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This review is taken from PN Review 87, Volume 19 Number 1, September - October 1992.

EPIPHANIES Michael Longley, Poems 1963-1983 (Seeker & Warburg) £8.00
Maurice Lindsay, Collected Poems 1940-1990, (Aberdeen University Press) £12.50

Michael Longley was once best known for not being Seamus Heaney. It is customary to contrast the work of 'certain contemporaries' whom we might suspect of being corrupted by their celebrity with his self-effacing genius, 'unguessed at' as Arnold's Shakespeare. Reading through Poems 1963-1983 reinforces the impression that Longley is a quieter, less obviously ambitious writer than Heaney, but there is a surprising sense in which he is also more egotistical. Paradoxically this egotism is born out of a phenomenological modesty - the writing seldom strays beyond the immediate range of the senses and more often than not remains anchored in the body itself. Longley has a metaphysical fascination with limbs and organs, the hairs of his own beard and the symbolic resonances of testicles which are variously wounded by shrapnel, weighed in a lover's hands or descending slowly towards death. While there are no extravagant Lawrentian claims about sexuality - Longley shuns abstractions - he is not above large Celtic boasts about his sperm count 'outnumbering the women in the world'.

Longley characteristically homes in on a few spare details, recreating lives through their corporeal debris, as in the opening poems of his 1979 collection The Echo Gate. In 'Obsequies' he achieves a peculiar blend of nirvana and dissection, each bodily member being afforded an independent funeral. Oliver Plunkett is evoked through his mummified head and ten massacred linen workers memorialised by an inventory-litany of 'spectacles,/ Wallets, small change, and a set of dentures'. Although no ...


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