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Paul Muldoon was interviewed by John Freeman on stage at the Waterfront Theatre at the Vancouver International Writers Festival this afternoon, and he’ll be reading as one of eight poets at the Poetry Bash tonight at Performance Works on Granville Island. He was asked right off the bat to talk about his collaboration with Warren Zevon, which resulted in a song, “My Ride’s Here,” the title track on Zevon’s last record (and was then covered for a posthumous tribute album by none other than Bruce Springsteen). Mr Muldoon said he “kind of went to school with Warren Zevon,” noting “just how difficult it is to write a song” to make it sound so effortless, and praising Zevon’s genius. He found himself, in composing his lyrics, trying to locate a raw, emotional “angle of entry” into a song. Asked to differentiate between poetry and song, he said: “I suppose at some level the pressure per square inch in that [Muldoon’s lyric, ‘You Say You’re Just Hanging Out . . .’] isn’t quite what it could be in one of the poems.” At the same time, he said how he wants to realize his own desire for directness and clarity, which lyrics can so better “at some level.” He said he was still “struck by Seamus Heaney’s (I think) successful attempts to pick up Yeats’s suggestion that ‘Myself I must remake,'” and also declared that “poems are more evidently (not necessarily more truly) made out of the core of one’s being.” He described the impact of BBC radio on his desire for clarity and “the need to be direct.” At John Freeman’s request, he read “Wind and Tree” from his first collection: “In the way that most of the wind / Happens where there are trees, / Most of the world is centred / About ourselves.” He read from Madoc, noting as well that he was a “big fan of our friend Laurence Sterne” and how he had also derived a “fascination with lists” from Robinson Crusoe, Defoe’s interest in “stuff.” He said he encouraged his students to develop “a sense of the resonances of every word in a poem,” the specificity of language. He read his song-lyric, “Elephant Anthem,” and noted how he used to pore over lyrics printed on lp sleeves.
Like so many, I have been very deeply saddened to hear of Seamus Heaney’s death this morning. Like so many, I have held his work closely for many years, and have heard and continue to hear in my mind’s ear the echoes and soundings of his careful resonant lines. He remains a presence. He has been for me one of the few poets who maintained a thorough and unwavering faith in the capacity of the lyric to speak in and to and with our late world. He seemed always to believe, when others fell away, in the essential and abiding interdependencies of earth and speech. He listened. Spoken, his poems each found a particular catch in the voice.
I have been re-listening to The Poet & the Piper, a collaborative recording he produced with Uilleann piper Liam O’Flynn a decade ago. Most of the poems Heaney reads on the CD have to do with folk music, with listening, with voice, and many of them are closely familiar to his readers. The second-to-last track is a recitation of “Postscript,” a poem that comes from his 1996 collection The Spirit Level:
And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other
So that the ocean on one side is wild
With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
By the earthed lightning of a flock of swans,
Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white,
Their fully grown headstrong-looking heads
Tucked or cresting or busy underwater.
Useless to think you’ll park and capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.
The rhythmic lilt and lift – setting the withheld beat that closes “capture it,” for instance, against the firm iambic heartbeat asserting itself in the rhymed phrase, “a slate-grey lake is lit” – is all Heaney, and reinforces the medial position, “neither here nor there,” in which he characteristically positions himself in his later work. But this shore-line sense of self and place – and the geography is specific and significant: Clare south of Galway on the western edge of Europe, the light and wind smashing and buffeting in from the mid-Atlantic – has little to do with poetic diffidence or last-Romantic fraughtness. (Are those Yeats’s nine and fifty swans?) This isn’t, for me, Heaney’s more violent version of the poet’s body as an Aeolian (or even Uilleann) harp. Rather, his lyric frames and expresses a different order of self awareness. What catches and moves him involves both the estranging sublimity of the oceanic – the bottomless centre of his “Bogland” well – and the necessary inadequacy of language, its pathos. The “catch” in the last line, I think, names both the beautiful and moving brokenness of speech and the song-form – a catch is a traditional round – that utters this insufficiency and makes it sing, in second-hand human terms. The poem, with its opening unlinked conjunction, sounds to me more like a promise to make time “some time” to revisit that sublimity than an assertion or claim to have done it. His autochthony – emblematized in a diction obsessed with turf and rock and root and water – strikes me never as a given but always as a coefficient of desire, as want. In “Postscript,” he wants to keep the experience unfinished: a futurity, a need. And it’s this address to uncaught air and light, to the medial textures of encounter, that lets Heaney’s poem do its deep, keen work, that crafts his faith.
[This is another review essay that never made it into Canadian Literature. I delivered a version of part of this text as a paper to the Dylan Thomas Society of Vancouver in October 2003, I think.]
A Windy Boy and a Bit: Dylan Thomas at Full Volume
When I was fifteen — in tenth grade in Truro, Nova Scotia — poetry started to matter to me. What held me was the built-in abstraction of any poem, what I took to be its inherent difficulty — something that appealed to my pretenses of alienated sophistication, one of the worst of teenage vanities. Small town adolescence creates a dire need to believe in your own young genius. You end up driven by palpable faith in your unheralded yet overwhelming significance, and you’re pushed by cosmic injustice to be, for a flash, “famous among the barns,” singing tragically in your local chains.
Late in that school year I horned in on a song by Pete Townshend, longstanding bard of teenage wastelands, a song I thought nailed my predicament dead-on (from Rough Mix, a record he made with Ronnie Lanein 1977): “I want to be misunderstood, / Want to be feared in my neighbourhood. / I want to be a moody man, / Say things that nobody can understand.” Well, maybe I didn’t want to be feared, but at least found out, remarked for my cryptic and appallingly contrived bitterness. The poetry I liked — and I was very particular about it from the get-go, although I’d barely read enough of anything — resonated with what I thought I absolutely knew, the crux of my goofy, half-baked intellectual machismo. I craved poems with a kind of latter-day masculine bravura, perhaps to offset what I wrongly assumed were the frailties of artistic work, and I wanted hard and strident voices to make their way into my breaking, pubescent croak.
So, there were three writers to whom I gravitated immediately. Robert Frost’s formal elegies, his temporary stays against confusion, bespoke an untenable paternity setting its teeth against its own inevitable collapse: it was heavily Oedipal, and I heard in Frost’s arch lines a way to wrestle with the laws laid down by all the fathers, my own or anyone’s. (For Christmas that year, my mom and dad gave me A Tribute to the Source, a Frost selected with misty New England photographs by Dewitt Jones; I couldn’t ever get past “Buried Child,” and still can’t.) The second of my triumvirate was John Newlove. I had found his selected poems, The Fat Man, in the high school library, and their chiseled ironic edges cut at the world the way I thought I wished I could, grimacing through the hellish existential manhood of his Samuel Hearne. (I had also asked for a copy of Newlove for Christmas, but the cashier at the bookstore sold my mother Irving Layton as a substitute, telling her it was “the same sort of thing.” Not exactly. Although Layton’s “Cain” — a poem of restrained father-son violence — is still one of my favourites, for some reason.) And then there was Dylan Thomas.
I bought a used copy of Thomas’s Dent Collected Poems from the “Nu to Yu” shop. I’d also saved some money from my summer job as a boxboy at the IGA, and bought Quite Early One Morning — a scrapbook of reminiscence, poetry and radio scripts — and, probably the first book I can say I really valued as a book, as an object: a sandy-colouredNew Directions hardback of the 1930s Notebooks, edited by Ralph Maud. This rough and unready Dylan had a sprawling immediacy that seemed especially ripe in my own meager time and place. He had remained suspended on the page young enough to be relocated to small town Nova Scotia, I think, because of the way those obscure and elitist performances, an adolescent brashness finding and wagging its tongue, tended and still tend to lift themselves out of history, out of context — even, or especially, as the material aspect of those unfinished holographs in scribblers, tends to reassert those very limits. These books unknotted and then retied their lacings, and became Truro poems, teenage poems: mine.
For me, as for many readers, Thomas’s recorded voice offered a form of verbal religiosity, of spirit possession; the man himself long dead, his speech could nonetheless carry forward from the spiral scratch of a phonograph track to animate and stir our tenuous present. I found a Caedmon double-album of Thomas readings in the Truro public library, and kept renewing it. (I had recently progressed from the Junior to the Adult card, a major shift in borrowing possibilities.) From this compilation, however, I found I leaned toward the later poems of ecstatic resignation, flush with fractured verbiage and hobbled by overripe nostalgia; the spittle-cloyed choruses of “Lament,” the hawk- and curlew-heavy upheaval of “Over Sir John’s Hill,” and the chiming, verdant bluster of “Fern Hill.” Harper Audio has issued Dylan Thomas: The Caedmon Collection, an 11-CD set gathering all of Thomas’s spoken-word recordings released by Caedmon. Thomas’s records, as many will know, were both the foundation and the mainstay of Barbara Cohen and Marianne Roney’s Caedmon label, which went on to release some of the most significant recordings of poetry and prose in the mid-twentieth century. Thomas also recorded a number of poems included in this set both live and in the studio for the CBC at Vancouver in “late May 1952,” as the notes to the collection point out, when he was on the second and last of his two reading tours of the West Coast. (This date, however, remains problematic; according to some sources, Thomas read and recorded — in conversation with Earle Birney — on 6 April 1950; his second appearance in Vancouver was on 8 April 1952, and he was not likely here in May of that year. Surviving letters and postcards place him and Caitlin on a ship at sea that month.) The transplanting that I managed to effect as a teenager, carrying Thomas across time and the Atlantic into my own embrace, retooling “Wales in my arms” for Canadian reception, was already ghosted into the recordings themselves; his voice had already arrived here, only to take flight again into the false eternal present of the stereo lp.
The Caedmon Collection reproduces in CD-sized miniature the covers of Thomas’s albums. As anyone who collects records knows, their particular material presence, their 12-inch square glossy cardboard, matters a lot, and the Caedmon compilation gestures at this nostalgia, in a conveniently reduced format; you can hold all the transcriptions of Thomas’s voice, his digitized remains, in your hand. This wan materiality emerges in Seamus Heaney’s poem “The Bookcase,” from Electric Light. In his lyric, Heaney eyes the coloured spines of his books, and remembers not merely voices but encounters, intersections, coursings; the thickness of paper and binding melds with the poems themselves, their verbal textures:
Bluey-white of the Chatto Selected
Elizabeth Bishop. Murex of Macmillan’s
Collected Yeats. And their Collected Hardy.
Yeats of “Memory.” Hardy of “The Voice.”
Voices too of Frost and Wallace Stevens
Off a Caedmon double album, off
Dylan at full volume, the Bushmills killed.
“Do Not Go Gentle.” “Don’t be going yet.”
Unlike the Heaney of this reminiscence, or Thomas, I was never much of a drinker — in fact, when I was wearing a groove into “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night,” I remember being more often than not strangely prudish; poetry seemed to fill the same selfish gaps as Heaney’s Irish whiskey might, that indulgent loneliness every boy wants to pickle in — but I know exactly what he’s writing about here: the poem that wants not to fade away, to keep going, even as it manages to sustain nothing but, nothing much more than, its own bald longing.
In “Dylan the Durable?” — the interrogative title is significant, and suggests much of the unresolved duplicity of “The Bookcase,” where the invitation to stay that remains largely unanswered — a 1991 lecture reprinted in part in his Finders Keepers: Selected Prose 1971-2001, Heaney reads in Thomas’s villanelle a formal reflex “turning upon itself, advancing and retiring to and from a resolution”:
The villanelle, in fact, both participates in the flux of natural existence and scans and abstracts existence in order to register its pattern. It is a living cross-section, a simultaneously open and closed form, one in which the cycles of youth and age, of rise and fall, growth and decay find their analogues in the fixed cycle of rhymes and repetitions.
While Heaney seems keen to fall into step with mid-century mythopoeic interpretations of Thomas — the Biblical archetypes, books of nature and Blakean contraries that saturated the first flush Thomas criticism — he nonetheless finds the vital instability at the core of this thoroughly formalized not-yet-an-elegy. But where Heaney abstracts and generalizes this uncertainty into a thematic of “youth and age,” the poem is actually more specifically gendered: it is about fathers and sons, a refusal to relinquish the bond to his father, even as it takes up the poetic work of fathering, of parthenogenesis: the poem itself, rather than merely producing formal analogues, rages against a deathly, stultifying parental stricture even as it affirms, in that contradiction, a fierce and fatherly imperative. And it performs that rage, most famously, in the contradicted doublet of its penultimate verbs: “Curse, bless, me now.” The child, as Wordsworth says, is now father to the man; Jacob and Isaac exchange places, and then trade again, in the urgent pleading of Thomas’s blasted prayer. This demand, as simultaneous question and plea that refuse not to be put, seems to me best grasped as adolescence. It cannot accept its dutiful forms, and chooses defiance of the paternal in order to affirm its surging and unruly life-force that drives its green age, even as it wants only to inhabit those forms for itself, and discovers itself blasted and made dumb by childishness. It wants, like all adolescents, to be both adult and child at once. If we scan Heaney’s selected essays, we discover too what is obviously a need for poetic maturity and respect — he tends to write only about the poetry of Nobel laureates, Harvard lecturers and old friends, to position himself within a kind of transnational academy — coupled with a pervasive nationalist pastoralism, all those Irish vowel-meadows where he ran and the peat-bogs where he dug in his youth. I don’t mean to deride Heaney, but instead to point to the necessary and vital adolescence of what he does. And to use such a claim to look back, and forward, at my own willfully unresolved reading practices.
Heaney mentions no Canadian (and very few commonwealth) writers, and we could hardly expect him to. Or maybe we could. But he does provide a hinge into a more localized nationalism, one that inheres not in artificially stabilized cultural thematics, a Canadian-this or Canadian-that, but in its own ardent instabilities, an adolescent discomfort that is not to be overcome but embraced. This sweetly duplicitous craving permeates Albertan (now Mexican-resident) Murray Kimber’s illustrationsfor Fern Hill (from Red Deer College Press), the middle volume — from 1997 — in what now appears to be a trilogy of work commencing with his brilliant 1994 collaboration with Jim McGuigan, Josepha: a prairie boy’s story, for which Kimber won the Governor General’s Award for Illustration , and concluding with The Wolf of Gubbio, a retelling of a legend of St. Francis of Assisi by Michael Bedard, published in 2000. But where both of these texts are narrative, and lend themselves to a kind of captioning, as events from story are depicted by brush, Thomas’s “Fern Hill” has, at most, only shards of plot, and coheres musically rather than descriptively, in the relative abstraction and obliqueness of time remembered, a blurring of present recollection and past recollected in incantatory pastoral surges: “Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs . . . .” Temporal modalities collide in this famous opening gambit, interlocking the immediacy of the poem’s writing, the jetztzeit of that conventional “now,” with its historically orchestrated and orchestrating subject, “I was.” Kimber intensifies this interlace of here and there, now and then, both in the arrangement of his sixteen illustrations and in their subject matter.
Kimber’s work focuses on two principal figures, represented in two small watercolour cameos that frame the main text: on the title-page, he offers us the head and shoulders of a prepubescent boy, rendered in reddish fleshtones against a purple wash; on the recto of the last page, facing a page-sized reprint of the complete text of “Fern Hill,” he sets his counterpart, a patriarch in tweeds and cap, whose open eyes and quiet pinkish smile suggest a knowing serenity. This final image echoes the first illustration, apposite to the first three lines of the poem, which shows the same old man, now rendered in light blues with oils on canvas, but now with his eyes closed and mouth gently crimped. Kimber’s intention is to suggest the poem’s tenor of reverie in age, despite the fact that Thomas was in his early thirties when he wrote it, and to link memory both to aestheticized wonderment — the “darling illusion” of recollection as Charles G. D. Roberts once put it — and to pastoral vitality; the green apples that decorate the old man’s red scarf (their tones in sharp contrast to his pallid complexion) displace the real apples of those sagging boughs onto textile pictorial, past life sustained as lovely wearable art. In the second illustration, we see this capped figure walking, but now the boy and a horse run forward from him, surging right toward the next page of the book. The palette, too, shifts from blue to peach, yellow and deep green, as the present is revived in “the heyday of his eyes,” that splendid driven vision.
Kimber’s fourteen oils (not including the watercolour miniatures) form a visual sonnet, structured in a nested frame. The image for the first three lines, the solitary face of the dreaming man, are recapitulated in the image for the last three, the same figure, now shown head to toe in the middle ground walking alone with his bare feet in the surf; the second image — man, boy and horse — is replayed in the second to last illustration, where these three figures are rejoined, although now to close the loop as we go “riding to sleep” under an equine constellation, the forward push of the former image moderated by dark purples, as man and boy, his old and young selves, walk homeward hand in hand, their backs to us as they depart across the pasture into a shadowed, moonlit farmhouse. Thomas’s poem, though highly formalized, bears little resemblance to a sonnet, but Kimber’s visuals nonetheless uncover a version of the form, dividing the first and last stanzas in three, and the remaining four stanzas in two (grouped mostly in clusters of three or four lines, with no illustration crossing between the existing stanzas). In effect, Kimber’s illustrations surround a core octave, made up of four pictorial pairs, with two tercets or triptychs, creating a recursive envelope (3-[2-2-2-2]-3) that, as I’ve already tried to indicate in my description of the opening and closing illustrations, affirms a fixed architecture. The strong outlines and lapidary textures of Kimber’s figures confirm this essentially sculptural, even monumental tendency to his style, an effort I think to stay the mutable, and to arrest the ragged arc of time. Recurrent motifs — farmhouse, ladders and fences, a married couple holding hands or standing kissing, burnished barns, even the vertical trunks of trees — solidify this stasis, a circularity that emerges from the almost obsessive repetitions of motifs and even whole phrases in Thomas’s poem: “green and golden,” “nothing I cared.”
Simultaneously, Kimber energizes this visual torpor, the viscosity of his oils, with diagonal flashes and unresolved tangents: river flow, shooting stars, floating drapes, running horses that refuse to be contained by borders or grids. This kinesis, too, comes from Thomas’s poem, in the ungraspable syntax of the third stanza, for example: “All the sun long it was running, it was lovely, the hay/ Fields high as the house, the tunes from the chimneys, it was air/ And playing, lovely and watery/ And fire green as grass.” The run-on, thematized in the poem itself, distends and stretches Thomas’s closed, formal architecture like so much verbal taffy. Time, though chained and bound, sings excessively, testing the tensile bonds of poetic enchainment. Kimber’s paintings embrace what Thomas appears to understand as the creative push of memory, the force that drives his green age, in their lovely dehiscence, as they catch at the fraying of time itself, at the doubled assembling and dismantling that inheres in the sustained “now” of the image.
So, this is much more than a children’s book; perhaps the music of this sometimes confused and difficult poem would attract a child’s ear, though the nostalgia of the text itself is fully that of an adult. It is best thought, perhaps, as an adolescent work, the text and visuals hovering between the child-like wonder the writer craves and the deathly adulthood he wants to refuse. It is a fine and engrossing work of male desire, of longing.
Kimber’s work is also mindful of its history; his landscape style echoes primarily the post-impressionists, especially Paul Cézanne’s rectangles and triangles, although his green forests clearly draw on Emily Carr’s vortices and his fields on the horizontal plains of Illingworth Kerr (perhaps something of a carry-over from his work on Josepha ). His portraits fuse the blue ovals of early Picasso with the ripe colours of Frederick Varley, I think. I’m not suggesting that Kimber’s work is derivative, nor do I wish to claim that he has merely Canadianized early European modernism. Rather, like my own youthful transport of and by Thomas, Kimber’s paintings position themselves in a kind of negotiated middle, resolutely of this place and yet thoroughly conscious of their own displacement. Thomas’s poem, Welsh though Fern Hill itself may appear, actually takes place nowhere, or rather in the many imagined nowheres of memory from afar. It can’t quite be grasped, but can only be, to take Pete Townshend out of context, misunderstood, misprised and, as Heaney suggests, respoken at full volume, reintroduced into your own place and time. Just as the poem would have time stretched into the present, and across it like a screen, so too can Thomas be reimagined, remade in the crucibles of eye and ear, as he and you and I go running together “out of grace” and into a world where, however much unheard, we can still somehow sing.
When I teach Heaney’s translation of Beowulf, I like to use the “illustrated edition,” which includes a set of museum and archeological photographs assembled and collated by John D. Niles, along with some of Niles’s own landscape images. It works as a kind of populist-scholarly archive, and gives the students a good sense both of the context of the poem and, importantly for me, of the constructedness of our historical sense – the fact that that the feel of any past context has to be recovered, reconstructed and reshaped in the course of translating and disseminating the poem. There is a specific archival poetics, I think, at work in this volume in particular, indicated in no small measure by the font-size of Heaney’s name, his signature, on the cover:
This is not just any version of a big old poem: this is Seamus Heaney’s text. In his afterword on the illustrations, Niles of course and rightly praises Heaney’s “outstanding” translation, but remains often quaintly aware of Heaney’s presence, as poet and intervener, in the work; noting that the Beowulf poet “often stretches reality to its limits,” he remarks appositely how Heaney “never uses a cheap word when an extravagant one will do” (220). I’m not sure how to take that, given that I don’t hear Heaney’s voice in Beowulf, through Beowulf, as either extravagant or cheap.
In an essay called “The Impact of Translation,” re-published in The Government of the Tongue (1988), Heaney assesses what for him amounts to the challenging and difficult presence, in English, of translated poems from Eastern Europe and Russia. While post-war modern poets, through to Robert Lowell, were often able, he argues, to render non-English texts “with an unbroken historical nerve,” their voices cushioned, despite the dire social upheavals of the mid-century, “by the poetic tradition inside which they worked,” poems translated, carried across, from outside that zone of homeland confidence both disrupt its comforts and, with that shake-up, revitalize its poetic potentials: “the note sounded by translated poetry from that world beyond – pitched intently and in spite of occupation, holocaust, concentration camps and the whole apparatus of totalitarianism – is so credible, desolating, and resuscitative” (43-44). Poetically appropriating the suffering of others for aesthetic or emotional gain sounds troubling to me, but – not to excuse anything – I think such appropriations are probably what any serious translation undertakes and confronts. “We,” Heaney writes, “are all the more susceptible to translations which arrive like messages from those holding their own” amid desolation (44). That “we” proleptically looks forward, for me, to the porous “we gar-dena” of Beowulf‘s first line, which, notably, Heaney elides in his translation until we reach the community of listeners in the third line of his version, “We have heard . . . .”How exactly that ethic or national collective constitutes itself in the poem is to becomes an issue rather than a given.
Such inherently difficult if seductive claims for poetic translation pervade his Beowulf, and I mean the translation itself as much as its paratext. Heaney claims to concern himself as a translator with making the voice of the Beowulf-poet sound through him, but it’s important to recognize that he doesn’t understand himself, his voice, as either disinterested or transparent. He connects himself to the Anglo-Saxon Denmark of the poem, as he notes in his introduction, by adapting its language to the “big-voiced” colloquial speech of his Northern Irish rural boyhood, the idioms of aunts and uncles. He translates the recalcitrant “Hwaet!” with which the poem begins as “So.” He recasts the formal archaism of the original into what he calls “Hiberno-English Scullionspeak”: it’s the way in which one of his relatives might start a conversation, a pitch that’s neither cheap nor extravagant, but has a weighty plainness and a throaty aural loading to which his text aspires. He builds his own verbal genetics into the translation when it comes to the Old English verb tholian, to suffer. He confesses in his intro that when he heard an aunt use the word “thole” (and the resemblance to the “tundish” episode in Joyce’s Portrait is striking here), he found a homey Anglo-Irish equivalent to an entry in C. L. Wrenn’s Beowulf glossary, a small collision of the word-hoards. While it sounds as if a temporary sharing of linguistic ethnocentrisms were allowing Heaney essentially to bring the poem home, to find an imaginative correlative in what Tolkien among others remarks as its inherent nationalism, I feel more persuaded by Richard Kearney’s reading of Heaney not as a sentimentalist of place, of home, but as a anxious lyricist of displacement, of what he calls “homecoming,” a sustained deferral: “never the actuality of an event but the possibility of an advent.”
Kearney is more sanguine, I think, about the rather lush lyricism of that deferral, and makes of Heaney a kind of late Heideggerean aesthete, melopoeically embracing the open resuscitative draft of each successive nostos, but I feel this unsettlement in Heaney’s poems – perhaps against the grain of all of their seductive vowel meadows, to which I need to confess I am nonetheless susceptible – as much more fraught and troubling, a wounded word-music that concocts its own linguistic agon as much as it wants to salve it. It’s no coincidence, for me, that it’s the word thole that pries open a crack, for Heaney, in the foreign yet familiar Anglo-Saxon linguistic sphere. Poetic translation doesn’t find its equivalents and echoes unproblematically, but enacts, in its own textures and verbal substrata, a tholing, an agon.
The opening line of the first of his “Glanmore Sonnets,” from Field Work, counterposes chthonic (maybe turfy) nostalgia with a fraught, violent and particulate narrative: “Vowels ploughed into other: opened ground.” The internal, rounded assonances here – gleanings from an Ulster sound-palette (palate?) – are disturbed and unsettled by being ploughed together – o into o – and by plosives and nasalized dentals. The colon cuts a typographical furrow, a visual hiatus, off-centre, down an almost middle.The audible lyric tissue of a Heaney line, I mean, is both woven and sutured, a cut in the verbal turf, but also pulled together by being laid open, as wound, as unapprehended other. The patrilineal “digging” with which Heaney’s collected poems begins becomes here both a homing and a dehiscence. I’d like to say that this doubled unsettling of the poetic line, the furrow traced by the pen, offers a means of coming to terms with the unstable nationalism that floats through his Beowulf, but for now I want just to point to a picture associated with the illustrated edition: an image of the Tollund Man. Niles obviously includes this close-up of the iron-age sacrificial victim’s preserved head as a shout out to Heaney’s poems of the 1970s that emerged from his reading of P. V. Glob’s The Bog People, and the image both connects Heaney’s poetic to the Iron Age culture of Beowulf, giving his translation a kind of anthropological-archeological authority. Niles connects the image rather tenuously to a reference in Beowulf to Hrethel’s grief for Herebeald being “like the misery felt by an old man / who has lived to see his son’s body / swing on the gallows” (lines 2444-6). More significantly, the throat of the Tollund Man –whose tarry corpse has fused with the peat in which he was cast – still bears an obvious slash wound. His voice, box iconically, has been cut open, like the turf of Heaney’s northern farmland. If he can be made to speak, can be translated, if he speaks at all, he can offer only one long, nearly inaudible, open vowel, a tenuous exhalation from the tear in his dark neck. A tholing wound.
Heaney, Seamus. The Government of the Tongue. London: Faber, 1988. Print.
—. Field Work.London: Faber, 1979. Print.
—, trans. Beowulf: An Illustrated Edition. New York: Norton, 2000. Print.
Kearney, Richard. Transitions: Narratives in Modern Irish Culture. Manchester:
Manchester UP, 1988.
So, I once took a snapshot of Seamus Heaney himself. I was a graduate student attending the Yeats International Summer School in Sligo, Ireland, in 1989, and after the two weeks of lectures, workshops and performances were done, I decided to take the train south to Dublin to look around and do my own version of the student- tramping-though-the-old-country thing. (And it worked out for me, too; for years after, and even now, I have been mining that experience and producing whole series of McNeilly in Ireland poems, tourist-as-genealogist stuff. Some were published a decade ago in The Antigonish Review.) I had even called ahead to the hostel there to book a few nights. I was prepared and pretty organized.
There had been a number of important speakers at Sligo, including Richard Kearney, Declan Kiberd, Elizabeth Butler Cullingford, Terry Eagleton, Edna Longley, as well as poets such as Richard Murphy and Michael Longley, so it was quite an intensive and academically rich gathering. On the train to Dublin, I ended up sitting with Helen Vendler, who had given a talk at the school and whose graduate student I had befriended – although I haven’t been in communication with him since that trip, neglectfully. It turned out she was being picked up at Connolly Station – honestly, I remember it as Heuston, but the ticket stub says Connolly – by Seamus Heaney. Her piece in The New Yorker had appeared a few years earlier, and she was probably his chief advocate and apologist in America; he has of course since dedicated poems to her. She invited her student to come meet him, and, I’m sure because I was sitting next to him and had been chattering about Canadian literature, she felt a little sorry for me and, politely, invited me come along too.
Sure enough, there Seamus Heaney was on the platform, waiting. She introduced us both, her student first. Heaney was gregarious, smiling, welcoming, generous. For the few minutes I can claim to have been in his presence, stories of his warmth and kindness seemed more than true. I had a foxed Faber paperback of his Field Work in my knapsack – I think I bought it in Sligo at a small bookshop there – and he signed it, holding the book open in the air with his left hand and scrawling half-wildly on it with what I remember as a Bic stick-pen. Professor Vendler was coming to stay with him, and her student had booked a bed and breakfast somewhere across town. Nicely, Seamus Heaney turned to me and offered me a ride. I should have lied and said I was staying somewhere out in the country or something like that, but stupidly I told him that the hostel where I was staying was right across the street, which it was, so I declined the lift. “Okay then,” he said, and we all walked out into the parking lot together. I thanked them and waved goodbye, turned, and headed across the street. At the last minute, it occurred to me that I hadn’t taken a picture, and that nobody would believe that I had almost got a lift from Seamus Heaney himself. So I quickly pulled out a disposable plastic and cardboard camera I had bought, likely at the same store as his book, wound and cocked it, pointed it in the general direction of his car, which they were just getting into, and snapped.
When I got back to Canada and had the pictures developed, I found that the picture I had taken was actually of a fairly tall hedge in the train station parking lot. Peeking over the hedge is a shock of greyish-white hair, the face turned down and away. “That’s him,” I have told people when I showed them the snapshot. “That’s Seamus Heaney’s hair.” Sure, they tell me. Sure it is.
Sadly, too, I have since lost the photo, and can’t find the negative to replace it, which is a drag. Now, I don’t even have the inconclusive proof. I have hope it will turn up someday. And, I did find my copy of Field Work, with his signature on it. Mercifully, he wrote my name too.