1939 was an excellent vintage for Northern Irish poetry as both Seamus Heaney and Michael Longley were born in that year. Indeed, in some sense, their verse is not dissimilar in that it is never pretentious, and there is much to be said in favour of poetry that somehow manages to imbue everyday occurrences with sublime beauty. The Stairwell is Longley’s tenth collection – an intriguing mix of Ancient Greek mythology, poetic naturalism and elegies. The book is split into two parts, the former being a gradual progression from memories of the narrator’s youth to a sequence on the effects of war. Arguably, the turning point is “II. Homeland” from the poem “After Mikhail Lermontov”. The latter section is a series of elegies to Longley’s twin brother Peter.
One of the collection’s primary characteristics is its flow, evident in the change of themes, as well as in the stylistic devices used. While the collection is divided into two parts, but one might also read it like a classic Greek tragedy in five parts – the eponymous poem “The Stairwell” is the introduction; the reflections of the narrator’s youth comprise the development; the war poems are the climax; the elegies for Peter are the denouement, and the last two poems “The Frost” and “The Fire” are the collection’s finale. “The Stairwell” sets the tone; it is at once grandiose like an epic, yet, it has a sensitive, musing quality that is reminiscent of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven”. That sensitivity should not be confused with sappiness however. If anything, these poems are sensitively blunt. For instance, “Amelia’s Poem”, a poem about childbirth, contrasts beautiful lines such as
Past the wattle byre – hay bales
For ponies, Silver and Whisper
Spraints black as your meconium
Fish bones, fish scales, shitty sequins
This poem celebrates childbirth, but simultaneously keeps in mind the less agreeable, more graphic aspects of it – meconium, for instance, is an infant’s first stool. This is one example of how Longley’s verse is unpretentious. It is however musical: “hay bales” assonates “a”, and the enumerative sequence of “Fish bones, fish scales, shitty sequins” is quasi-repetitive: it transits from “fish” to “shitty” while retaining the assonance of a short “i”. This thematic progression culminates in the last two poems: “The Frost” consists only of a couplet: a snapshot of a memory frozen in time. “The Fire” is the final goodbye: the body is incinerated, and this is further reinforced by the quatrain on the last page:
forty-two whoopers call
then the echoes
as though there are more swans
over the ridge
This quatrain is like a wisp of smoke to “The Fire”; it prolongs the final farewell by just an instant before dissipating.
The Stairwell is then a Gesamtkunstwerk which means its full impact is achieved by its unity of aesthetic effect. It is bound together by the leitmotif of Ancient Greek mythology, most notably the Iliad. What is mildly odd perhaps is that Longley chooses to draw from Greek mythology when Ireland has such a rich mythological tradition of its own, with some heroes that share a certain similarity; Cú Chulainn and Achilles, for example, were both great warriors whose lives were prophesised to be very short. This does not, however, imply that choosing Greek over Irish mythology is in any way detrimental. It is just that Longley’s verse is very homely. What one expects of elegiac poetry is a grand but melancholic tone. The Stairwell is certainly serious, but to say it lacks grandeur would be misguided. Rather than dwelling on the macabre, it transubstantiates the negative much as Baudelaire does in Flowers of Evil. The collection is, for the lack of a better expression, a veritable tour de force.