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?’