Digging for Poems
I fancy I know more about Seamus Heaney’s back than anyone not related to him. He had given one of his lectures as Oxford Professor of Poetry and joined a crowd of us from his audience in the pub next door to “Schools” (the University’s main lecture facility in the High Street). He was sweating heavily. Since his clothes had stuck to him, I helped him shed his fustian academic gown and his Donegal tweed jacket, so he could drink in shirtsleeves. I was thanked with a pint of Guinness. But I was the one truly grateful: the few minutes when his back caught and held my eye continue to sustain my enjoyment of his art. Beneath shoulders as wide as a barn door, his huge back is four square, as broad as it’s long. I was looking at the powerful living embodiment of Heaney’s farming gene. He was the land’s before the land was his. In “Digging,” the first poem in his first book (Death of a Naturalist, 1966), the ambitious young poet recognizes the claim the family farm—in South Derry, Northern Island—has on him, as he swears by the toil of those who’ve gone before, “By God, the old man could handle a spade. / Just like his old man.” Although he will inhabit a different world and labor at a different trade from his father, the potato digger, and his grandfather, the turf cutter, he will be compelled by a strong sense of continuity (the “living roots”).[private] He vows in plain, down to earth syllables rippling with robust energy to absorb into his writing a skilled authority, a dignity and a durability inspired by the generations of ancestors who have worked the small holding.
The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.
He will maintain a respectful and productive relationship with the soil. We might picture the journeyman writer as he matures spitting on his hands before bending his back to dig in his poetic feet.
Heaney is still fond of “Digging” and cites it as remaining profoundly exemplary of his poetic practice. As he writes many poems over his lifetime out of an arbitrary birthright—a particular “given” (to pick up Helen Vendler’s word) that he cannot avoid treating as a writer—he digs into his personal landscape and the past of Derry, Ireland and elsewhere for his inspiration and his subject matter. Again and again, he seeks complex ways of making powerful and precise poetry out of the hand that fate has dealt him.
Fostered by Beauty
We can grant that his imagination is nourished by an abundant variety of sources, while we also welcome his healthy preoccupation with country life. That interest has inspired the austere eloquence of some of his most evocatively elegiac, yet unsentimental lyrics. Think of: “Follower” (“His eye / Narrowed and angled at the ground, / Mapping the furrow exactly”); “The Wife’s Tale” (“—as proud as if he were the land itself—”); “Iron Spike” (“So like a harrow pin / I hear harness creaks and click / of stones in a ploughed-up field”); “The Disappearing Island” (“The land sustaining us seemed to hold firm / Only when we embraced it in extremis”); “Electric Light” (“I feared // The dirt-tracked flint and fissure of her nail, / So plectrum-hard, glit-glittery, it must still keep / Among beads and vertebrae in the Derry ground”).
In his 1977 lecture “Sense of Place” Heaney commends a remark by Carson McCullers that “to know who you are, you have to have a place to come from.” Modern development absorbed his family’s Mossbawn farm. It was sold and the physical locale of his origin slipped from his direct reach: as he says in “Alphabets,” “All gone, with the omega that kept // Watch above each door, the good-luck horse shoe.” Yet long after Heaney’s mother (who died in 1984) and father (who died in 1986) were laid to rest with haunting, loving memorials in The Haw Lantern (1987), his Derry lives on to steady him and to serve his recent writing. So, loyal readers will not be surprised to be home, down on the farm, at least to begin with, in District and Circle.
In truth, they know they are on familiar ground before they open the book. The dust jacket of the American hardcover edition pictures a farmer’s boy in his three-piece Sunday best, with watch and chain in his top pocket, hair roughly clipped to short back and sides, and brown boots. The youth poses awkwardly but proudly in front of piles of recently lifted turnips, with his right arm bent to a hand-cranked, heavy cast iron agricultural machine. The jacket is an evocative trailer to the opening poem “The Turnip Snedder.” Initially, the lines decline to indulge the nostalgia lurking in the photograph; the verse’s short unrhymed doublets and rugged diction are rough-hewn, appropriate to the bygone rudimentary “age of bare hands / and cast iron” shown in the sepia photo, and to the snedder’s implacable utility, “it dug its heels in among wooden tubs / and troughs of slops, [ . . .] standing guard / on four braced greaves.” There is an abrupt switch of mood when the rhetoric rises above farmyard realism to personify the machine’s standing within seasonal imperatives. Its life has structure, an order that is solid and predictable, as it turns to grind the staple vegetable cultivated from ancient times as food for farmers and their livestock, sustaining them as they move through their own cycles.
“This is the way that God sees life, “
it said, “from seedling-braird to snedder,”
as the handle turned
and turnip-heads were let fall and fed
to the juiced-up inner blades,
“This is the turnip-cycle,”
as it dropped its raw sliced mess,
bucketful by glistering bucketful.
The sledgehammer in “A Shiver” is laboring mate to the snedder, throbbing with the strong certainty of its practical purpose. There is a consonance between such artifacts and the powerful rugged rhythms in the writing that brings them to the page, inviting us to connect the simple regularities of labor done with tools and with such poems.
The way its iron head planted the sledge
Unyieldingly as a club-footed last;
[ . . .]
does it do you good
To have known it in your bones, directable,
Withholdable at will,
A first blow that could make air of a wall,
A last one so unanswerably landed
The staked earth quailed and shivered in the handle?
The pins from harrows in “Harrow Pin” and the hay-bailer in “Súgán” are similarly elevated to a memorial status, more than just their strong presence, as they are resolutely celebrated, registered with love. Heaney’s poetry has always had a primary interest in honoring domestic and farming hardware. Milk pails and churns, milking machines, small butter spades, axes, pitchforks, hand pumps, farrowing crates, horse-drawn ploughs, threshing machines, all have a palpable presence, and are respectfully given their due in lines crafted with an exacting heft that makes good on the early promise of “Digging.” The objects are no-nonsense emblems of his family’s hard physical life on the land and the ingrained respect for simplicity and honest toil that went with it.
“Fair seedtime had my soul, and I grew up / Fostered alike by beauty and by fear: / Much favoured in my birthplace.” Heaney has written of his debt to Wordsworth in the growth of his poet’s mind and includes this fragment of The Prelude in the epigraph to “Singing School” (North, 1975). His verbal stock of hardware is integral to the beauty of his seedtime, as are his personal memories of initiations, innocence rubbing against experience, found in District and Circle. The child grows up learning to make adult connections in such incidents as: the Saturday evening visit with his father to the butcher to buy the Sunday roast, an adventure shadowed by “Neighbours with guns, parading up and down” (“The Nod”); his stolen taste of chewing tobacco, “The roof of my mouth is thatch set fire to / At the burning out of a neighbour” (“A Chow”); his first haircut, “your sheeted self inside that neck-tied cope— / Half sleeveless surplice, half hoodless Ku Klux cape” (“A Clip”); and elementary school mischief punished when “once upon a winter’s day Miss Walls / Lost her head and cut the legs off us / For dirty talk we didn’t think she’d hear”(“The Sally Rod”). In “Anahorish 1944” American troops “like youngsters” assembling for the Normandy invasion pass close by as pigs are butchered for the table, “A Tuesday morning, sunlight and gutter-blood / Outside the slaughterhouse.” The adult who speaks the entire poem looks back at the scene from his maturity to see relations, friends, and allies all with blood on their hands. His hindsight now captures the exact moment when the boy’s safe and predictable world came to an end.
Fostered by Fear
The poems I have mentioned so far, from his first collection through to his most recent, are part of a body of work that is Heaney’s kind of pastoral, poetry that endows his rural background with benevolence and dignity. But the full complexities of his Northern Irish lineage are neither easy nor straightforward matters to imagine in verse. Considerations of locality and identity are cleft with the divisions of the culture that he was born into as a Catholic in the Protestant section of his land, which is part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and a country separated within the island of Ireland from the mainly Catholic Irish Republic. The other “given” the poet must treat as he grows into full consciousness dates from the sixteenth century: the historical agonies of religious intolerance and the brutishness of colonial and sectarian violence. Responding to the escalation of civil conflict in the North in the late 1960s, Heaney wrote his most sustained, overt meditations on what he calls the “atrocities, past and present, in the long rites of Irish political struggles.” Among the assorted poems for exhumed bog bodies in Wintering Out (1972) and North, I think the bleak, unsettling “Punishment” (from North) exemplifies his most intense poetic treatment of The Troubles (the euphemism coined by those most burdened by the punishing civil conflicts they were living through). The ancient body dug from the bog “bruised like a forceps baby” merges with the image of two modern Catholic “betraying sisters” chained to a railing, shaved and tarred, punished by the IRA for fraternizing with British soldiers. Here is the last section.
My poor scapegoat,
I almost love you
but would cast, I know,
the stones of silence.
I am the artful voyeur
of your brain’s exposed
and darkened combs,
you muscles’ webbing
and all your numbered bones:
I who have stood dumb
when your betraying sisters,
cauled in tar,
wept by the railings,
who would connive
in civilized outrage
yet understand the exact
and tribal, intimate revenge.
The speaker bears silent witness to his own guilt-ridden silence and to his eerie willingness to “understand” the present culture’s far from silent propensity to violence. We might recall a similar moment of self reproach when Yeats cries in “Parnell’s Funeral,” “Come, fix upon me that accusing eye. / I thirst for accusation.”
The Good Friday Agreement in 1998 promised a decisive break with the past and the opportunity to resolve Ulster’s deep and tragic conflict by sharing power and ending sectarian murder. The Agreement came into force in December 1999, but several more years passed before disputes over the practicalities of implementation—particularly when and how paramilitary arsenals were to be disarmed—were resolved to the satisfaction of every legitimate political party. Has the time come to say the last rites over The Troubles? I’d hesitate to credit any celebratory energy in District and Circle to the advent of power sharing in Ulster (as I write—in March 2009—dissident republican groups continue to murder and maim soldiers, police, and civilians). But some of the longer poems that treat Heaney’s homeland imply that a sigh of relief, at the very least, is in order. They infuse the collection with a delicate lyricism. His sense of place continues to exert a haunting emotional pull. He nods to the Gaelic dinnseanchas tradition—poems on the lore of places—in the uplifting “Moyulla,” a dialect form of Moyola, the 27 mile river, polluted yet alive with trout and salmon, running through mid-Ulster. The water flow ripples into erotic appreciation of a nymph and an unnamed lover, so that river and body are in concert. The poem begins sensuously, in the swim of itself.
In those days she flowed
black-lick and quick
under the sallies,
the coldness off her
like the coldness off you—
your cheek and your clothes
and your moves—when you come in
She was in the swim
of herself, her gravel shallows
swarmed, pollen sowings
tarnished her pools.
And ends as a form of prayer in gratitude to the enduring flow in the river of language that bolsters all spirits.
Step into her for me
some fresh-faced afternoon,
but not before
you step into thigh waders
to walk up to the bib
upstream, in the give and take
of her deepest, draggiest purchase,
getting back at her, sourcing
her and your plashy self,
neither of you
ready to let up.
A Wide Circle
“Höfn” arises from anxieties about the environment away from home, folding a subtle understanding of threats from global warming into Wordsworthian awe before a sublime Icelandic wonder, a “three-tongued glacier,” melting, yet “still seemed enough / To iceblock the plane window dimmed with breath, / Deepfreeze the seep of adamantine tilth // And every warm, mouth-watering word of mouth.” Heaney has claimed—affirming art’s relevance to politics—“the end of art is peace.” Eight poems at the center of District and Circle are not ready to let up on direct political engagement. His narrators here look further afield than the near-sighted “artful voyeur” of “Punishment,” as they distill the apprehension and violence of our present time. Bloody, bitter disputes have no frontiers, these recent poems suggest; violence is not an anomaly, but one of the many ways extremist ideas are pursued everywhere. “Anything Can Happen” renders Horace, Odes, I, 34 to allude to the September 2001 attack on America, “Anything can happen, the tallest towers // Be overturned, those in high places daunted.” The same explosive event lights the fuse of the jammed compounds and thickly alliterative meter—in the manner of Anglo-Saxon verse—of “Helmet” with “Bobby Breen’s. His Boston fireman’s gift” providing a connection to the brutal, desolate end, “while shattering glass // And rubble bolts out of a burning roof / hailed down on every hatchet man and hose man there / Till the hard-reared shield-wall broke.” The sonnet “Out of Shot” has terrorism relentlessly intruding into the pastoral. A “donkey seen on the TV news last night— / Loosed from a cart that had loosed five mortar shells / In the bazaar district, wandering out of shot,” does what the viewer cannot—wander out of sight of organized violence.
I’ve heard that the title poem was prompted by the July 2005 terrorist bombings of London’s public transport system. (In 2006, Sunil Iyengar gave a matchless stanza by stanza reading of that poem for this Review.) To be sure, two of the four bombs that killed 50 people and injured over 700 exploded in subway stations on London Underground’s District and Circle line. And the poem has a ghostly circle of the harried dead (“A crowd half straggle-ravelled and half-strung / Like a human chain,”). But the three sonnets and two short sonnets comprising “District and Circle” yield nothing explicit to substantiate that rumor and, in any case, transcend questions of topicality through classical echoes. The poem takes place by courtesy of Eliot’s sense of a hostile world where city clerks troop over London Bridge in The Waste Land (“I had not thought death had undone so many”) and remembers Dante’s descent into Hell in Inferno, with the poet Virgil as guide. Heaney brings together legacies he has inherited both from previous great poets in his circle, and also from the community in his district. He is newly and fully grateful for both. Underground, the uneasy narrator is “Accorded passage” by a familiar busker (today’s Orpheus) and descends level by level to a self-examination that questions how he is spending his inheritances (“Had I betrayed or not, myself or him? / Always new to me, always familiar, / This unrepentant, now repentant turn / As I stood waiting”). The poem concludes with the speaker looking directly at mortality. His own reflection gives back his father’s face, as the parent continues the life of all shades, dead but not done with correcting and inspiring the son (“My father’s glazed face in my own waning / And craning . . .”):
And so by night and day to be transported
Through galleried earth with them, the only relict
Of all that I belonged to, hurtled forward,
Reflecting in a window mirror-backed
By blasted weeping rock-walls.
Like all poets, Heaney draws on the vast fraternity of literary artists to enrich his own imaginative gifts. He is eager, in prose meditations free of discernible anxiety, to name those many predecessors and contemporaries from whom he takes with grateful hands, whose influence he absorbs by admiring appropriation. And he frequently offers poems for those in his ever-widening international circle. In this collection, the three- poem sequence “Out of this World, in memory of Czeslaw Milosz” is a secular devotion spoken by one who is a lapsed communicant. The group mingles powerful memories of Catholic ritual intoned at youthful observances, a pilgrimage, and the street musician, playing a saw, “In Belfast, around Christmas,” called up now to soothe the dead Catholic friend . . .
who lies this god-beamed day
Coffined in Kraków, as out of this world now
As the untranscendent music of the saw
He might have heard in Vilnius or Warsaw
And would not have renounced, however paltry.
There are tributes to Dorothy Wordsworth, Ted Hughes, George Seferis, Pablo Neruda, Auden, and others. But, they lack the muted wonder refracted through time in “Out of this World.” They read more like thank you notes written out of duty, not genuine respect and gratitude.
Heaney’s poetic temperament has always found elegy congenial. One way of getting a measure of the few poems to the illustrious that strike me as shallow in wit is to take them alongside the sketches of two elderly women of the district, linked as “Home Help” (“1. Helping Sarah,” “2. Chairing Mary”). Their memorials are written with magnanimity, devoid of overwrought sentiments. Sarah and Mary were always part of the to and fro of the district, vulnerable but stubborn presences, proud of the long adult effort of putting a life together, “In the same old skirt and brogues, on top of things / Every time she straightened. And a credit.” To themselves and the district, and to the common humanity we share with them.
A poet with nerves awake, as he ages, incorporates his past into his present and finds a sustaining creative energy tempered by time and age. We are coming to know Heaney the reviser of some of his own earlier poems. Familiar themes and subjects are taken up as second thoughts, or reflections on previous reflections, returned to as sources of regeneration. “The Tollund Man in Springtime” sequence resurrects for the fourth time the figure who made his debut in Wintering Out, now imagined climbing out of his museum display case to walk as “a stranger among us” in the twenty-first century. “The Blackbird of Glanmore,” placed at the end of District and Circle, re-envisions “Mid-Term Break” in his first book. The earlier poem is narrated by an adolescent at the wake for his four-year-old brother killed in a motor accident, mourned in the raw pain and numbed disbelief of the final stark line that sees the coffin as, “A four foot box. A foot for every year.” The adult who speaks in the later poem remains emotionally true to the original experience of loss, but now recounts a transformative moment when the bird, previously thought to be an ill omen, a folk harbinger of the tragedy, fills “the stillness with life.” In the present moment, the vitality of the blackbird stirs a nourishing memory of “A little stillness dancer— / Haunter son, lost brother— / Cavorting through the yard, / So glad to see me home.” After meditating on contemporary political and environmental threats, this fine volume’s parting words bring peace in a moment of homely grace, a moment that accepts the inescapable pattern of loss and gain that plots our maturity.
for a second
I’ve a bird’s eye view of myself,
A shadow on raked gravel
In front of my house of life.
Hedge-hop, I am absolute
For you, your ready talkback,
Your each stand-offish comeback,
Your picky, nervy goldbeak—
On the grass when I arrive,
In the ivy when I leave.