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Lunar New Year Reads, #50: North, by Seamus Heaney

Relieved exhalation of breath.

Seamus Heaney (here’s his Nobel Prize website bio page) is a poet I come to again and again. The first thing I ever read of his writing, though, besides a couple of pieces in an anthology, was prose — essays, I believe, on poetics and poetry. For a few years, I read almost nothing of him, until I arrived in Jeonju. After some time, I ventured to take a look in the English-language texts collection at the Uni where I was working, and what do you know, but they had a lot of his poetry, to the tune of a couple of Faber & Faber editions. I remembered thinking decent what little I’d read of his work, and signing them out, and from then, I was hooked. I tore through two or three of them, counting the ones I managed to find in used bookshops in Bangkok and India, and also copied, for later reading, the copy of North that was held by the University library.

Now, I actually have a Collected Poems of Seamus Heaney, and I’ve had it for a few months now, since the day I posted about it, but of course there was no way I could finish the whole Collected Poems and sleep tonight. Also, I find that Collected Poems sometimes leave out fascinating little pieces that add a lot to a particular book, and as I recently commented in the context of e.e. cummings, sometimes one gets a lot more out of a book when one reads a single volume of verse as a single, discrete text.

So I picked up North, and started in on it.

What a magnificent piece of work North is. Now, something very important to know is that the book is in two parts, and they seem, at first, radically different. The first part has a lot of the kinds of poems that Heaney is famous for — the bog-people, the bewitching songs of their sleep and their rising, scenes of the living and the dead in strange, unpronounceable interaction, and both the living and the dead in some deeper, more holy and meaningful interaction with the bog itself, the land, the homeland and all that saturates and haunts it. The silences of dead women particularly resonate through Heaney’s bog in this text, and we find him looking up Queens and adulteresses alike in the strangest of intimacies, the gaze upon the exhumed dead. The landscape is an animist, which could be, in Heaney, a kind of deist’s vision as well. Stones aren’t mossy, they are “bearded”, and amber and autumn abound everywhere.

And then there is the second part, which seems to be a sudden cut to the present, to two basic sets of problems: one being political problems in Ireland, and the other being the problems a poet faces in developing his voice, his convictions, his pride and surety of voice living under occupation.

But on closer examination, hints of conquest and occupation are scattered throughout the first half of the book. There’s discussion of the etymology of the name “Mossbawn” in the poem “Belderg”, where Norse and English roots are considered for the syllables of the name. Heaney writes of the “word-hoard” left behind by the “fabulous raiders, /those lying in Orkney and Dublin”. He writes of Viking Dublin with fascination, though these people, of course, spilled Irish blood, and invaded. After making himself over as “Hamlet, the Dane”, he invokes them:

Old fathers, be with us.
Old Cunning assessors
of feuds and of sites
for ambush and town.

More and more, as Part I continues, as we read “Ocean’s Love to Ireland” and the battle of “Hercules and Antaeus”, we are prepared for the very modern and very urban clashing of opposed forces in Ireland.

Just as an occupier splits people from the land and buries them in it, the split between Protestant and Catholic in Heaney’s youth splits people from the land and themselves, which seems to be the strongest message being yelled in “Whatever You Say Say Nothing”. This would be fitting advice for a bog-person, dead long years, but for a living person, it is a painful thin to keep one’s silence. In “Freedman”, as in all his writing, Heaney attests to the freeing power of his writing, personally something that empowers him in the face of all the limitations imposed on him. The quotation that he chooses to open “Freedman” is interesting, as it is a suggestion that by work, a slave in Roman society could become a useful member of Roman society — or, rather, useful to Roman society. This crescendoes as Heaney explores his own development in poltical and poetical consciousness — not really separable, those two, I suspect — throughout his multi-sectional “Singing School”:

Those poems in longhand, ripped from the wire spine
Of your exercise book, bewildered me-
Vowels and ideas bandied free
As the seed-pods blowing off our sycamores.
I tried to write about the sycamores
And innovated a South Derry rhyme
With hushed and lulled full chimes for pushed and pulled.
Those hobnailed boots from beyond the mountain
Were walking, by God, all over the fine
Lawns of elocution.
Have our accents
Changed? ‘Catholics, in general, don’t speak
As well as students from the Protestant schools.’
Remember that stuff? Inferiority
Complexes, stuff that dreams were made on.

(See the full section of that poem here.)

Heaney’s not unaware that the colonial history of his nation — its history as the subject of Roman, and then British, colonization What’s interesting to me is the play of tensions between the benefits of colonisation — the word-hoard, the rich wealth of tombs and things to be found in the subterrene of his homeland, his culture, his history; his freedom to travel abroad; the energy and power of what he is writing about in the first place — and the awfulness of colonial experience in the recent past and present, such as when, in “A Constable Calls”, his father is questioned by an armed constable,

‘Any other root crops?
Magolds? Marrowstems? Anything like that?’
‘No.’ But was there not a line
Of turnips where the seed ran out

In the potato field? I assumed
Small guilts and sat
Imagining the black hole in the barracks.

The difficulty of being “[a]n immer émigré, grown long-haired / And thoughtful; a wood-kerne // Escaped from massacre” is not only that of being not on any side, for each is as bad as the other, but also comes from other writers, even, as an older writer friend talks of how he himself was sent out by one Hopkins (could it be Gerard Manley? I’ve no idea) who, the speaking friend, whom we might imagine to be Michael McLaverty (as the poem is dedicated to him) says of Hopkins,

He discerned
The lineaments of patience everywhere
And fostered me and sent me out, with words
Imposing on my tongue like obols.

Obols, tongues put in the mouth for the fare across the River Styx, are a sign of death, but also, here, clearly relate to the anxious relationship a poet has with his own style, his style’s relation to the past, to “fosters” one might have (many poets do have them), and to context in general. There’s a fascinating-sounding paper here about how earlier versions of the poem were more explicitly political — instead of, as it ended up, subterraneously political — but the article isn’t accessible to me, so I shall simply note the fact with interest. I’d bet that the early drafts of many of Heaney’s poems are downright fascinating.

In any case, as the book is, even at being published in 1975, a relatively early work for Heaney, I think it’s one of the finest I’ve read so far. I am even more eager now to get a chance to read through his Collected Poems, though I daren’t carry it traveling with me, as I don’t wish to bring any book along that I would want to carry back, and Heaney’s poems, like any treasure worth the effort of its making, is something I will wish to return to time and time again.

And whew, with that, my Lunar New Year reading project is done. I have another “reading project” of a different kind in mind, but I’ll get to that later. Right now, I am going to go finish packing my boxes for the upcoming move, and preparing for my trip.

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