Seamus Heaney: Poems

Heaney (1939-) is a particularly interesting Irish poet to put in conversation with others because of his model of history: digging. Like Yeats, Heaney’s bog bodies dig up a “memory bank” of ritual sacrifice and tradition lost that resonates through myth and mystery. But whereas Yeats and Eliot both emphasize models of historical change, development, or deterioration over time, Heaney’s model is fascinated a kind of ahistorical flattening: with the temporal collapse of discovering something material that is intact and preserved from a separate time. In this sense, his work feels more postmodern in its recovery. He ties the personal past (his father and grandfather digging peat) to a national or international past (the bodies dug up in peat bogs around Europe dating from 8,000 BC to WWII). His poems often obsess over the particularities of these bodies, as well as the tension between their foulness and perfect intactness. Writing after 1969 and the resistance and killings, he was particularly aware of the peat bogs as spaces that remained undivided when everything else in Ireland was cut up.

“DIGGING,” 1966

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.
Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down
Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.
The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked,
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.
By God, the old man could handle a spade.
Just like his old man.
My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.
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.
As the speaker owns the pen, not as a sword or even a shovel, but a gun, it’s unclear whether he’s brought closer or driven further from his father in making the act of writing parallel to digging.

“THE GRAUBALLE MAN,” 1969

As if he had been poured
in tar, he lies
on a pillow of turf
and seems to weep

the black river of himself.
The grain of his wrists
is like bog oak,
the ball of his heel

like a basalt egg.
His instep has shrunk
cold as a swan’s foot
or a wet swamp root.

His hips are the ridge
and purse of a mussel,
his spine an eel arrested
under a glisten of mud.

The head lifts,
the chin is a visor
raised above the vent
of his slashed throat

that has tanned and toughened.
The cured wound
opens inwards to a dark
elderberry place.

Who will say ‘corpse’
to his vivid cast?
Who will say ‘body’
to his opaque repose?

And his rusted hair,
a mat unlikely
as a foetus’s.
I first saw his twisted face

in a photograph,
a head and shoulder
out of the peat,
bruised like a forceps baby,

but now he lies
perfected in my memory,
down to the red horn
of his nails,

hung in the scales
with beauty and atrocity:
with the Dying Gaul
too strictly compassed

on his shield,
with the actual weight
of each hooded victim,
slashed and dumped.

The “swan’s foot on a wet swamp root” here reminds me of Yeats. The way the body is both still itself, preserved, and yet merged with the bog by weeping “the black river of himself” contributes to an interaction between presence and absence, history and contemporaneity. Again, he is both a corpse and impossibly alive, distant and yet avowedly not merely symbolic of “the actual weight of each hooded victim, slashed and dumped,” referring to the political violence of Ireland.

“PUNISHMENT,” 1975

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 voyeuur

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.

The treatment of the “little adulteress” as a small creature in a halter reminds  me of Lo in her “coltish subteens. Dating from the first century C.E.,  she was a blindfolded 13 year-old with her head shaved and brain removed when thrown into the bog. Her body is a ship with “the frail rigging of her ribs,” weighed down with a stone. She is “a sapling,” “a poor scapegoat” of “tribal, intimate revenge,” to whom the poet says, “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.”

“THE SKUNK,” 1979

Up, black, striped and demasked like the chasuble
At a funeral mass, the skunk’s tail
Paraded the skunk. Night after night
I expected her like a visitor.

The refrigerator whinnied into silence.
My desk light softened beyond the verandah.
Small oranges loomed in the orange tree.
I began to be tense as a voyeur.

After eleven years i was composing
Love-letters again, broaching the ‘wife’
Like a stored cask, as if its slender vowel
Had mutated into the night earth and air

Of California. The beautiful, useless
Tang of eucalyptus spelt your absense.
The aftermath of a mouthful of wine
Was like inhaling you off a cold pillow.

And there she was, the intent and glamorous,
Ordinary, mysterious skunk,
Mythologized, demythologized,
Snuffing the boards five feet beyond me.

It all came back to me last night, stirred
By the sootfall of your things at bedtime,
Your head-down, tail-up hunt in a bottom drawer
For the black plunge-line nightdress.

A funny poem to compare to Lowell’s “The Skunk Hour,” it begins, as Lowell’s, with the speaker observing a skunk in suburbia. Rather than watching her lick cream, here she appears “like a visitor” while he hears “The refrigerator whinnied into silence.” As he transforms the skunk into his wife, “there she was, the intent and glamorous,/ Ordinary, mysterious skunk,/ Mythologized, demythologized… Your head-down, tail-up hunt in a bottom drawer/ For the black plunge-line nightdress.”

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