Saturday, September 20, 2014

Seamus Heaney Tribute Appreciation and Reflections

( Left to right)   Dan Tobin, Alex Green, Jean Houlihan, Michael Todd Steffen (back) Fred Marchant, Doug Holder

Seamus Heaney Tribute: Appreciation and Reflections

  By Alice Weiss

            On Wednesday the 27th of August, along, I attended a tribute to the Irish poet, Seamus Heaney, deceased one year.  It was organized and presented by Michael Todd Steffen at the Hastings room, First Church Cambridge. We were in a small yellow painted room. The furniture, pushed aside for folding chairs was plush and there were paintings on the walls in ornate frames, or at least that’s how I remember it. The podium was set in front of a mantel. The weather played a part. It rained and thundered.   I had not given much attention to Heaney’s poetry.  After this evening that changed.   The essay that follows reflects my memories of the evening and readings I did and thought about  in response to it.
            Presenters included two Irish-American poets, Joan Houlihan and Dan Tobin; the Jewish-American poet and cultural entrepreneur, Doug Holder; Back Pages in Waltham bookseller and publisher, Alex Green, and Fred Marchand, poet, war resister, and Suffolk University emeritus professor of poetry.  They all read and commented on a Heaney poem and, except for Alex Green, read work of their own.  Michael Todd Steffen made the introductions.
            Steffen began with a discussion of the Heaney’s poetry, took firmly into the high territory of great poetry, but there was one poem, title actually, that struck me especially, “Whatever You Say, Say Nothing.”  It’s slangy, calls up living in an occupied Ireland and, it catches some truth about the concentrated code we call poetry.  The poem, itself, is a bracing referential meditation (if so languorous a word can be applied to the tartness of its tone) on “the Irish thing’”and how people talk about it. Take the opening quatrains of section III, its disgust with a public language rendered powerless by its refusal to take sides and its burst into an impatience that nonetheless maintains a ‘tight gag.”
            ‘Religion’s never mentioned here,’ of course.
            ‘You know them by their eyes,’ and ‘hold your tongue.’
            ‘One side’s as bad as the other,’ never worse,
            Christ, it’s near time that some small leak was sprung

            In the great dykes the Dutchman made
            To dam the dangerous tide that following Seamus.
How do you talk through a mouth gag that makes you ignore history? some small leak? The poem apes  the language of the op-ed in such a way that it never leaves a question about where its heart is.  An unending dilemma hovers, though, in the poem, and finally breaks out in the last 
stanza: like Paul Celan, and Adrienne Rich, if he was going to sing he had to do it in the language of his oppressors.
            Ulster was British, but with no rights on
            the English lyric: all around us, though
            We hadn’t named it, the ministry of fear.

            Michael, introducing Doug Holder, admitted that he had intended to feature only Irish- American poets, but then, Doug.  Not a word else was needed.  If there was anymore said I didn’t hear it because I was laughing.  The room, I must add, was quite hot and someone handed out little personal fans.  They looked like the paddles art auction houses provide for bidders.  Doug, of course had his opportunity and thanked all the fans in the room.  People hissed, I called out “Sit down” Joan Houlihan laughed. 
            Doug read Heaney’s, “The Frontier of Writing,” and bumped us out of laughter back into that landscape of hostile occupation that was (is?) Northern Ireland.  Except here, the “tightness and the nilness,” that one attempting to cross a border (frontier) feels when stopped and inspected at gun point, has more to do with the hesitations and fears approaching the act of writing, subjugating that resistant part of your inner self to glide obediently past them,

                                                            out between
            the posted soldiers flowing and receding
            like tree shadows into the polished windscreen.

Whether internal or external trouble always looks like British soldiers.
            Doug’s poems too explored an inner/outer landscape.  His was Bickford’s, in “Eating grief at 3 A.M,” dedicated to Alan Ginsberg and evoking Walt Whitman at the supermarket old Marxists, flirting old ladies, a landscape, this time of loss leaving the poet with no place  to sit. In another of his poems “You know it is tough being a writer,” Holder managed to chime both Seamus Heaney and Henny Youngman: “The waiter /Charging me extra/ For the fly in /My soup.. . . And take my creative partner/Please.”  This swing between the world of Take-my-wife, and Northern Ireland seemed apt. It provided urban levity for all the rural seriousness you knew was coming.
                            Joan Houlihan read Seamus  Heaney’s “Miracle,” a poem drawn she told us from the New Testament where a man, unable to walk, was brought on a stretcher to Jesus to be healed.  The crowd was such that his friends could not get through with their stretcher and so climbed on the roof, pried off parts of it and lowered the man down.  Heaney’s poem, she explained, had its origin in the days when he had suffered a stroke and he was able to recover, but only help from the orderlies, the EMTS, the night nurses, in short, the hospital community. Her own son had had a brain injury, she added, and she knew what it was to depend on a caring community responding strangers. 
                Not the one who takes up his bed and walks
            But the ones who have known him all along
            And carry him in –

            Their shoulders numb, the ache and stoop deeplocked
            In their backs, the stretcher handles
            Slippery with sweat. And no let up

            Until he’s strapped on tight, made tiltable
            and raised to the tiled roof, then lowered for healing.
            Be mindful of them as they stand and wait

            For the burn of the paid out ropes to cool,
            Their slight lightheadedness and incredulity
            To pass, those who had known him all along.
            In the poems Joan read from her own work, a character suffering locked-in syndrome
survives with the help of “the ones who had known him all along.” Using the  strange feelingful language in “The Us,” and “The Ay,” her recent poetry of  wild almost celtic invention: an imaginary tribe, speaking an unexpected language her poems too invoke the bare, quiet human interaction of caring. 
            and brae would spoon the broth,
            and make talk between us
            where mine own had gone,
            as sounding saved by water,
            rivered in its mouth
            when saving ay had none
            and all mine days were silt
            and through the hand.

            “Sounding saved by water/ rivered in its mouth.”  I understand this with my physical center:  sounding (the capacity of make sounds)(but also water itself as in Long island sound, or measuring depths)  saved by water, and then back to language as river, incredible.  I find the same mystery in, for example, Heaney’s “Markings.”

                        All these things entered you
            As if they were both the door and what came through it.
            They marked the spot, marked time and held it open.
            A mower parted the bronze sea of corn.
            A windlass hauled the center out of water.
            Two men with a cross-cut kept it swimming
            Into a felled beech backwards and forwards
            So that they seemed to row the steady earth.

            It seemed to me that Daniel Tobin’s presentation also looked at ways Heaney explored the entering of things, “As if they were both the door and what came through it.”  Tobin read from his own study, Passage to the Center,  Imagination and the Sacred in the Poetry of Seamus Heaney.
            Heaney’s quest demands that he explore the process of self definition by tracing through his art the formative experiences that helped mold his identity.  . . .[It} entails a paradox in which the very outward movement of the quest calls for a radical inward scrutiny, an interrogation into the origins of the self.

            As if you could not separate that quest from the character of the man, Tobin spoke about his special capacity for encouragement.   Here is where Heaney’s exceptional capacity to locate the self in movement towards others illuminates the sources of poetry in ritual,   More than just a bunch of chants, ritual is a way for the self to merge with others.  In Station Island which I turned to in response to Tobin’s discussion, I found  poems which explore that “merging” in its most extreme form, as a mystical union with a landscape of “hard lodgings.”  So these last lines from “Sweeney’s Lament on  Ailsa Craig”                       

                        But to have ended up                            
                        lamenting here
                        on Ailsa Craig
                        A hard station!

                        Ailsa Craig,
                        the seagulls home,
                        God know it is
                        hard lodgings.

                        Ailsa Craig,
                        bell-shaped rock,
                        reaching sky high,
                        snout in the sea—

                        it hard-beaked,
                        me seasoned and scraggy:
                        We mated like a couple
                        of hard- shanked cranes.

            Picking up the exploration of ritual and community, Tobin read his own work, The Narrows, a ghazal, “A Mosque in Brooklyn,”  It takes place in the basement of the apartment house he grew up in.   The poem does a stunning turn with the word history,
            There is no prayer that can abolish history,
            though in this basement mosque the muezzin’s history

            gathers in his throat like a tenor’s aria
            and he calls to God to put an end to history. . .

            Allah, Allah—above the crowded rowhouse roofs.
            Their rusted antennas, stalled arrows of history. . .

            . . .these prayers are lifted on the thermals of history,

            and sound strangely like. . .
             the remnant who survived a blighted history,

            . . .lost themselves, flourishing into the One
            without division, without names, without history.

The ghazal form gives him an opportunity to endow the word history, also a concern of Heaney’s, with a repetitive force which ends up turning on the notion of history itself. The ritual takes the one step further, and by gathering in the throat of the muezzin puts an end to it, history.
                            As the last reader, Fred Marchand, went right to the point: the impact of reading Heaney on his own writing. He spoke of a time he felt that he could no longer hear the music in his own poems and had stumbled upon a poem by Heaney called “The Loose Box” and, it was implied, shook his deafness off.  I found it a long poem to listen to, but later read it from the New York Times Archives. It’s a poet’s poem. A “loose box” is a high horse stall that has four walls that horses are placed in so they can be held without harnesses.  The poem is in three parts.  The first lines of each section place the source of a particular diction the poet  has used throughout his career, then bursts into that very language to describe an imaginative encounter using it. It’s an ars poetica: Heaney openly exploring the sources of his own poetic language.  The sections of the poem seem disjointed , but the question is implicit in each of them:
            talk about the properties of land,
            the actual soil
            almost doesn’t matter; the main thing is
            an inner restitution, a purchase come by.
            By Pacing it in words that make you feel
            you’ve found your feet.. . .

            the threshing scene in Tess of the D’Urbervilles—
            That magnified my soul.
and also
            Michael Collins, ambushed. . .
            Has nothing to hold onto and falls again
            Willingly, lastly, foreknowledgeably deep
            Into the hay floor that gave once in his childhood
            . . .
            True or not, the fall within his fall,
            . . .lets him find his feet
            In an underworld of understanding
            Better than any newsreel lying-in-state. . .
            could ever manage to.
                         Or so it can stated
            in the must and drift of talk aabout the  loose box.

            I thought Fred Marchant must have found his own feet in that poem. He read a three part poem from his own  Looking Glass House, “The Custody of Eyes.” In it he, too, seemed to be finding his rhythm in meditating on three diverse sources: surrealist art, a surreal sculpture, a piece of extraordinary hagiography on St. Agnes and a visit to a sister in an asylum. My favorite section, “The Origins of the Practice,”  described the excruciating tormenting of St. Agnes, \ by the crowd of onlookers, soldiers.   The issue is  eyes that “are naturally unruly, straying without conscience,” A judge orders Agnes stripped before a crowd.  There is a miracle, except for the suitor, no one looks at her nakedness.

            What is so interesting about this poem is its evocation of concentration and the temptation to stray from it. Straying from the concentration is straying from precise individuation of the moment, the self, that is poetry.  And yet, that tension between attention and distraction is just the drama that gets played out over and over again, bringing us back to the “tightness and nilness,”the dangers and pleasure of “The Frontier of Writing.” Seamus Heaney.

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