Thursday, April 14, 2011

Lists, Part Two: "The Ice-Cream Man"

Michael Longley is a master of listing.  He has said:  "nothing remains ordinary if you look at it for long enough."  In the following poem -- one of his finest, I think -- Longley transforms a list into a profound lament for the human cost of the violence in his native Northern Ireland.     

                          The Ice-cream Man

Rum and raisin, vanilla, butter-scotch, walnut, peach:
You would rhyme off the flavours.  That was before
They murdered the ice-cream man on the Lisburn Road
And you bought carnations to lay outside his shop.
I named for you all the wild flowers of the Burren
I had seen in one day:  thyme, valerian, loosestrife,
Meadowsweet, tway blade, crowfoot, ling, angelica,
Herb robert, marjoram, cow parsley, sundew, vetch,
Mountain avens, wood sage, ragged robin, stitchwort,
Yarrow, lady's bedstraw, bindweed, bog pimpernel.

Michael Longley, Gorse Fires (Cape 1991).

Who would have thought that a simple list of wild flowers could be so heartbreaking?  Or could tell us so much about the value of life?  I take it back: this is, of course, not a "simple" list at all.

                          Eero Jarnefelt, "Pond Water Crowfoot" (1895)   

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