Thursday 7 February 2013

the human condition is private

District and Circle by Seamus Heaney was number 2 in my TBR Pile Challenge 2013. I have read it in bits and pieces over the last couple of weeks, but it often not until you read them a second time that poems really sink in. While (in my relatively mediocre opinion) good poetry touches on universal themes, allowing readers to link with it via their own experience, much of this book is very personal, referring to memories and events from Heaney's life, essentially private to his own experience. He drops in clues and hints but often leaves you feeling a little bemused, as if he hasn't wanted to tell you the whole story. Also, keep a dictionary handy. 

Even when he was being obscure I still could appreciate the language and craft that went in to these poems. For example, in the first, 'The Turnip-Snedder' (whatever the hell a 'snedder' is), the last two lines: "as it dropped it's raw sliced mess/ bucketful by glistering bucketful"; why use the word 'glistering', it basically means 'glistening', and yet has this wonderful slightly old fashioned sound to it. In 'A Clip': "We'd go not for a haircut but 'a clip'/ Cold smooth creeping steel and snicking scissors"; 'snicking' has an onomatopoeic quality, not just the action but the noise of the scissors behind your ear as you sit. And in a blizzard in 'In Iowa': "Through the sleet-glit pelting hard against the windscreen/ And a wiper's strong absolving slumps and flits"; 'sleet-glit' is just one of many hyphenated made up words that he scatters liberally through his poems, but it seems to capture something, and again you have this lovely onomatopoeia with 'slumps and flits'. But I was completely stumped by "quid-spurt fulgent" (from 'Senior Infants'), your guess is as good as mine.

Many many of the poems are childhood memories, some of the war, like 'The Aerodrome':
"Wherever the world was, we were somewhere else,
Had been, would be. Sparrow might fall,
B-26 Marauders not return, but the sky above
That land usurped by a compulsory order
Watched and waited - like me and her that day."
And 'To Mick Joyce in Heaven', about a man coming home and having to readjust:
"A demobbed Achilles
Who was never a killer,
The strongest instead 
Of the world's stretcher-bearers,
Turning your hand
To the bricklaying trade."
Many others about Ireland, referring to places or events specific, that leave you with only part of the story. I liked this from 'The Nod', seen from a child's perspective and yet saying something perceptive about the relations between adults:
"Saturday evenings too the local B-Men,
Unbuttoned but on duty, thronged the town,
Neighbours with guns, parading up and down,
Some nodding at my father almost past him
As if deliberately they'd aimed and missed him
Or couldn't seem to place him, not just then."
(I'm just guessing with the link there as to what he means by B-Men.)
And others still are imagined stories, like 'Moyulla', tale of the river Moyola, or 'The Tollund Man in Springtime', imagining the thoughts of a ancient  preserved bog man after he has been dug up from the bog:
"... Late as it was,
The early bird still sang, the meadow hay
Still buttercupped and daisied, the sky was new.
I smelled the air, exhaust fumes, silage reek,
I heard from my heather bed the thickened traffic
Swarm at a roundabout five fields away
And transatlantic flights stacked in the blue."

Brief nostalgia moment for me was 'To Pablo Neruda from Tamlaghtduff', which strangely tells him about crab-apple jelly. Now while I don't remember ever making crab-apple jelly we did have crab-apple trees in our garden in Neston, and this description is just perfect (several more of those evocative hyphenated words here too):
"Contrary, unflowery
sky-whisk and brittle, more
twig-fret that fruit-fort,
as crabbed could be - 
that was the tree
I remembered."

This is quickly becoming a stream of quotes as the more I flick through the book I come to each one and recall why I liked it. Heaney just has this knack of quiet observation, the little things. This is just a perfect example, in 'Quitting Time', about a man just standing and admiring the quiet tidiness of the yard before he turns out the light and goes home, the notion of satisfaction at an ordinary job well done:
"And switches off, a home-based man at home
In the end with little. Except this same
Night after nightness, redding up the work,
The song of the tubular steel gate in the dark
As he pulls it to and starts his uphill trek."
And (yet more), in 'Home Help', an old woman, elderly housebound relative who spends all day just sitting and has to be carried up to bed:
"Heavy, helpless, carefully manhandled
Upstairs every night in a wooden chair,
She sat all day as the sun sundialled
Window-splays across the quiet floor..."
Another of his created words, 'window-splays', creates this image in my head of the shadows from the window frame travelling slowly across the floor as the day progresses. 
And (last one I promise) from 'The Blackbird of Glanmore', just because it captures something lovely about blackbirds, and the imagined relationships that humans create with the wildlife they encounter:
"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."

I ummed and aahed about which one to quote in full because there were so many exquisite poems, in fact the more I read it the more I like the whole book. I touches on so many things, human experience, admiration for nature ('Planting the Alder' is just perfect tree appreciation) but I came down to this one because it has a bit of Irishness in it (which is so essential to his poems) but also for the understated descriptions and how the whole story is just hinted at, you have a future history in the first two stanzas and then it takes you back to the beginning, but leaves most to your imagination:

Tate's Avenue

Not the brown and fawn car rug, that first one
Spread on the sand by the sea but breathing land-breaths,
Its vestal folds unfolded, its comfort zone
edged with a fringe of sepia-coloured wool tails.

Not the one scraggy with crusts and eggshells
And olive stones and cheese and salami rinds
Laid out by the torrents of the Guadalquivir
Where we got drunk before the corrida.

Instead, again, it's locked-park Sunday Belfast,
A walled back yard, the dust-bins high and silent
As a page is turned, a finger twirls warm hair
And nothing gives on the rug or the ground beneath it.

I lay at my length and felt the lumpy earth,
Keen-sensed more than ever through discomfort,
But never shifted off the plaid square once.
When we moved I had your measure and you had mine.

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