disseminating them among the network of the living. It makes sense that one of Longley’s poems, “The Ornithologist,” heavily features taxidermized birds at home in their new habitat of hearth and home. Art preserves the dead and brings their memory—their very existence—to the living. Whether it is capturing the image of one’s beloved wife over a series of decades in “Forty Portraits,” considering the role of the poet in the face of endless senseless deaths in “Room to Rhyme,” or even imagining a “soldier-poet” saved from a bullet by the Shakespeare in his pocket, Longley seeks to understand the influence of death on the artist and vice versa.

He seems to come to some sort of conclusion in the collection’s titular poem, “Angel Hill,” (named for a Scottish burial ground near his daughter’s home) in which he addresses his daughter, Sarah Longley, a painter. The poem opens with the speaker musing, “Someone must be looking after the headstones./ It might be you with your easel and brushes.” With these two opening lines, Longley makes clear the relationship between art and people: the artist memorializes the dead. It is not the artist’s role to transform them into epic heroes or into romantic ghosts; the artist simply documents their existence, remembers the people who came before, and the people who are with us now (when Longley does nod towards the epic, he does so in the tradition of James Joyce in which the ordinary is figured as extraordinary and the extraordinary as ordinary). Here, the connection is not about revering the present relationship, but respecting the larger connections, the ripples that tie us to strangers we will never meet. The artist cares for the dead and shows the living how to care for them as well.  Longley does both by first situating the reader in the graveyard, observing his daughter sketching the monuments of the dead, thinking about the way she—still among the living—paces the stones and closes the gate behind her. The dead and the living exist simultaneously in this moment with the living caring for those who came before her.

And so Longley is led to consider his own death. This is the collection of a man who has been writing for fifty years, who has seen his friends and loved one dies with increasing frequency. Throughout the collections, he pens elegies, honors fallen friends with dedications, and observes his family growing older and older. He writes a series of poems to his wife reflecting on their fiftieth wedding anniversary, and even in the midst of celebrating their love he considers death.

Meditating on his wedding ring, a gift from his wife, he tries to imagine its original owner, perhaps “a Tommy fighting in the trenches” during World War I. He constructs an image of the young soldier fingering his ring as the soldier remembers his beloved, far away and separated by the war. In the present, Longley hopes “he survived the war.” The wish seems odd as the young soldier would be long dead regardless, but his wish becomes clearer with the poem’s final line: “I shall wear his ring until I die.” This is not the simple hope that a young man survived a past war, but the simultaneous yearning and desire that he share his fate: to die wearing this ring, to die in love, to die united with his wife. A part of being alive is recognizing the inevitability of death—even when it is your own.

Longley does not hold the youthful fear of death as an abstract terror; he understands it as a tangible part of the life he so closely examines. He understands himself as a part of the cycle. In “Song” he thinks about his “contribution/ To wren-song” as his blood is taken by mosquito is taken by spider is taken by wren; the cycle of life is also a cycle of death. Longley firmly places himself in this cycle again in “Bird-watching.” He awakes as “tufted ducks/ Settle among the residential swans,” falls asleep and awakens once more to “lapwings. . . circling the lake/ and landing beside the Fairy Fort.” He is immersed in the Irish landscape and its history and culture.  But amongst this emblematic life of Ireland, Longley imagines his death. Waking and falling asleep, he mimics the life cycle in miniature, acting the role of the mythic hero in slumber surrounded by fantastic plumed beasts. As Longley performs this tiny cycle, he considers that this is “[w]here I want my ashes wind-scattered. I wouldn’t mind dying now.” It is, perhaps, ironic that this deliberation is placed at dawn, but it makes sense within Longley’s soul-landscape. Death is not a final sunset, but a beginning of the next cycle.

And this is where Longley’s specialty resides: his ability to transform still life images into something mobile, something cyclical. Like the ornithologist “counting and re-counting/ The generations,” the reader is forced to recount those who came before them and recognize the responsibilities they left behind: Seamus Heaney’s emphasis of pluralism, Colin Middleton’s challenge to established perspectives, or even Guillaume Apollinaire’s confident sexuality. These legacies and more found our cultural inheritances and obligations. The artist remembers the dead, and the dead’s legacies become our responsibilities. Whom are we responsible for? Whom must we care for? We know instinctively that our responsibilities extend beyond a Facebook memorial page or a grieving Twitter hashtag: the memory of the dead demands an action from the living. As he connects his home to the Sahara, his family to the dead, the victims of the IRA to the victims of the RUC, and public space to the universal experience, Longley extends the obligations to the dead from beyond the private home to the global landscape, the soul-landscape.

Margaret S. Mauk is a doctoral student in Florida State University’s literature program. She is the recipient of the May Alexander Ryburn fellowship. Her research interests include modernism, motherhood, and identity formation. Her work has been presented at Feminisms and Rhetorics, the North American James Joyce Conference, and University of Portsmouth’s Orphan Identities Symposium. Her recent feature on Mina Loy and a feminine/feminist modernism was published in The Modernist Review.