The Long Tailed Pull of Grief

Although I think I prefer the earlier parts of Seamus Heaney’s Selected Poems 1966-1987, there were still several poems I found appealing in the last two sections. One of my favorites uses a kite as a metaphor for the human soul. Perhaps I find that appealing because I just returned from a beach trip where I’ve often flown kites; still, Heaney uses the metaphor to suggest a number of interesting possibilities:

A Kite for Michael and Christopher

All through that Sunday afternoon
a kite flew above Sunday,
a tightened drumhead, an armful of blown chaff.

I'd seen it grey and slippy in the making,
I'd tapped it when it dried out white and stiff,
I'd tied the bows of newspaper
along its six-foot tail.

But now it was far up like a small black lark
and now it dragged as if the bellied string
were a wet rope hauled upon
to lift a shoal.

My friend says that the human soul
is about the weight of a snipe,
yet the soul at anchor there,
the string that sags and ascends,
weigh like a furrow assumed into the heavens.

Before the kite plunges down into the wood
and this line goes useless
take in your two hands, boys, and feel
the strumming, rooted, long-tailed pull of grief.
You were born fit for it.
Stand in here in front of me
and take the strain.

At first the poem seems merely about a kite, about a kid’s toy. The interesting contrast between the “tightened drumhead” and “blown chaff” seems merely to accurately describe a kite. Later, though, when we realize the kite is used as a symbol for the human soul we wonder how these details fit in with the extended metaphor. Is our soul “a tightened drumhead” or “useless chaff?”


Though the kite metaphor hardly seems original, the emphasis on the tail of the kite does seem so. In a sense this “long-tailed pull of grief” may well keep the kite from flying up to heaven, keep it anchored to the earth, as it were, but, when you also consider that a kite flies wildly out of control without a tail, the role of grief in our life takes on a very different role. Our grief, like our joy, provides stability in our lives and allows our soul to soar while still tying us to the earth.

Believe it or not, we are all “born fit for it,” are all able to “take the strain.” Doing so makes us human and unites us with those who stand here next to us.

“The Stone Verdict” is quite different from “A Kite for Michael and Christopher,” but I find the poem strangely appealing, perhaps because I still don’t quite know what to make of it. At first glance it’s the simplicity of the poem that attracts me. After reading it a couple times, though, it’s the unusual use of “Hermes” that most seems to appeal to me:

The Stone Verdict

When he stands in the judgment place
With his stick in his hand and the broad hat
Still on his head, maimed by self-doubt
And an old disdain of sweet talk and excuses,
It will be no justice if the sentence is blabbed out.
He will expect more than words in the ultimate court
He relied on through a lifetime's speechlessness.

Let it be like the judgement of Hermes,
God of the stone heap, where the stones were verdicts
Cast solidly at his feet, piling up around him
Until he stood waist-deep in the cairn
Of his apotheosis: maybe a gate-pillar
Or a tumbled wallstead where hogweed earths the silence
Somebody will break at last to say, 'Here
His spirit lingers,' and will have said too much.

Maybe I was first drawn to this poem because I wear a broad hat and carry a walking stick when I hike, which is often, and have never been too fond of “sweet talk and excuses,” particularly from students. I doubt, though, that I will ever be accused of relying on “a lifetime’s speechlessness,” especially after writing this weblog for nearly a year.

I do, however, identify with the “strong, silent” type who wants nothing to do with “feelings,” finding it quite difficult to discuss my personal feelings directly. I come by this naturally as my dad was definitely a “man’s man” and personified the strong, silent type. My movie hero as a child was John Wayne, and he was known for action, not dialogue.

The image of Hermes used here, though, is the most interesting part of the poem for me. I’ve always thought of Hermes as the messenger of the Gods. I never realized he was associated with piles of stones. Apparently he was an early God that was marked by piles of stones, or cairns, and was later adopted by the Greeks. Nor did I realize that he led the dead to Hades.

However, I could discover nothing about Hermes burying the dead in stones, so that seems to be Heaney’s fusion of the various aspects of the mythology. Personally, though, I could think of no greater tribute than to have my passing marked by a cairn that silently says “this is the way,” preferably one that marks the way around Mt. Hood or Mt. Adams.

Seamus Heaney Selected Poems 1966-1987 is never going to become one of my favorite volumes of poetry, but like most good poets he allowed me to see the world in new ways. For me, the poems’ greatest insights stem from Heaney’s victimization as a minority in Northern Island. Like Naoimi Nye, Heaney offers us a viewpoint we can probably never experience ourselves. However, we can learn a valuable lesson from him that will help us to better see the world through the eyes of the oppressed, a lesson Americans probably need more than ever in these trying times.

Seamus Heaney's Nobel Speech (courtesy of If )

Flourishing the Stained Cape of His Heart

The fourth poem “ Summer 1969” continues Seamus Heaney’s exploration of the effects of violence in “Singing School.” It’s a quite remarkable statement of the guilt that a young person might well feel while watching riots in his home country while he is studying abroad:

from Singing School

Summer 1969

While the Constabulary covered the mob
Firing into the Falls, I was suffering
Only the bullying sun of Madrid.
Each afternoon, in the casserole heat
Of the flat, as I sweated my way through
The life of Joyce, stinks from the fishmarket
Rose like the reek off a flax-dam.
At night on the balcony, gules of wine,
A sense of children in their dark corners,
Old women in black shawls near open windows,
The air a canyon rivering in Spanish.
We talked our way home over starlit plains
Where patent leather of the Guardia Civil
Gleamed like fish-bellies in flax-poisoned waters.

'Go back,' one said, 'try to touch the people.'
Another conjured Lorca from his hill.
We sat through death counts and bullfight reports
On the television, celebrities
Arrived from where the real thing still happened.

I retreated to the cool of the Prado.
Goya's 'Shootings of the Third of May'
Covered a wall-the thrown-up arms
And spasm of the rebel, the helmeted
And knapsacked military, the efficient
Rake of the fusillade. In the next room
His nightmares, grafted to the palace wall-
Dark cyclones, hosting, breaking; Saturn

Jewelled in the blood of his own children,
Gigantic Chaos turning his brute hips
Over the world. Also, that holmgang
Where two berserks club each other to death
For honour's sake, greaved in a bog, and sinking.

He painted with his fists and elbows, flourished
The stained cape of his heart as history charged.

While parts of this poem seem quite clear, other parts are greatly enhanced by the remarkable instant access of the internet. The irony of “I was suffering/ Only the bullying sun of Madrid” while others are dying at homes seems straightforward but effective. And, yet, despite his absence from the violence, his feelings about the violence somehow seem reinforced by his own evironment where women and children hide in the shadows far from the “Guardia Civil.” Death counts from the riots are intermingled with “bullfight reports,” as human deaths mix with the ceremonial death of the bulls demanded by a “civilized” country.

Even in the relative shelter of the Spanish Museum the narrator is reminded of violence and death, man’s inhumanity to his own. Goya’s “Shootings of the Third of May” may well be a more direct reminder of the riots in Ireland, but the image of Saturn eating his own child is a more vivid insight into the savage nature of mankind, all reminiscent of even earlier violence when primitive men in Denmark killed each other in ceremonial combat.

Perhaps even more poignant than “Summer 1969” is Heaney’s “Punishment” describing a maiden apparently sacrificed or punished in an earlier time.

Punishment

I can feel the tug
of the halter at the nape
of her neck, the wind
on her naked front.

It blows her nipples
to amber beads,
it shakes the frail rigging
of her ribs.

I can see her drowned
body in the bog,
the weighing stone,
the floating rods and boughs.

Under which at first
she was a barked sapling
that is dug up
oak-bone, brain-firkin:

her shaved head
like a stubble of black corn,
her blindfold a soiled bandage,
her noose a ring

to store
the memories of love.
Little adulteress,
before they punished you

you were flaxen-haired,
undernourished, and your
tar-black face was beautiful.
My poor scapegoat,

I almost love you
but would have cast, I know,
the stones of silence.
I am the artful voyeur

of your brain's exposed
and darkened combs,
your 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.

Now, if the truth be known, I’m not sure I would have had anywhere near the same feeling from seeing this exhibit that Heaney describes in this poem. When I see mummies, it’s difficult for me even to imagine them as ever having been alive, much less imagine the moment of their death.

However, this poem effectively puts us into the imaginative position of watching someone being executed for having committed adultery, a sin any of us might be tempted into committing. (Coincidentally this reminds me of Mike Golby’s recent entry on a woman in Africa being condemned to being stoned to death for committing adultery.) Heaney forces us to ask what kind of people could strip a beautiful flaxen-haired girl, shave half her head, blindfold her, put a noose around her neck and drown her by tying rocks to her and throwing her into a bog for committing adultery?

Perhaps the most sobering aspect of the poem, though, is the narrator’s admission that he “would have cast, I know,/ the stones of silence,” a quiet admission that, although perhaps he would never have done these things himself, he probably would not have voiced his disagreement if he had been there, for he, like all artists, is merely an “artful voyeur,” and, as such, would have been a fellow conspirator in her death. For he admits to understanding the “tribal, intimate revenge” because it is part of us, part of our DNA, apparently, at least if we are to believe the poet.

Remarkably, in this volume of poems Heanus takes us from an young boy’s un-ease with violence and discrimination to a societal dis-ease of scapegoating certain individuals who do not fit the majority’s standards. Starting with the violence inflicted on a young student by a boarding school and a racist society, Heaney moves on the analyze the very nature of such violence, and, like William Golding in Lord of the Flies, finds the cause of such violence lies at the very heart of darkness, the human heart.

All Around Us, the Ministry of Fear

At times I suspect my love of Yeats’ poetry makes it difficult for me to fully appreciate other Irish poets because too often I end up trying to compare their poetry to that of Yeats’ poetry.

In Selected Poems 1966-1987 Seamus Heaney, like Yeats, often refers to classic Irish literature. For instance, one section of the selected poems is entitled “Sweeney Astray” and is Heaney's version of the medieval Irish Buile Shuibhne, a major text in the Irish literary canon. It is the tale of Sweeney, who having crossed St Rónán is cursed by him. I suppose one day I am going to have to force myself to read this, but the truth is that, having read more mythology than I cared to, I have little desire to read the romanticized history of Ireland. The truth is that for many Americans these poems will seem unapproachable and irrelevant. And, yes, this seems to be the same Sweeney that appears in T.S. Eliot’s poems, certainly another reason to resist it.

In reality, though, Heaney reminds me more of Thomas Hardy or James Wright than he does W.B. Yeats, though he is a much more “classical” poet than either Hardy or Wright, often preferring to develop his ideas through the use of classical allusions rather than simple, straightforward imagery.

For instance, the poem “Personal Helicon” is much easier to understand if you realize that “helicon” refers to “A mountain in B[oe]otia, in Greece, supposed by the Greeks to be the residence of Apollo and the Muses.” It doesn’t help that when I first looked up the word that Encarta, as well as others, defined it as “a large bass tuba that encircles the player’s body, used in marching bands.” Needless to say, this definition is likely to lead to further confusion, not enlightenment.

Personal Helicon

For Michael Longley

As a child, they could not keep me from wells
And old pumps with buckets and windlasses.
I loved the dark drop, the trapped sky, the smells
Of waterweed, fungus and dank moss.

One, in a brickyard, with a rotted board top.
I savoured the rich crash when a bucket
Plummeted down at the end of a rope.
So deep you saw no reflection in it.

A shallow one under a dry stone ditch
Fructified like any aquarium.
When you dragged out long roots from the soft mule
A white face hovered over the bottom.

Others had echoes, gave back your own call
With a clean new music in it. And one
Was scaresome, for there, out of ferns and tall
Foxgloves, a rat slapped across my reflection.

Now, to pry into roots, to finger slime,
To stare, big-eyed Narcissus, into some spring
Is beneath all adult dignity. I rhyme
To see myself, to set the darkness echoing

It also probably helps if you’re aware that “In Christian symbolism the well falls within the group of ideas associated with the concept of life as a pilgrimage, and signifies salvation” and “the act of drawing water from a well is – like fishing -symbolic of drawing out and upwards the numinous contents of the deeps” according to A Dictionary of Symbols. Somewhat reminiscent of Theodore Roethke’s early poems, Heaney, too, sees “fungus” and “a rat slapped across my reflection.” So, even in childhood the poet sought to probe the depths of the dark side of his nature. Since it’s not “dignified” to peer self-consciously into wells as an adult, the poet now uses his “rhyme,” his poetry, to explore himself as reflected in the darkness of human nature.

“The Ministry of Fear” gives the reader further insight into Heaney’s empathy with those who have suffered in life:

from Singing School

1. The Ministry of Fear


For Seamus Deane

Well, as Kavanagh said, we have lived
In important places. The lonely scarp
Of St Columb's College, where I billeted
For six years, overlooked your Bogside.
I gazed into new worlds: the inflamed throat
Of Brandywell, its floodlit dogtrack,
The throttle of the hare. In the first week
I was so homesick I couldn't even eat
The biscuits left to sweeten my exile.
I threw them over the fence one night
In September 1951
When the lights of houses in the Lecky Road
Were amber in the fog. It was an act
Of stealth.

Then Belfast, and then Berkeley.
Here's two on's are sophisticated,
Dabbling in verses till they have become
A life: from bulky envelopes arriving
In vacation time to slim volumes
Despatched 'with the author's compliments'.
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.
'What's your name, Heaney?'
'Heaney, Father.'
'Fair
Enough.'

On my first day, the leather strap
Went epileptic in the Big Study,
Its echoes plashing over our bowed heads,
But I still wrote home that a boarder's life
Was not so bad, shying as usual.


On long vacations, then, I came to life
In the kissing seat of an Austin 16
Parked at a gable, the engine running,
My fingers tight as ivy on her shoulders,
A light left burning for her in the kitchen.
And heading back for home, the summer's
Freedom dwindling night by night, the air
All moonlight and a scent of hay, policemen
Swung their crimson flashlamps, crowding round
The car like black cattle, snuffing and pointing
The muzzle of a Sten gun in my eye:
'What's your name, driver?'
'Seamus . .
Seamus?
They once read my letters at a roadblock
And shone their torches on your hieroglyphics,
'Svelte dictions' in a very florid hand.
Ulster was British, but with no rights on
The English lyric: all around us, though
We hadn't named it, the ministry of fear.

Though personally I cannot imagine anything much worse than being sent off to a boarding school as a child, how much worse it must have been to be sent off to a school where you are viewed as inferior and to suffer further persecution because of your religion when you’re sent home for the summer. There’s certainly irony in using the quote form Patrick Kavanagh, the Monaghan poet, that “we have lived/ In important places.” Usually it’s soldiers that are “billeted,” not young boys. And what parent could ever imagine that “biscuits” could ever compensate for a sense of being “exiled.”

It seems that the narrator’s only true friend was equally alienated and even then they were cut off from each other, forced to communicate through their poetry sent back and forth to each other. His friend was bold and outspoken, bewildering the narrator, who wrote romantic descriptions of nature, only to have them stomped upon by “those hobnailed boots,” an obvious reference to Nazi Germany.

Forced into exile by his parents, the narrator even seems forced to deny his own feelings, writing home that “a boarder’s life/ Was not so bad” even while “the leather strap/ Went epileptic.”

Returning home for a romantic interlude with a young lass, the narrator is confronted by Protestant policeman who crowd “round/ The car like black cattle, snuffing and pointing/ The muzzle of a Sten gun” stuck in his eye.

No wonder the boys call this place the “ministry of fear,” and no wonder Heaney exhibits such sympathy with the downtrodden in his book of poems.

What Agony Lies in a Choice

In Catholicism limbo is the temporary place of souls which are purified of sin. It is also the permanent place of the souls of unbaptized children who are excluded from the vision of Christ.

After reading this poem it would be easy to rail against the Catholic Church for its stern and dispassionate rejection of unbaptized infants from a permanent place in Heaven, but I think society in general must share the blame for its lack of support of the innocent.

It is too easy to pass judgment upon women particularly who find themselves in untenable positions, giving birth to children outside of a stable and supportive marriage. These are the very souls who most need the help of society. In society’s defense, I would like to think we are becoming more accepting of children “born out of wedlock” as they used to say, but nonetheless even today most single mothers have a hard life ahead of them.

This may be a good place for one of my ongoing rants. Until you and I insist on the education of all women and the acknowledgment of the advantages of birth control, this poem’s story will sadly stay a current one.

Heaney tells the story that reaches to the very heart of the reader.

Limbo

Fishermen at Ballyshannon
Netted an infant last night
Along with the salmon.
An illegitimate spawning.

A small one thrown back
To the waters. But I’m sure
As she stood in the shallows
Ducking him tenderly

Till the frozen knobs of her wrists
Were dead as the gravel,
He was a minnow with hooks
Tearing her open.

She waded in under
The sign of her cross.
He was hauled in with the fish.
Now limbo will be

A cold glitter of souls
Through some far briny zone.
Even Christ’s palms, unhealed,
Smart and cannot fish there.

The story in this poem leads the reader to ask as many questions as it answers. What has happened to the mother who makes such an unspeakably horrible choice to drown her newborn son? What becomes of the mother who with freezing hands quietly drowns him?

The infant is found by fishermen who have been netting salmon. What shock has leapt through their souls as they discover what lies in their nets?

And what religion can be so stern as to teach that illegitimacy is so unacceptable that a mother would choose to destroy the outcome of an liaison outside the accepted parameters of marriage?

The mother must forever remember her child in limbo, one of a cold glitter of souls. Even Christ Himself feels his wounds and cannot draw near the drowning sight as though he never intended such an act to be performed under the sign of His cross.

The poem calls to mind one experience I had when I was teaching. A beautiful 17 year old student of mine became pregnant during the school year and when she “began to show” the administrators expelled her, adding one more obstacle she would have to overcome, that of a reduced opportunity for an education. The most I could do was box up my children’s baby clothes and give them to her.

She did have the tenacity to attend night school to earn her high school diploma. I often think of her and hope she has a good life with a child who would be 30 years old now. I hope he is a great comfort to his mother, but the odds are against that, aren’t they?

Diane McCormick

Counterpoint to Walden Pond

Poet Seamus Heaney, winner of the 1995 Nobel Prize for Literature was born in County Derry, 30 miles northeast of Belfast. The eldest of nine children, he became a teacher and a writer who now lectures at Harvard.

Heaney earns much praise from fellow writers. American poet Robert Lowell called him the most important Irish poet since Yeats, easily recognized as the most popular Irish poet writing today. His most recent contribution to literature has been his translation of the Anglo-Saxon epic poem, Beowulf.

Echoes of Robert Frost, Ted Hughes, George Manly Hopkins, William Wordsworth, and Thomas Hardy are said to be heard in his work. For an umbrella impression of his work, one critic has mentioned that Heaney writes predominately about things that lie deep in the earth. So far I can’t argue against him.

Try the following:

Death of a Naturalist

All year the flax-dam festered in the heart
Of the townland; green and heavy headed
Flax had rotted there, weighted down by huge sods.
Daily it sweltered in the punishing sun.
Bubbles gargled delicately, bluebottles
Wove a strong gauze of sound around the smell.
There were dragon-flies, spotted butterflies,
But best of all was the warm thick slobber
Of frogspawn that grew like clotted water
In the shade of the banks. Here, every spring
I would fill jampotfuls of the jellied
Specks to range on window-sills at home,
On shelves at school, and wait and watch until
The fattening dots burst into nimble-
Swimming tadpoles. Miss Walls would tell us how
The daddy frog was called a bullfrog
And how he croaked and how the mammy frog
Laid hundreds of little eggs and this was
Frogspawn. You could tell the weather by frogs too
For they were yellow in the sun and brown
In rain.

Then one hot day when fields were rank
With cowdung in the grass the angry frogs
Invaded the flax-dam; I ducked through hedges
To a coarse croaking that I had not heard
Before. The air was thick with a bass chorus.
Right down the damn gross-bellied frogs were cocked
On sods; their loose necks pulsed like sails. Some hopped:
The slap and plop were obscene threats; Some sat
Poised like mud grenades, their blunt heads farting;
I sickened, turned, and ran. The great slime kings
Were gathered there for vengeance and I knew
That if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it.

On the subject of tadpoles, allow a personal anecdote.

One spring when my daughter Molly was three, she scooped from the slough that ran behind her grandmother’s house a coffee can full of frogspawn, bringing the watery nursery into the house to sit on the breakfast bar.

Just as Seamus Heaney did, we watched the dots turn to tadpoles that grew back legs, adding size and function to the little comma bodies.

Finally, biology being what it is, we rose one morning to a kitchen filled with miniature frogs jumping from counter to window sill to floor. Very carefully my mother and I cupped the bouncing adolescents in our hands, returned them to the bowl, the bowl to the pond. Nature belongs outside.

Seamus Heaney’s poem captures that season in childhood when if a child is very lucky, he can become enthralled with frogspawn. Molly had been fascinated by the growing tadpoles; most of us are drawn to the young, the beginning of things.

But Seamus Heaney and I agree; big old frogs become slime kings. Their slaps and plops are obscene threats, poised mud grenades, their blunt heads farting. What vengeance would frogs inflict upon little girls and their mothers who kidnap their babies for a biology experiment?

Nor is the home of the frogs in Heaney’s poem Walden Pond. The flax dam holding back the water in the town stream is described as a barrier which festered in the heart of the townland, the flax rotting in the punishing sun. Bluebottle flies buzz above the smell. Dragon-flies, butterflies, flit over the thick slobber of frogspawn, growing in the clotted water along the banks.

I suppose one could make a great fuss over the symbolism of the festering source of life, the figures of the young frogs turned gross bellied, but I think I will deny my English teacher roots and simply say I like the humor in the poem’s title, the sharpness of detail to describe one spring in a boy’s life and the sharp decline in enthusiasm for one venture into nature. It makes an enjoyable counterbalance to all those nature poets who would find inspiration in anything outdoors.

Diane McCormick