A Stream’s Tattle, Michael Longley
Mariscat Press, 2019 £6.00
Questions of scale
Michael Longley can’t stop looking at the natural world. In ‘December’, the final poem in this beautifully-produced pamphlet, he writes
I shall be eighty soon.
I shall go on looking for
The Geminids somewhere
And the big beech tree.
He’s positioned himself as something small in the vast scale of this winter night, searching the skies for the meteor shower, and looking up — to Cassiopeia, a familiar constellation and unimaginably remote but also to a much closer marker, a beech tree. That the tree is ‘big’ indicates age, more than Longley’s almost-eighty years. Below this timescale of earth and sky stands one small human being, persistently looking, bringing his personal timescale into a diagram of connections. It reminds me of the arrowed lines in astronomical charts, joining up the stars.
He looks and looks, taking friends with him, as in ‘The Walk; for Jeffrey Morgan’. Longley knows this beach (Thallabaun strand, Allaran Point) and the habits of wildlife. His finely-tuned observation helps them see bottlenose dolphins, a bitch sea otter, and finally a family of whooper swans, their migration almost complete. But it only helps; there is a sense of wonder in all this, coming together in one place, one time:
No one would believe these three visitations.
And you quipped what’s next then, and yes, old friend,
What’s next, what’s next, what’s next, what’s next?
The energy in that line is like a child’s, or like bird call. If we keep asking we’ll see how the natural world is always changing, giving something new and almost mystical — ‘visitations.’
Longley knows how to look. The pamphlet’s title comes from ‘Sonnet for Michael Viney’, another poem about shared walks and ‘Beachcombing for words’. In seven lines, their joint observations stretch from ‘beetle tracks in the sand dunes’ to ‘the depths of the Milky Way.’ Between those extremes they’ve met ‘Dead-nettle and chickweed, a stream’s tattle.’ A domestic-scale word, ‘tattle’: the idle chatter and tale-telling of water, to anyone who’ll listen, about what’s happening in its own world. Our world, too, as Longley reveals so eloquently.
D. A. Prince
The pull of water
Drawn always to water, I feel its pull in A Stream’s Tattle. In the opening poem (‘Eilean Bàn’), there’s the lure of the sea. The naming of place, and of Gavin Maxwell, brings thoughts of Ring of Bright Water. Charmed by the cover drawing, thoughts of otters hover. Here, on ‘the cliff path two / Out-of-season primroses / Pointed to the otter’s grave’.
At the sea, elsewhere, ‘Mweelrea in the distance’, there are recent traces of an otter (‘Prints’).
And ‘three visitations’ (in ‘The Walk’) offer three strong images, first of ‘Bottlenose dolphins surfacing between / The islands’, and second of a captured moment of stillness as
[…] a bitch otter
Paused on rocks just feet away, sea water
Streaming from her whiskers
And finally there’s ‘A family of whooper swans, two white / And three grey’ circling overhead near the end of the journey ‘from Iceland to Carrigskeewaun’. What a dream of a walk! It’s here I realise, more than ever before, the power of words for creating images in poems — poetry as painting, film.
‘Wild Orchids’ takes us to places where the wild orchids grow, past the ‘waterlily lake’ near the ‘otter corridors’, past ‘the higher bank of the Owenadornaun’, towards a different kind of ‘watery’ (see ‘Fen Violet’) place in the heart of the poem:
Dowdy neotinea maculata at my feet
Where the turlough below Mullaghmore disappears
Not knowing about turloughs, I looked in dictionaries (definitions seem varied) before returning to the more satisfying definition given in a referenced quotation in ‘Notes & Acknowledgements’ (which makes me want to read that book). Its meaning is sensed above and from its appearance in ‘Fen Violet’, to which ‘Wild Orchid’ seems paired:
You paint flowers, Sarah, as though they have souls.
We have stood side by side on Mullaghmore,
Clare’s holy mountain, the turlough nearby
With its watery comings and goings
This is my favourite poem in the pamphlet because of these beautiful lines, and because it ends with the flower of the title, the ‘rarest of all — / Submerged for part of the year’.
The gift of shared experience
Reading A Stream’s Tattle, I was moved by the intimacy with which Michael Longley conveys his subject matter; you feel amongst the friends and family to whom he dedicates many of these poems.
In ‘The Walk’ (dedicated to Jeffery Morgan) the speaker reminds his friend about the time they saw bottlenose dolphins, only for an otter to appear, how she ‘paused on rocks just feet away […] ‘our thumping hearts / audible surely.’ And then ‘A family of whooper swans […] circled above our heads’.
You’d want to share an encounter like this — if not in a photograph, then in a story or piece of ‘tattle.’ And it’s through a special kind of ‘tattle’ that Longley brings the reader close. These poems are beautifully detailed, full of the names of things — people, places, flowers; as in ‘Wild Orchids’, the speaker knows them well:
A stone’s throw from the Carrigskeewaun cottage
Two introverted frog orchids; in the distance
A hummock covered with autumn lady’s tresses,
Ivory spirals that vanish for a decade
But these aren’t neat explanations; nature is as much witnessed as it is just missed. This is captured poignantly with the image of discovered footprints — the ‘beetle tracks’ in ‘Sonnet for Michael Viney’ and in ‘Prints’, ‘Between sand dunes and sea / Under a cloudless sky / A dozen otter prints / Going nowhere it seems […]’
Longley’s use of questions draws us into the mystery. What sort of bird did the speaker in ‘Eilean Ban’ see in ‘the lighthouse keeper’s cottage […] A kestrel or merlin?’ Will we, as in ‘December’, ever find the Geminids ‘between Cassiopeia and the big beech tree’? As the speaker’s friend in ‘The Walk’ quips: ‘What’s next, what’s next, what’s next, what’s next?’