"Irish poets learn your trade/Sing whatever is well made," Yeats thundered, a mandate to which Michael Longley has long proved equal. Love poet, mythologist, translator, and visionary, he dreams above all of an ideal peace but writes achingly of "history left ajar," of World War II's legacy and Northern Ireland's too-casual violence. In "The Ice-Cream Man" (from 1991's Gorse Fires), Longley draws one victim into his family's fold: "Rum and raisin, vanilla, butter-scotch, walnut, peach:/You would rhyme off the flavours. That was before/They murdered the ice-cream man on the Lisburn Road/And you bought carnations to lay outside his shop...."
Longley's most recent volume, The Ghost Orchid, contains fewer direct accounts of the Troubles and a host of transformations. There are adaptations of "Ovid's lovely casualties," notably "Arachne" and "Perdix"--in which Pallas Athene turns the young Daedalus's nephew into a "garrulous partridge." She "dressed him in feathers in mid-air and made him a bird,/Intelligence flashing to wing-tip and claw." There are also seven Irished translations from the Iliad and the Odyssey. Home from battle in full armor, Hector is amused when the "nightmarish nodding" of his helmet terrifies his baby son. Two poems later, in "Ceasefire," an aged Priam makes peace with Achilles: "I get down on my knees and do what must be done/And kiss Achilles' hand, the killer of my son." The son, of course, is Hector.
Longley has been called "a keeper of the artistic estate, a custodian of griefs and wonders," and he does his best to balance tragedy with ecstasy in hushed love poems such as "Snow-Hole" and "Couplet": "When I was young I wrote that flowers are very slow flames/And you uncovered your breasts often among my images." Elsewhere, Longley commingles love and nature with less intensity but with no less awe or brilliance.