The Stairwell

The Stairwell

by Michael Longley


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Winner of the 2015 Griffin Poetry Prize

Shortlisted for the 2014 T.S. Eliot Prize

In The Stairwell, his tenth collection, Michael Longley’s themes and forms reach a new intensity. The second part of the book is a powerful sequence of elegies for his twin brother, Peter, and the dominant mood elsewhere is elegiac. The title poem begins: ‘I have been thinking about the music for my funeral …’ The two parts are also linked by Homer. Longley is well-known for his Homeric versions, and the Iliad is a presiding presence – both in poems about the Great War and in the range of imagery that gives his twin’s death a mythic dimension. Yet funeral music can be life-affirming. Longley has built this collection on intricate doublings, not only when he explores the tensions of twinship. The psychologically suggestive word ‘stairwell’ is itself an ambiguous compound. These poems encompass birth as well as death, childhood and age, nature and art, the animal and human worlds, tenderness and violence, battlefield and ‘homeland’. The Stairwell is a richly textured, immensely moving work. Michael Longley has the rare ability to fuse emotional depth with complicated artistry: to make them, somehow, the same thing.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781930630697
Publisher: Wake Forest University Press
Publication date: 11/07/2014
Pages: 80
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.40(d)

About the Author

Michael Longley was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in 1939. He was educated at the Royal Belfast Academical Institution and studied Classics at Trinity College. Strongly influenced by the classics, he has alluded to his love of Homer in many of his poems. Early in his career, Longley worked as a schoolteacher in Dublin, London, and Belfast. He founded the literary program in the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, and in 1970 he became the assistant director of that organization. In 2010, he was honored with the title of Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE). He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and a member of Aosdána, an affiliation for Irish artists. He is married to the critic Edna Longley and has three children. Michael Longley has written nine collections of poetry. Holding honorary doctorates from both Trinity College, Dublin, and Queen’s University, Belfast, Longley was awarded the prestigious Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in 2001. He has received numerous other awards for his work, including the American Irish Foundation Award, the T. S. Eliot Poetry Prize, the Whitbread Prize, the Hawthornden Prize, the International Griffin Poetry Prize, and the Ulster Tatler Lifetime Achievement Award in 2015. He served as the Ireland Professor of Poetry from 2007–2010.

Read an Excerpt



for Lucy McDiarmid

I have been thinking about the music for my funeral —
Liszt's transcription of that Schumann song, for instance,
'Dedication' — inwardness meets the poetry of excess —
When you lead me out of your apartment to demonstrate In the Halloween-decorated lobby the perfect acoustic Of the stairwell, and stand among pumpkins, cobwebby Skulls, dancing skeletons, and blow kisses at the ceiling,
Whistling Great War numbers —'Over There', 'It's a Long,
Long Way', 'Keep the Home Fires Burning' (the refrain) —
As though for my father who could also whistle them,
Trench memories, your eyes closed, your head tilted back,
Your cheeks filling up with air and melody and laughter.
I hold the banister. I touch your arm. Listen, Lucy,
There are songbirds circling high up in the stairwell.


I imagine my deathbed like my friends' love bed Whose friends come into the house for breakfast Every morning, robins, one long-legged, fleet,
The original, another lurking in a corner,
One searching under the bed for spiders,
One swooping from doorway to cheese-dish.

When I die I shall give them all their names.
There will be many robin generations Coming into the house, and wrens and blackbirds And long-tailed tits will learn from the robins About the cheese-dish and saucer of water.
I'll leave the window open for my soul-birds.


Dear old brother-in-law, I've flown home Across the Atlantic. I'm far away, but you Forget. So, yes, I've just gone shopping.
I'll reappear soon at the French window.



Why did I never keep a notebook That filled up with reed buntings And blackcaps and chiffchaffs, their Songs a subsong between the lines?

Early April. I am seventeen.
Under an overhanging whin bush I have spotted linnets building.
A robin has laid her first egg.


I find dead on her nest A lapwing, beneath her Three perfect eggs, and one Without shell or colour That bursts when I touch it.

Her mate sky-suspended Screaming around my head Swoops as though to blind me When I take her in my hands And look at her torn hole.


Who was the professor who took me Mackerel-fishing off Killard Point?
A marine biologist, he taught me To brain fish against the gunwales.

On the raised beach I picked out From pebbles a plover's egg:
It cracked in my trouser pocket Like a chilly ejaculation.


The mallard, terror-stricken,
Doesn't fly but, slow enough For her peeping ducklings,
Her body flat to the ground,
Waddles away from me Where the Owennadornaun Used to flow, her profile Imitating Inishturk Duck-like on the horizon.


A wall ripple (drystone Wall) gable cascade
(Roofless at Dooaghtry)
Machair assassin Sucking oxygen through A hole in the throat,
Leaves (near Allaran) a Rabbit flabbergasted.



The first creature I meet when I arrive Is a stoat slipping underneath the gate,
Dominating the garden's quietude,
A part now of my Carrigskeewaun home From home, standing upright to greet me,
Its white belly a wintry glimpse, ermine.


Looking for a second marsh helleborine Takes me along the perimeter fencing To where I want my ashes wind-scattered.
Lapwings flap away over Lackakeely.
I'll picture them tonight among yellow flags,
Their heads tucked in, fidgeting as they sleep.


Always I think it is the last summer,
My lifetime adrift between the stepping stones With the badger drowned at spring tide, and past All that is left of the burial mound.
I am listening with Joe O'Toole's ghost To the breakers' roar for weather news.



Gerard Dillon painted the blinds in his two-up,
Two-down house in Clonard Street — Irish saints,
Farm animals, Connemara dreams — so that At evening when the gas lights were lit and The blinds drawn, children from the Lower Falls Would gather to gaze at a magic lantern.


Dillon found two wells on Inishlacken,
One cup-sized in a rock, seaweed-thatched,
One at low tide, sandy drinking water.


He painted the island like a seabird's nest.


Do you remember me turning over a stone That stayed wet beside the skinny waterfall,
And showing you, when you were a girl,
A sleepy stone-coloured salamander?

Can you startle it, now you are a woman,
And make of it a shipwrecked golden creature,
Its three rubies quenched by sea dark, its empty Six holes filling up with sand and sea water?


She toddles to the lake without a name,
Your two-year-old, and watches an otter,
Her first otter, half-expected by you Because, when you were expecting her,
You last watched an otter from this spot,
Your body a holt for otter and child.


I want to leave to you,
My grandchildren,
This wren from Down,
Its cotton-wool soul,
Wire skeleton, feathers Apparently alive,
Its tumultuous Aria in C or Whatever the key In which God exists.


Wordless in dawnlight She talks to herself,
Her speech-melody A waterlily budding.


Amelia, your newborn name Combines with the midwife's word And, like smoke from driftwood fires,
Wafts over the lochside road Past the wattle byre — hay bales For ponies, Silver and Whisper —
Between drystone walls' river-Rounded moss-clad ferny stones,
Through the fenceless gate and gorse To the flat erratic boulder Where otters and your mother rest,
Spraints black as your meconium,
Fish bones, fish scales, shitty sequins Reflecting what light remains.


I had thought of wind-chimes To accompany your sleep,
But they are too airy, so I imagine the fetlocks Of a neighbour's Clydesdale,
Icicles in harsh weather Tinkling at each earthy stride.


Your cry translates greylag-geese alarms And, invisible out there in sea mist,
The prawn-fisherman's puttering outboard.


I waken in the bed where you were born Weeks ago: the March light from Avernish Kindles in leafless self-seeded saplings Water-sparks, and rinses the scallop shells And white horseshoe that decorate the porch.

This is my unassuming nunc dimittis
While I wait like Simeon to cradle you Swaddled in light and shadow — vernix And lanugo — even the wattle byre's Rusty corrugated-iron roof's ablaze.


The sheep farmers of Antrim and Down are weeping For their ewes and spring lambs buried deep in the snow:
The nearest they'll get to a thaw on the cold hills Are the breath-holes, before these too fill up with snow.


During the power-cut Maisie wondered: 'Where is me?
I have disappeared.'


An iceberg in the dark Where we kiss, my bristly Chin reddening her chin.

She's a rock-'n'-roller.
I want to share with her Symphonic fragments

Snowdrifting towards their Theme. She sits on my knee After a sixth-form hop:

Plastic necklace, bangles That icicle-tinkle,
Sugar-stiff petticoats'

Rustling aroma. 'Oh,
It's a whole new world Down there,' a friend says:

Birdcalls in her throat, flute Notes, our finlandia,
Piccolo passerines.


I lodged above a poetry library, all The Irish poets accumulating on Victor Leeson's shelves in Dublin's Wellington Road,
Reflections in his shiny baby grand.

Bach preludes, Pears toilet soap, bacon smells,
My melancholy first Michaelmas Term,
Cycling to rediscover Nausicaa In Stanford's class, Odysseus hiding his sex.

Over breakfast Victor said nothing at all And I had little to say. 'Two eggs please.'
No poetry yet, none of that craziness,
Calypso, Penelope, where were the girls?

Greek Verse Composition and Latin Prose,
Conundrums, three-dimensional crossword Puzzles, I banged my head. 'The beautiful Things are difficult,' Stanford quoted.

The Latin love-elegy came true for me Eventually, when I held her hand During Les Enfants du Paradis
In the Astor cinema along the quays.

Fifty years later, in the catalogue Of Victor Leeson's poetry books, I find Like a digamma my name, and we talk In silence over the breakfast table.


You are dying. Why do we fight?
You find my first published poem —
'Not worth the paper it's printed on,'
You say. She gave him marigolds

You are dying. 'They've cut out my
Wheesht — I have to sit down To wheesht — like a woman'—
Marigolds the colour of autumn.

I need to hitchhike to Dublin For Trinity Term. 'I'll take you Part of the way,' you say,
'And we can talk if you like.'

And we talk and talk as though We know we are just in time.
'A little bit further,' you say Again and again, and in pain.

A few miles from Drogheda You turn the car. We say goodbye And you drive away slowly Towards Belfast and your death.

To keep in his cold room. Look At me now on the Newry Road Standing beside my rucksack. Och,
Daddy, look in your driving mirror.


for Seamus

What's the Greek for boat,
You ask, old friend,
Fellow voyager Approaching Ithaca —
Oh, flatulent sails,
Wave-winnowing oars,
Shingle-scrunching keel —
But, so close to home,
There's a danger always Of amnesiac storms,
Waterlogged words.

19 July 2011


One wreath had blackberry clusters Intertwined. Was it a blackbird Or wren that briefly sang a graveside Aria, godlike in its way, a psalm?
(He will defend you under his wing.
You will be safe under his feathers.)

5 October 2013


for Marie

A friend wears as a brooch Gold boat, golden oars,
Refinement intensified Below her breastbone,

Mast, oars, tiller Hammered thin as ash Keys, sycamore wings,
Rowlocks whispering,

Her journey's replica With me a stowaway,
A transubstantial Imaginary oarsman.

25 January 2012


poem ending with a line of Dermot Healy

Thistledown and meteors are streaming Along the lazybeds of the constellations.


for Catriona & Nic

Your friends lined your daughter's grave with flowers.
May I add belatedly from Carrigskeewaun Sandwort, just in bloom, and — still in bud —
Grass of parnassus, and lady's bedstraw That, out of the wind, grows taller, eyebright,
Ragged-robin, saxifrage, bog cotton,
Bog asphodel and speedwell speedwell At the lake without a name I leave unpicked One fragrant orchid for her to kneel and sniff.


for Emily

Out of the huge sadness of the Iliad
(I was reading Book Fifteen when you died)
Waterbirds are calling — barnacle geese,
Grey herons and long-necked whooper swans —
Waterbirds in flight over a water-meadow,
Honking, settling in front of one another,
Proud of their feather-power — taking me back To the camogie pitch where your heart failed.
Waterbirds are calling — barnacle geese,
Grey herons and long-necked whooper swans.



Our beech tree overshadows the hawthorn And laburnum in Claude Field's back garden,
So he who feeds the fox, and for the badger Cuts holes in hedges, joins me to witness The tree surgeon high in the canopy Deadwooding two (or is it three) hundred years.


Claude Field's wood anemones look cheerful Under the cherry tree: it has taken them His lifetime to reach across his garden To our neighbourly hedge: at ninety-three He shares another year's wood anemones With me: grandmother's nightcap, windflower.



Along the iron footbridge to the cathedral Lovers in their hundreds over the years Have fastened padlocks — Porky and Pils,
Magda and Jerzy — the names and dates Scratched with a penknife — the keys tossed Over their shoulders into the Oder To twinkle like minnows.
  We have to stand.
Out of this huge attentive congregation Some for sure have padlocked their betrothals.
The homily in Polish seems endless.
The one word we understand is 'Eichmann'.
There are shield-bugs mating beyond the bridge.
Does he keep an eye on rusty marriages,
Christ the locksmith in his lofty workshop?


After dumplings on cardboard plates We leave the botanical gardens For the windy riverside walk And try to avoid treading on Amorous shield-bugs — hundreds Along the pavement — minuscule Honeymooners — greyish with spots Valentine red — cherry blossom Covering motionless passion With bridal sheets — tipsy gods We walk hand in hand slowly To protect from our clumsiness Love-making on this April day —
Bugs connected bum to bum.


  I. Night-Walk

I come out alone onto the boreen,
A flinty path glimmering through mist,
Stilly night, wilderness listening to God,
The constellations in conversation,

Astonishing things up there in the sky,
The earth dozing in pale-blue radiance.
Why, then, am I so downhearted? What Am I waiting for? What do I regret?

I've stopped expecting anything from life,
I don't feel nostalgic about the past,
I long for freedom and tranquillity,
I long for forgetfulness and sleep,

But not the grave's spine-chilling coma.
I would prefer to fall asleep for ever With the life force snoozing in my breast As it rises and falls imperceptibly,
Night and day a kind voice soothing my ears With affectionate lullabies about love And over me, green for eternity,
A shadowy oak leaning and rustling.

II. Homeland

O my County Mayo home-from-home-land —
What would my neighbours, such understated Smallholders, make of this grandiloquence?
Paddy Ruane, barbed-wire virtuoso Who fleeces his ewes with hand-worked shears
(Close to his gateway marsh-cinquefoil hides);
Seamus Henaghan who built his house, box-Player,
lobster-fisherman (will he take me To bracken-smothered Inishdeigil where,
Before Carrigskeewaun, the O'Tooles lived?)
And Paddy Morrison, his silage boozy?
Under black plastic and old tractor tyres,
Stubble yellowing (his most precious crop Those butterfly orchids on their hummock);
Stonechat fledglings on the telephone wires,
Pebbly voices above the reeds that cover The 'Liable to Flooding' sign; the ghost River, my Owennadornaun diverted Beyond the water-meadow and memory And the usefulness of the stepping stones Across the channel; and the sandy slabs
(All that is left of the burial mound);
Horse-mushroom circles and rabbit holes On the inevitable long-winded trudge Up the path to my blustery lodging Between two lakes Mweelrea overshadows,
The ceilidh-house of the thirteen O'Tooles —
O my County Mayo home-from-home-land!


Accompany me on insomnia's walk Around Carrigskeewaun — my synapses Are sheeptracks — to where the footling waterfall Takes two steps down to the saltmarsh Beside our boulder-seat.
    In the asylum Helen Thomas took Ivor Gurney's hand When he was miles away from Gloucestershire And sanity, and on Edward's county map Guided his lonely finger down the lanes.
You are like Helen Thomas. Take my hand.


Following the ponies' hoof-prints And your own muddy track, I find Sweet pink nipples, wild raspberries,
A surprise among the brambles.



All ears in the Mugello What with the far cuckoo,
The harmonising frog And crickets everywhere,
Domestic sounds as well —
Heidi baking a chestnut Cake, Lorenzo's ladder Scraping the cherry tree —
We find in Silvano's Sloping upper meadow Close to the wood, regal Among seeding grasses,
An orchid, each lower lip A streamer, extroversion Requiring subtle breezes,
A name to silence cuckoo And frog, lizard orchid.


Did the muddy boots of Tommies Really bring back to England From the Great War lizard-orchid Seeds — stalks taller than you'd think,
Tongues little-finger-long, ribbons For widow hats — dead soldiers Returning, adhesive souls?


He remembered at Passchendaele Where men and horses drowned in mud,
His bog apprenticeship, mud turf,
Shovelling mud up out of the drain Onto the bank where it was dried:
Mud turf kept the home fires burning.


The spear-point pierces his tender neck.
His armour clatters as he hits the ground.
Blood soaks his hair, bonny as the Graces',
Braids held in place by gold and silver bands.
Think of a smallholder who rears a sapling In a beauty spot a burn burbles through
(You can hear its music close to your home)
Milky blossoms quivering in the breeze.
A spring blizzard blows in from nowhere And uproots it, laying its branches out.
Thus Euphorbus, the son of Pantheus,
A boy-soldier — the London Scottish, say,
The Inniskillings, the Duke of Wellington's —
Was killed and despoiled by Menelaus.


I should have commemorated before now Second Lieutenant Tooke who helped my dad Rescue Nurse Moussett of the French Red Cross At Paris Plage in June nineteen-seventeen.

He was swept away by currents and drowned.
My life-saving dad just made it to the shore.
Not once did he mention the unlucky Tooke.
This was a breather before Passchendaele.


My dad served with Ronald Colman in the Great War And laughed at his daydream of Hollywood stardom.
London-Scottish kilts looked frumpish after battle,
Blood, mud and shit bespattering handsome knees.
My dad lost all his teeth before he was twenty And envied Ronald Colman's spectacular smile.
He watched him trimming his moustache in cold tea At a cracked mirror, a thin black line his trademark.
Wounded at Messines — shrapnel in his ankle —
He tried in his films to cover up his limp — Beau Geste, Lost Horizon — my dad would go to see them all.
Did he share a last Woodbine with Ronald Colman Standing on the firestep, about to go their separate Ways, over the top, into No Man's Land, and fame?


Excerpted from "The Stairwell"
by .
Copyright © 2014 Michael Longley.
Excerpted by permission of Wake Forest University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Part One,
The Stairwell,
Two Otters,
Another Wren,
Maisie at Dawn,
Amelia's Poem,
Sibelius, 1956,
Michaelmas, 1958,
Marigolds, 1960,
The Broighter Boat,
Fragrant Orchid,
Wood Anemones,
After Mikhail Lermontov,
Wild Raspberries,
Lizard Orchid,
Mud Turf,
Second Lieutenant Tooke,
Ronald Colman,
At High Wood,
The Horses of Rhesus,
The Tin Noses Shop,
Glass Box,
Private Ungaretti,
A Pebble,
Part Two,
The Wheelchair,
The Trees,
The Arrow,
The Stray,
The Eye-Patch,
The Alphabet,
The Feet,
The Apparition,
The Lion,
The Bay,
The Stallion,
The Foals,
The Mule-Cart,
The Basket,
The Boxers,
The Wrestlers,
The Eagle,
The Dove,
The Twins,
The Birthday,
The Duckboards,
The Frost,
The Fire,
Notes & Acknowledgements,

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