Thursday, December 14, 2006

Michael Longley, "Ceasefire"

Put in mind of his own father and moved to tears
Achilles took him by the hand and pushed the old king
Gently away, but Priam curled up at his feet and
Wept with him until their sadness filled the buidling.

Taking Hector's corpse into his own hands Achilles
Made sure it was washed and, for the old king's sake,
Laid out in uniform, ready for Priam to carry
Wrapped like a present home to Troy at daybreak.

When they had eaten together, it pleased them both
To stare at each other's beauty as lovers might,
Achilles built like a god, Priam good-looking still
And full of conversation, who earlier had sighed:

'I get down on my knees and do what must be done
And kiss Achilles' hand, the killer of my son.'

[Hear Longley read this poem:]


From The Ghost Orchid (1995)

This poem illustrates another alternative for the relation between title and poem. Unlike the poems earlier in the week, this one has no riddling quality - as Longley (b. 1939) describes it, it is his rendering of certain lyrically intense moments plucked from the narrative of Homer's Iliad. Though the moments are spaced out and in a different order in the original, the reader is not confused as to the situation, provided a minimal familiarity with the events of the Trojan War (during which the Greek Achilles killed the Trojan Hector, beloved son of Priam, King of Troy).
The title, however, catapults these events - of parley, empathy, respect, admiration, and concession - into a contemporary context. Longley wrote the poem in 1994, during rumours of a possible ceasefire in Northern Ireland, and it was published in The Irish Times just days after such a ceasefire was announced. The poem seems to urge conciliation and empathy, the sense that one's enemies' past tragedies are the same as one's own. It tactfully condemns neither side - indeed, it shows reverence towards the figures, though perhaps also implicating the sense of glory and idealization of the warrior which feeds into violence. It even pays witness to a certain grudging attitude, though in so doing it valorizes Priam's courage to "do what must be done", an act of responsibility to one's kin, which is met with equal humanity; the final couplet is resolutely noble. The temporal jump between the poem's and title's two references - a span of millenia - suggests both the timeless and timely potential of poetry.

(More about Michael Longley, including audio:

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