© By Michael Longley

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“returning over the nightmare ground
we found the place again ...” Keith Douglas



This, the twentieth day of March
In the first year of my middle age,
Sees me the father of a son:
Now let him in your minds sleep on
Lop-sided, underprivileged
And, out of his tight burrow edged.

Your godchild while you think of him
Or, if you can’t accept the term,
Don’t count the damage but instead
Wet, on me, the baby’s head:
About his ears our province reels
Pulsating like his fontanel,

And I, with you, when I baptise
Must Calculate, must improvise
The holy water and the font,
Anything else that he may want,
And, ‘priest of the muses’, mock the
Malevolent deus loci.


Now that the distant islands rise
Out of the corners of my eyes
And the imagination fills
Bog-meadow and surrounding hills,
I find myself addressing you
As though I’d always wanted to:

In order to take you all in
I’ve had to get beneath your skin,
To colonise you like a land,
To study each distinctive hand
And, by squatter’s rights, inhabit
The letters of its alphabet.

Although when I call him Daniel
(Mother and baby doing well),
Lost relations take their places,
Namesakes and receding faces:
Late travelers on the Underground
People my head like a ghost town.


Over the cobbles I recall
Cattle clattering to the North Wall
Till morning and the morning’s rain
Rinsed out the zig-zags of the brain,
Conducting excrement and fear
Along that lethal thoroughfare:

Now every lost bedraggled field
Like a mythopoeic bog unfolds
Its gelignite and dumdums:
And should the whole idea become
A vegetable run to seed in
Even our suburban garden,

We understudy for the hare’s
Disappearance around corners,
The approximate untold barks
Of the otters we call water-dogs -
A dim reflection of ourselves,
A muddy forepaw that dissolves.


Blood on the kerbstones, and my mind
Dividing like a pavement,
Cracked by the weeds, by the green grass
That covers our necropolis,
The pity, terror ... What comes next
Is a lacuna in the text,

Only blots of ink concealing
Death or blackout as a reading:
For this, his birthday, must confound
Baedekers of the nightmare ground -
And room for him beneath the hedge
With succour, school and heritage

Is made tonight when I append
Each of your names and name a friend:
For yours, then, and the child’s sake
I who have heard the waters break
Claim this my country, though today
Timor mortis conturbat me.


“We were distracted by too many things ...
the wine, the jokes, the music, fancy gowns.
We were no good as murderers, we were clowns.”

- Who stated with the Irish queer
A preference for girls to beer -
Here’s an attempt at telling all,
My confession unilateral:
Not that it matters for my part
Because I have your lines by heart,

Because the poetry you write
Is the flicker of a nightlight
Picking out where it is able
Objects on the dressing table,
Glancing through the great indoors
Where love and death debate the chores,

And where, beneath a breast, you see
The blue veins in filigree,
The dust in a glass of water,
In a discarded french letter
The millions acting out their last
Collaborations with the past.

Yes, to entertain your buddies
With such transcendental studies
Rather than harmonise with hams
In yards of penitential psalms
I count among your better turns:
Play your guitar while Derry burns,

Pipe us aboard the sinking ship
Two by two ... But before the trip
A pause, please, while the hundredth line
Squanders itself in facile rhyme -
A spry exposé of our game
But paradigmatic all the same

Like talking on as the twelfth chime
Ends nineteen hundred and ninety-nine,
The millennium and number:
For never milestones, but the camber
Dictates this journey till we tire
(So much for perning in a gyre!):

True to no ‘kindred points’, astride
No iridescent arc besides,
Each gives the other’s lines a twist
Over supper, dinner, breakfast
To make a sort of Moebius Band,
Eternal but quotidian ...

So, post me some octosyllabics
As redolent of death and sex
Or keep this for the rainy days
When, mindful of the final phase,
We diagnose it a relapse,
A metric following the steps

Of an ageing ballroom dancer
(Words a bow-tie round a cancer):
Or a reasonable way to move -
A Moonlight Saunter out to prove
That poetry, a tongue at play
With lip and tooth, is here to stay.

To exercise in metaphor
Our knockings at the basement door,
A ramrod mounted to invade
The vulva, Hade’s palisade,
The Gates of Horn and Ivory
Or the Walls of Londonderry.


And did we come into our own
When, minus muse and lexicon,
We traced in August sixty-nine
Our imaginary Peace Line
Around the burnt-out houses of
The Catholics we’d scarcely loved,
Two Sisyphuses come to budge
The sticks and stones of an old grudge,

Two poetic conservatives
In the city of guns and long knives,
Our ears receiving then and there
The stereophonic nightmare
Of the Shankill and the Falls,
Our matches struck on crumbling walls
To light us as we moved at last
Through the back alleys of Belfast?

Why it mattered to have you here
You who journeyed to Inisheer
With me, years back, one Easter when
With MacIntyre and the lone Dane
Our footsteps lifted up the larks,
Echoing off those western rocks
And down that darkening arcade
Hung with the failures of our trade,

Will understand. We were tongue-tied
Companions of the island’s dead
In the graveyard among the dunes,
Eavesdroppers on conversations
With a Jesus who spoke Irish -
We were strangers in that parish,
Black tea with bacon and cabbage
For our sacraments and pottage,

Dank blankets making up our Lent
Till, islanders ourselves, we bent
Our knees and cut the watery sod
From the lazy-bed where slept a God
We couldn’t count among our friends,
Although we’d taken in our hands
Splinters of driftwood nailed and stuck
On the rim of the Atlantic.

That was Good Friday years ago -
How persistent the undertow
Slapped by currachs ferrying stones,
Moonlight glossing the confusions,
Of its each bilingual wave - yes,
We would have lingered there for less ...
Six islanders for a ten-bob note
Rowed us out to the anchored boat.


From Carrigskeewaun in Killadoon
I write, although I’ll see you soon,
Hoping this fortnight detonates
Your year in the United States,
Offering you by way of welcome
To the sick countries we call home
The mystical point at which I tire
Of Calor gas and a turf fire.

Till we talk again in Belfast
Pleasanter far to leave the past
Across three acres and two brooks
On holiday in a post box
Which dripping fuchsia bells surround,
Its back to the prevailing wind,
And where sanderlings from Iceland
Court the breakers, take my stand,

Disinfecting with a purer air
That small subconscious cottage where
The Irish poet slams his door
On slow-worm, toad and adder:
Beneath these racing skies it is
A tempting stance indeed - ipsis
Hibernicis hiberniores -
Except that we know the old stories,

The midden of cracked hurley sticks
Tied to recall the crucifix,
Of broken bones and lost scruples,
The blackened hearth, the blazing gable’s
Telltale cinder where we may
Scorch our shins until that day
We sleepwalk through a No Man’s Land
Lipreading to an Orange band.

Continually, therefore, we rehearse
Goodbyes to all our characters
And, since both would have it both ways,
On the oily roll of calmer seas
Launch coffin-ship and life-boat,
Body and soul thus kept afloat,
Mind open like a half door
To the speckled hill, the plovers’ shore.

So let it be the lapwing’s cry
That lodges in the throat as I
Raise its alarum from the mud,
Seeking for your sake to conclude
Ulster Poet our Union Title
And prolong this sad recital
By leaving careful footprints round
A wind-encircled burial mound.

Poem included with the permission of Michael Longley and his publisher Jonathan Cape

Michael Longley, on the occasion of the birth of his first son, writes to three poet friends. One theme at the heart of the poem is the concern that Ireland will be overshadowed by fear in the coming years.

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