Michael Longley: Lost For Words

As our Northern Irish readers will know, stoically eating ice cream in the drizzle is something of a local tradition. If drizzle is not available, then usually a heavy downpour means that ice cream can be consumed in the car. I am privileged that my parents now live within 10 minutes’ drive of a fabled ice cream shop – The Cabin in Donaghadee. It’s a wonderful place to go for a poke (Norn Irish for an ice cream cone) and you should visit it if you’re in the area.

Whilst being true to my roots by eating ice cream in a car at North Tyneside, England, the convergence of thoughts led me to think of Michael Longley’s great elegy, ‘The Ice Cream Man’, published in 1992 and set in Belfast. I recommend that you look this poem up online to experience the beauty and simplicity which is the hallmark of Longley’s poetry.

Perhaps it would be better not to call this poem a great elegy, but rather a great apology for an elegy. Longley begins by offering the reader a list of ice cream flavours which, as Naomi Marklew has pointed out, are inspired by traditional Christmas ingredients. This compounds the feeling that – as Marklew tells us – we are reading of an ‘idealised past’. We are reminded of childhood flavours and idyllic Christmas mornings unwrapping presents by an open fire.  

The poem has other connotations too. Surely the title alludes to Wallace Stevens’ better known elegy: ‘The Emperor of Ice Cream’. The repetition of the title phrase in Stevens’s masterpiece conveys an overriding sense that nothing is stable or certain: everything melts like ice cream on a hot day. The echo of Stevens at the beginning of Longley’s ‘Ice Cream Man’ should prepare the reader (although in my case, it does not) for the contrast between the gentle lilt of Longley’s list of flavours and the stark statement that the ice cream seller has been murdered during the Northern Irish Troubles. In response to this, the speaker cannot find the words either to communicate the information about the event, nor to assuage the grief of those who lost a friend and family member. In place of an elegy, then, the speaker gives his readers a list of healing herbs and plants which echo in the silence of the uncompromising white space surrounding the poem.

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The debate surrounding this poem is whether or not the list of plants is sufficient to signal the regeneration and hope which is a traditional ingredient of the conclusion of an elegy. Is Longley admitting the failure of words to provide comfort? Or does he remake the elegiac genre to fit the demands of a new conflict and communicate hope in new beginnings? I would like to think the latter. 

There is no recipe today because I haven’t been successful in remaking an ice cream cone at home! I don’t think anything would taste the same as an ice cream bought from  a van.

References

Naomi Marklew, Northern Irish Elegy, PhD Thesis (University of Durham, 2011), p. 71.

Michael Longley, Gorse Fires (Cape, 1992).

 

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