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.