The Stairwell by Michael Longley | Book Review

Michael Longley’s poetry collection is very varied and touches on a plethora of subjects, starting with war, history, grief and loss, but mostly nature and the speaker’s relationship with nature. The book was sent to me by Libris, for which I am thankful, and you can find it on If anything, at points I can even consider it a collection of eulogies – for his twin brother, for those who lost their lives in the Great War. Regardless of their themes or length, one should pay careful attention as his poems can slip quietly – and often need a second reading to entirely comprehend their meaning.

Longley is probably one of the very few poets who succeeded at maintaining the tone that he started his poetry collection with. From my experience, it’s quite rare for poets to comprise a certain continuity both in terms of tone and rhythm, but Longley is precisely one of the few who can do it – alongside Ocean Vuong. He manages to avoid drastic changes and give a certain feeling of familiarity as the book progresses. I’m currently translating Edith Hamilton’s Mythologies, which, obviously, retells Greek, Roman and Norse myths that have inspired human creativity across history. Perhaps a coincidence, The Stairwell consists of many poems in which the poet focuses on Western history starting with the Greeks (quite a few analogies to historical figures such as Achilles and Patroclus). Even more poignant is his interpretations of certain scenes from the Iliad and the connections he establishes between the classic piece, war and nature. Essentially, most poems in the collection make for a touching read; however, if I had to sum it up in a few words, I would say it is a collection of a lifetime’s worth of heartache, particularly emphasizing the poems dedicated to his late twin brother.

Although a vast majority of poems were quite enjoyable – and some of them impeccable – there were a handful that were difficult to follow or felt flat. Judging poetry is quite subjective, I believe, and one must keep in mind that opinions are not facts, but judgments formed against a background characterized by one’s emotional luggage and previous experiences. Regardless, The Stairwell is an oddly uplifting and moving collection consisting of poems of death that are brilliantly put together with what the poet himself defined as “birth-poems” – mostly centred around his grandchildren but could also be extended to nature. Conclusively, one must take into account the Irish poet’s collection when in search for an outstanding read.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Title: The Stairwell
Author: Michael Longley
Publication Date: 2014
Publisher: Jonathan Cape
Format: Paperback|80 pages

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