I was back on the Beara Peninsula in West Cork recently after an absence of over a decade. I had forgotten the shock of seeing the tall remnants of the nineteenth-century copper mine at Allihies astride the rocks and the Atlantic Ocean everywhere I looked.
If my words were inadequate to describe the experience of the physical landscape of Beara, then one writer had no such problems with verbal inadequacy. I had not got round to reading Leanne O’Sullivan’s collection Cailleach – The Hag of Beara, so now was my opportunity to take the collection to the poet’s own place. The subject of the collection is the Hag of Beara, the mythic figure embedded in the Beara landscape: ‘I walk through paw-prints / the frost has dug, / among the moist grasses, / my silver hair flowing / like a cat’s deep stretch.’
Michael Longley has described these poems as ‘linguistically abundant’, ‘sensuous and religious’, ‘celebratory and erotic’ in these ‘cool cynical times’.The power of the writing comes, in part, from the breathtaking verbs and adjectives that depict the physical landscape of Beara: ‘rain-waxed fields’; ‘the night moistening the darkness’; ‘the pine trees sap the damp air’; the ‘chanting of stone’; ‘ebony in the fleshing sea’.
Ocean and stone are the dominant physical images on Beara and also in this collection where both images mirror the inner personal landscape: ‘The ocean became the beating thing within me;’ ‘layer upon layer, the stone clasps around me, and my eyes fall to where the sea and mountains meet.’
‘Rapture’ is the title of one of the poems in the collection and rapture is a sensation that courses through the writing as the poet – accompanied by the ghost of the Hag of Beara – roams the Beara rocks and seas ‘as if we were not separate’. Go to Beara and clutch Leanne O’Sullivan’s volume in your hand.
Michael Longley’s new volume A Hundred Doors is slim and snug and almost weightless in the hand. He returns again, almost apologetically, to a place that changed his life: ‘I am writing too much about Carrigskeewaun.’
He is there for the millennium, at Christmas, at lambing time, and – for the first time – with his new grandson Benjamin: ‘This is your first night at Carrigskeewaun. / The Owennadornaun is so full of rain / You arrived in Paddy Morrisson’s tractor’.
And then abruptly, we are in the Berg Room at New York’s Public Library where Longley peeks at the field note-books of the war and nature poet Edward Thomas: ‘A shell blast killed Edward Thomas, a gust / That still rifles the pages in the library.’
At the end of the collection the poet loops back to Carrigskeewaun and imagines a time when ha has left the place for the last time: ‘I hope you discover something I’ve overlooked, / Greenshanks, say, two or three elegantly probing / Where sand from the white strand and the burial ground / Blows in.’