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Angel Hill by Michael Longley review – elegies on conflict, grief and nature

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The essence of humanity is captured by one of the finest poets of his generation through the Troubles, the first world war and the beauty of wilderness

Angel Hill, or Cnoc nan Aingeal in Gaelic, is a burial ground in the Scottish Highlands, a “soul landscape” that lends its name to Longley’s 11th collection, which this week was shortlisted for the Forward poetry prize. A final resting place among the clouds, Angel Hill is close to the home of his daughter, the painter Sarah Longley, who with “easel and brushes”, “big sheets and charcoal for drawing” is “looking after the headstones”. In Longley’s “Snowdrops”, the hill is peopled by ghosts who are themselves visiting the dead: “Murdo, Alistair, / Duncan, home from the trenches, / Back in Balmacara and Kyle, / Cameronians, Gordon Highlanders / Clambering on hands and knees / Up the steep path to this graveyard.”

Like Yeats before him, Longley is the elegist and self-elegist par excellence of his generation. The Stairwell (2014) commemorated his late twin brother, Peter. In Angel Hill, Seamus Heaney is another kind of lost brother for Longley, the poet with whom he gave a reading tour of Northern Ireland in 1968 – a tour that Heaney described as the “beginnings of pluralism”, despite the Troubles that followed – and with whom he read in Lisdoonvarna two weeks before Heaney’s death. The friendship, with its “pilgrimages around the North” in Heaney’s muddy Volkswagen, is commemorated in “Room to Rhyme”, a powerful and intimate elegy in which the poet grieves for his subject and remembers his subject’s own grief: “When Oisin Ferran was burned to death, you / Stood helpless in the morgue and wept and wept.” In “Storm”, the “mighty beech” in the poet’s garden, a longstanding symbol in Longley’s work, has “lost an arm”; it is “Wind-wounded, lopsided now”. Where once they “Gazed up through cathedral / Branches at constellations”, now he and Heaney are “Together…counting tree-rings”.

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