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This review is taken from PN Review 221, Volume 41 Number 3, January - February 2015.

Approaching Ithaca michael longley, The Stairwell (Cape Poetry) £10.00

In this his tenth collection, Michael Longley returns to familiar poetic territories – Homeric Greece, Belfast, rural Mayo, the Great War and the Holocaust. But for Longley boundaries blur and genres merge to create a subtle patterning, so the boy-­soldier ‘killed and despoiled’ might have come from any conflict in history, and a list of wildflowers becomes a funeral wreath for a child. There is a new intensity in this work as the poet anticipates his own death (‘Always I think it is the last summer’), and this is brought sharply into focus by the loss of his twin brother, Peter. The second part of the book consists of a series of moving elegies for him.

Images of death are everywhere: ‘the badger drowned at spring tide’, the lapwing dead on her nest, the ghost of Longley’s father in ‘The Duckboards’, ‘Teetering on walkways that disappear / As we follow behind him in the rain’. The title poem begins: ‘I have been thinking about the music for my funeral’ and ends with songbirds circling high in the stairwell. Birds fly in and out of the poems, like the delightful robins, wrens, blackbirds and long-tailed tits that the poet imagines surrounding his deathbed: ‘When I die I shall give them all their names.’ It is the wren he wants to leave his grandchildren, ‘Its cotton-wool soul, / […] feathers / Apparently alive’ (‘Another Wren’). Birth and death are never far apart in this book (also youth and old age). In the beautiful ‘Birth-Bed’ the poet begins ‘I waken in the ...


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