Posts Tagged ‘toothglass’

Michael Longley (b. 1939) is the foremost living poet of Northern Ireland. Born and reared in Belfast, he was educated at Trinity College, Dublin, where he studied classics. Although he has traveled widely, he has lived in his native city all his life, and some of his most admired poems address what he has called the “Years of Disgrace”—the thirty-year period of sectarian warfare in twentieth-century Ulster. But Longley’s poetic imagination is most at home in the townland of Carrigskeewaun in Co. Mayo, where he and his wife, the distinguished literary critic Edna Longley, have owned a cottage since 1970. Over the decades, they have regularly returned to their remote retreat, and many of Longley’s most compelling poems are exquisite miniatures, set in the Mayo landscape. Many feature birds and flowers.

Longley’s most recent collection, Angel Hill, includes a poem as remarkable for its diction as for its concentration:


              Let us follow Gwen John’s

              Night-walk down the lanes

              Picking colorless flowers,

              Our nosegay of shadows,


               So that, come the morning,

               We wake to the surprise

               Of light-painted flowers,

                A field in a toothglass.

Poets have been called the custodians of language. If the job of the poet, as T. S. Eliot believed, is to “purify the dialect of the tribe,” it is also to preserve endangered words that might otherwise disappear. In the present poem, two such words are so honored. Nosegay is an old-fashioned, Anglo-Saxon word for bouquet. Less common than its Latinate synonym, it is also more evocative. The other nearly-extinct word is toothglass, which cannot be found in modern dictionaries. A toothglass, as the reader might infer, is a tumbler where toothbrushes or dentures are kept. By choosing the older, more parochial word for this common object, Longley imbues it with an aura of rarity. As the late Seamus Heaney, Longley’s fellow poet and boon companion, might have put it, the poet takes a familiar domestic object and “makes it strange.”

In the opening line of “Nosegay,” Longley refers to the noted artist Gwen John (1876-1939), the elder sister of the famed Welsh painter Augustus John (1878-1961). In 1903, Gwen John and a friend set off on a walk from Calais to Rome, reaching as far as Paris. There she became a model for Auguste Rodin and subsequently his mistress. Best known for her oil portraits of women, she is also remembered for her quiet interiors and her still lifes of flowers. “I don’t pretend to know anybody well,” she is reported to have said. “People are like shadows to me, and I am like a shadow.” Vivid but diffuse, her Post-Impressionist paintings reflect that way of seeing.

In alluding to “Gwen John’s / Night-walk down the lanes,” Longley recalls both the artist’s floral paintings and her legendary walk. In the first stanza, he depicts himself and Edna following in John’s footsteps, as they walk down a dark lane, picking flowers whose colors they can’t discern. Their improvised nosegay is a gathering of black-and-white, shadowed forms, which they take to their bedroom upon retiring.

With the stanza break serving as a cinematic cut, Longley portrays the couple waking to a pleasant surprise. Their monochromatic nosegay has morphed into a colorful array—or so it seems from their perspective. In reality, of course, daylight has revealed the flowers’ original colors. In a manner reminiscent of classical verse, Longley personifies the morning sun as a painter daubing the petals with fresh color. By this magical touch, the flowers, the humble toothglass, and the general atmosphere of the room are radically altered.

Michael Longley’s short poems have often been described as meditative lyrics, and their forms have been compared to haiku. Those generic descriptions sort well with “Nosegay,” insofar as the poem enacts a “haiku moment”: a process of “stopping and looking,” in which an ordinary object—in this instance a “field” of wildflowers—is seen clearly and afresh by the awakened mind, and its true nature is acknowledged. Much the same process occurs in Zen meditation.

Yet “Nosegay” is also, and essentially, a love poem. In a recent interview, Michael Longley remarked that if poetry were a wheel, love poetry would be its hub. And in the poem at hand, he amply confirms that observation. “Nosegay” is, among other things, a proposal, in which the narrator invites his wife to join him on a nocturnal walk. The outcome of that romantic adventure is a “surprise,” akin to an anniversary gift set beside a marital bed. Adding to a sense of ceremony, the poem is itself a gift of love: a present from a master craftsman to his wife. Within the confines of a single, beautifully balanced sentence, a story is told, and a marriage of more than fifty years is rightfully celebrated, even as the shaping energies of language and perception, so easily dulled by callous daily use, are refreshed and joyfully renewed.


* Michael Longley, Angel Hill. Jonathan Cape / Wake Forest University Press, 2017. Copyright Michael Longley, 2017.

“The Vitality of Ordinary Things,” an interview with Krista Tippett, On Being, November 3, 2016.

Photo: Michael Longley at Corrymeela Peace Center, Ballycastle, Northern Ireland, July, 2012.

For a fuller explanation of the “haiku moment,” see Kenneth Yasuda, The Japanese Haiku (Tuttle, 1957), 24.

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