Emerging, as it did, after over a decade of silence, Gorse Fires had an immediate and resounding impact – revealing a poetry that seemed renewed and re-energised – and winning the Whitbread Prize for Poetry in 1991. It is now regarded as the pivotal book in Michael Longley’s distinguished career.
If Ireland remains Longley’s starting-point or implied focus, it is often sighted through disturbing perspectives that derive from foreign cultures, from Homer’s Odyssey, from the Second World War, and from the Holocaust. Even his beautifully precise poems about the West of Ireland are shadowed by the many destructive forces ranged against the creative act.
Longley’s versions of Odysseus’ return to Ithaca and ‘Ghetto’ (based on the Polish ghettoes) epitomise his concern with the meaning of home and family. He sees these archetypes of Western civilisation as vulnerable, problematic, violated by power. Odysseus’ homecoming involves murder and vengeance as well as reunions – a connection with the ambiguities of life in Northern Ireland.
Gorse Fires is an unusual artistic blend: darkly austere, yet abundant in images, catalogues and syntactical virtuosity. The formal links between poems gives the whole collection the air of a richly varied sequence; it is a work of the highest order.
Winner of the Whitbread Prize for Poetry.