Thursday, October 12, 2023

The Hastings Room Reading Series: Celebrating a Decade in Memory of Seamus Heaney Oct 26, 2023


The Hastings Room Reading Series

Celebrating a Decade in Memory of Seamus Heaney with a reading of Station Island at the Cambridge Public Library Thursday, Oct 26, 7pm

with guest readers Meg Tyler, Aidan Rooney and Daniel Tobin

article by Michael Todd Steffen

A year before Heaney died, Colm Toibin noted, with a novelist’s close perception, the way the poet appeared after reading in Kilkenny. The command he had exercised on stage, Toibin observed, gave way to a thoughtful, restrained, slightly watchful manner…A portrait painted around the same time, now hanging in the Athenaeum Club in London, shows the same watchfulness, as well as a certain physical exhaustion. ‘It’s more like me than I am’, Heaney remarked… He died on his way into the operating theatre on the morning of Friday 30 August (2013).

His last message to his wife was a Latin injunction: noli timere—‘don’t be afraid’. It was as if he were underlining the conclusion of his memorable Oxford lecture on poetic approaches to death, where he had invoked Yeats’s resolute affirmation of ‘the spiritual intellect’s great work’ as he faced into the void. Noli timere became Heaney’s final resolution, the achieved fullness of his life, what so many obituarists celebrated in 2013. It was also reflected in the extraordinary outburst of national grief in Ireland—and, indeed, elsewhere, but especially in Ireland. At the All-Ireland Gaelic football semi-final in Croke Park, a crowd of eighty thousand people stood and applauded for two minutes in homage. His unforgettable funeral in Dublin, where Paul Muldoon delivered a heartbroken and heartbreaking eulogy, was a genuinely national occasion. The sense of a great tree falling, leaving a sense of silence and emptiness behind, was palpable.

~R.F. Foster, On Seamus Heaney, 2020.

For this year’s special 10th annual Seamus Heaney Memorial Reading, a presentation of the poet’s long poem Station Island will be given at the Cambridge Public Library (on Broadway) in the Lecture Hall. The reading will take place on Thursday, October 26th at 7pm. This event, highlighting readers Daniel Tobin, Meg Tyler and Aidan Rooney, is a segment of The Hastings Room Reading Series.

Station Island is the eponymous long poem of Heaney’s sixth collection of poetry. The book was published by Faber & Faber in the UK in 1984, and in America by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux in 1985. The title is taken from another name for Saint Patrick’s Purgatory on Lough Derg in County Donegal, a site of Christian Pilgrimage for many centuries. During his undergraduate years at Queens University Belfast, Heaney went on the pilgrimage several times. In choosing the pilgrimage site for his poem, Heaney has assumed and given us a precise physical location for the otherworldly communion and revelation of his poetic inspiration.

In a telling interview, Heaney describes one driving force behind his writing of the long poem:

I needed to butt my way through a blockage, a pile-up of hampering stuff, everything that had gathered up inside me because of the way I was both in and out of the Northern Ireland situation.

Typical of the Irish Nobel laureate: the wide-ranging use of this little-assuming word “butt,” denoting the defensive tactic of a goat, the hand-piece of a gun, backward movement, and personal exposure and risk, even embarrassment, so significantly to tell us about the difficulty and necessity of writing the poem. And so doing, he had healed and relieved a huge distress, in Heaney’s rendering of the passage in Beowulf, when the son of Shield Sheafson has accomplished the task of dismembering Grendel’s arm, slaying the monster.

But “I wasn’t actively involved,” Heaney said, referring to The Troubles, the sectarian violence in Northern Ireland, from 1968 to 1998 between Protestant Unionists and Catholic nationalists. “Yet,” stated Heaney, “I felt dragged upon and put upon by it.”

While the name (Saint Patrick’s) Purgatory itself makes an easily identifiable connection between Station Island and the title of the mid-section of Dante’s trilogy, we can hardly ignore the history of Heaney’s life with its background of civil strife, held up to 14th-century central Italy and the war between the Guelphs and Ghibellines, which occasioned so much passion and literal material for Dante’s Divine Comedy.

Saint Patrick’s Purgatory in Lough Derg is where, tradition has it, Christ showed Saint Patrick a cave reputed to be an entrance to Purgatory. It is mentioned in texts from as early as 1185 and shown on maps across Europe as early as the 15th century. It is the only Irish site designated on Martin Behaim’s world map of 1492.

The poem begins with an aural or hearing sensation, the ringing of an altar bell, announcing both the religious affiliation of the poem, and the primacy of the sense of hearing to the visionary work. From the element of audition, the pass from music, and especially Celtic music, to Heaney’s poetry is a bridge easily crossed for anybody familiar with the Irish lyrical master.

Music singularly touches us in its consensual reach, in a communal way. Nonverbal, it rings in the spirit nearly unmediated by the optative desires, doubts, wishes and coercions of verbal language, a potential sum of ambiguities and contradictions often even in the most honest of us which amounts to the shrug of what the French mythographer Rolland Barthes determined as the zero degree of language, which constitutes, celebrates and grieves our being, beyond the divisive terminologies of politics, religion or competition, right and wrong, redeemed or saved, winner or loser.

Heaney is certainly, in this case, no exception to the rule that poetry more than just evolves from, but continuously remembers and welcomes the spiritual germaneness of music into its marginally inscribed spaces.

In an interview with Heaney, fellow poet Steven Ratiner mentions “the acoustic qualities” within Heaney’s verse. He says, “I think there are few poets writing in English today who have as pronounced a musical charge to their poetry as you do.” Heaney’s reply: “Verse is a physical phenomenon…If it doesn’t have a melody or a rhythm or meter—some kind of physical emanation—it just becomes a set of semantic signals on the page.” Very modestly the leading Irish voice of the turn of the century goes on in all humility to admit, “My sense of poetry is based, as most people’s is, on reading the traditional canon.”

The peculiar palpable thinginess accompanied by warm vernacular inflections, the elements of music in Heaney’s poems, are in fact scored to traditional verse scansion.

His preference for iambic pentameter places Heaney convincingly in the company of his father poets in English, from Chaucer and Shakespeare to his immediate sire in Yeats. In the first poem of his collection, “Digging,” we hear the metrical discipline in his own rural diction and vocabulary:

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft…

To scatter new potatoes that we picked.

Another early poem, “Personal Helicon,” dedicated to Michael Longley, celebrates the poet’s childhood love of water wells and the slop and mess and danger of a kid’s fun in these wellsprings. Reminiscent of a well-known passage by the Apostle Paul in Corinthians about toys and the time of childhood, the poet concludes:

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.

Heaney also brings surprise to our ears’ desire for variation in harmony with Emily-like or Yeatsian off rhymes, like “ditch” and “mulch”, and “aquarium” and “bottom”.

Even more, as we read the poems and become accustomed to Heaney’s odd turns of mind, his unique combination of irony and warmth, we are also often delighted by utterances of out-and-out honesty from his usual hedgerow of discretion and metaphor, and statements of reversals and paradox, as the ones we find in a latter poem from The Haw Lantern, “Hailstones,” where we are told about

the melt of the real thing

smarting into its absence

and this poet’s conclusion with its sting of the evanescence of all things, even of his dearest vocational labors upon their epiphany:

Nipple and hive, bite-lumps,

small acorns of the almost pleasurable

intimated and disallowed

when the shower ended

and everything said wait.

For what? For forty years

to say there, there you had

the truest foretaste of your aftermath—

in that dilation

when the light opened in silence

and a car with wipers going still

laid perfect tracks in the slush.

From the physical emanation of sound, the notion of pilgrimage at a holy site produces a different, deep, far-reaching resonance for Heaney’s undertaking in Station Island, along the same paths, above mentioned, of Dante’s spiritual journey in The Divine Comedy. Dante’s major source of inspiration we know is Virgil’s Aeneid with that poem’s depictions of Avernus and the world of the dead in Book VI, which Heaney translated, through the founding of Christianity and the canonization of its saints and Christian doctrine in the Middle Ages. Chaucer’s subjects in The Canterbury Tales are on a pilgrimage to the tomb of Saint Thomas Beckett That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke. So when Heaney joins the procession of penitents in the first section of Station Island,

As I drew behind them

I was a fasted pilgrim…

the word “pilgrim” here carries back to those prime master inspirations, including Chaucer—

and beyond, associating him historically to the New World and its discoverers and settlers with their self-description as “pilgrims,” to God’s new world, in America, specifically around Harvard where the Irish poet spent an appreciable span of his teaching career.

Chaucer’s characters, typically the Wife of Bath, again and again assert and affirm human folly, appetite, flesh, lucre and worldly power as viable sources of humor and “spirit” on their holy pilgrimage. Those visited in Station Island will also surprise Heaney, as he perhaps surprises himself, with subversive suggestions and observations, no less Heaney’s legendary guide Sweeney in the opening section of the poem, admonishing the seeker to “Stay clear of all processions!” Heaney identifies Sweeney as “an old Sabbath breaker” and Sweeney right back at him—

Damn all you know.

I was your mystery man

and am again this morning…

As if to say, to make any genuine spiritual breakthrough or recovery, and gain needed and substantial insight, our very foundations, spiritual, holy or religious as they may be, must be shaken. We must somehow be stripped of every certainty, any dogma, giving rise to presumption and overconfidence. We must be broken down to be restored to authenticity. (Readers of Heaney will note this layered caution to assert too much confidence everywhere in his poetry.)

He’s aware that time and history continue to move forward, that even Christianity, in its conception as establishment is prone to age, perhaps gasping short of the progress of our times. When Heaney encounters the 19th-century activist (the typologically “aggravated man”) and author William Carleton in Section II of the poem, and announces, “I’m on the road there now to do my visit”—Carleton’s reply rings at once revelatory and sacrilegious:

‘O holy Jesus Christ, does nothing change?’

The utterance nearly sidesteps blasphemy by straining on its own tension: How will the over-turner and redeemer, Jesus Christ, the “holy” one, himself endure the necessary overturning (except that he is portrayed in that very dilemma, abandoned, a crucified divinity…)—? For the Changer, the question “does nothing change?” strikes at once in earnest and rhetorically. For things, especially in Carleton’s sense as a political reformer, must change. Any established, aging institution can only confirm everything that stands in the old order with its inevitable corruption. If or where Christianity does not concede to and allow this paradox, it determines the end of its own viability. It must aspire to the pliability of contradiction and paradox. Where rigidity and severity set in, poof.

The exchange between Carleton and Heaney makes for one of the most vivid and poignant moments of the poem, as Heaney replies in kind, decrying the tribal drums and weaponry paraded by the Unionists around their local neighborhoods, ever in sight of the ordinary motions and stability of family and civilized life:

‘I come from County Derry,

born in earshot of an Hibernian hall

in collarettes and sashes fringed with green.

Obedient strains like theirs tuned me first

and not that harp of unforgiving iron

the Fenians strung. A lot of what you wrote

I heard and did: this Lough Derg station,

flax-pullings, dances, summer crossroads chat

and the shaky local voice of education.

All that. And always, Orange drums.

And neighbors on the roads at night with guns.’

Carleton’s reply here is as memorably rhetorical and charged, leading him to an uncanny homely parable shifting into far-off, panoramic vision, with what proves very prophetic for a 1985 poem, spoken by a late 1800s ghost, in the language of global socio-environmental awareness:

‘I know, I know, I know, I know,’ he said,

‘but you have to try to make sense of what comes.

Remember everything and keep your head.

The alders in the hedge, mushrooms,

dark-clumped grass where cows or horses dunged,

the cluck when pith-lined chestnut shells split open

in your hand, the melt of shells corrupting,

old jampots in a drain clogged with mud…’

But now Carleton was interrupting:

‘All this is like a trout kept in a spring

or maggots sown in wounds—

another life that cleans our element.

We are earthworms of the earth, and all that

has gone through us is what will be our trace.’

The poetry in Station Island, often astonishingly, involves the plain daring of honesty, Heaney facing up to Heaney, yet also standing his ground to face up to significant others, ghosts, from his life and the past in Ireland, including the nation’s woodsy spirit embodied in Sweeney. In the procession of visits also are: a young vocational priest to foreign missions, a victim of the sectarian violence, and James Joyce, among others.

One distinction the pilgrim Heaney makes is how the poet manages to speak his mind to these others, who might simply have presided over him as superior in some way. Standing up to them: Heaney defends his secular humanity vs. Sweeney’s entrenched ecstatic bewilderment. The poet defends his civility vs. the unforgiving “harp” of the political radicals. As penitent guided in this spiritual/religious ritual, he becomes notably and uncomfortably direct with the spirit of a young priest he knew, encountering the cleric during the formal pronouncement of the renunciation against sin. Heaney must break off this renunciation, significantly, as he himself will shift into a sort of devil’s advocate in his affront to the presumed authority of the priest’s order:

I had broken off from the renunciation

while he was speaking, to clear the way

for other pilgrims queueing to get started.

‘I’m older now than you when you went away,’

I ventured, feeling a strange reversal.

‘I never could see you on the foreign missions.

I could only see you on a bicycle,

a clerical student home for the summer

doomed to the decent thing. Visiting neighbors.

Drinking tea and praising home-made bread.

Something in them would be ratified

when they saw you at the door in your black suit,

arriving like some sort of holy mascot.

You gave too much relief, you raised a siege

the world had laid against their kitchen grottoes

hung with holy pictures and crucifixes.’

If poetry ultimately stands in as the individual’s version, a subjective triumph in so many cases, with Heaney the case cannot be presumed so easily. As well as including his boldness to contradict the authorities conjured in the drama of his psyche, Heaney allows them the same probable response to double back on him and put him in his place:

‘And you,’ he said, ‘what are you doing here

but the same thing? What possessed you?

I at least was young and unaware

that what I thought was chosen was convention.

But all this you were clear of you walked into

over again. And the god has, as they say, withdrawn…

A feeling of authenticity, fair play, enters the discourse. The ghost of the priest concludes that even Heaney’s perhaps less restrictive and proscribed discipline, poetry, inevitably leads to repetition and a certain formality, or ritual, and that either way, the poet and priest at day’s end have been in their chosen vocations doing of essence the same thing in their meaningful exchanges – visiting – with others, offering language to reconcile the burdened. The artistry we note Heaney for is here very striking with the rendering not only of the apparition, but the palpable absence left in its wake:

‘What are you doing, going through these motions?

Unless…Unless…’ Again he was short of breath

and his whole fevered body yellowed and shook.

‘Unless you are here taking the last look.’

Suddenly where he stood was bare as the roads

we both had grown up beside, where a sick man

had taken his last look one drizzly evening

when steam rose like the first breath of spring,

behind him, on his circuits, visiting.

A passage from section VIII in the midst of a succession of apparitions passing him, finds a cousin, Colum, shot in the violence, who stops Heaney:

‘The red-hot pokers blazed a lovely red

in Jerpoint the Sunday I was murdered,’

he said quietly. ‘Now do you remember?

You were there with poets when you got the word

and stayed there with them, while your own flesh and blood

was carted to Bellaghy from the Fews.

They showed more agitation at the news

than you did.’

‘But they were getting crisis

first-hand, Colum, they had happened in on

live sectarian assassination.

I was dumb, encountering what was destined.’

And so I pleaded with my second cousin…

This passage is not included in the reading script for our Hastings Room presentation on October 26. The thematic ground of Heaney’s in-the-middle stance is voiced more decisively and memorably in Heaney’s apology in Section IX to the murdered shop-keeper:

Forgive the way I have lived indifferent—

forgive my timid circumspect involvement…

The omissions of my edited reading script are in no way to criticize Heaney’s material, but to respect the flow of our presentation. Where a reader’s-only script can excavate in repetition and more subtle gradations of a feeling, like guilt, these variations risk coming off as redundant in the less intimate venue of a public presentation.

On the other hand, I have inserted two poems completely alien to Station Island. The poem “Canopy” from the book Human Chain has been inserted into the “school” Section V of the presentation. That beautiful lyric evokes Harvard Yard and adds some local flavor. And I’ve used the poem “From the Republic of Conscience” from The Haw Lantern as an epilogue, to widen the sense of Heaney’s visiting source from the religious to our ordinary social world.

About our readers:

Aidan Rooney is a native of Monaghan, Ireland and a resident in the U.S. since 1987. He lives in Hingham, Massachusetts, and teaches at Thayer Academy. He was awarded the Hennessy Literary Award for New Irish Poet in 1997 and the Daniel Varoujan Award from the New England Poetry Club in 2012. His collections, Day Release (2000) and Tightrope (2007) were brought out in Ireland by The Gallery Press. His most recent book Go There was released by MadHat in 2020. Rachel Hadas has noted “the mercurial variety of this collection,” and how it “is unified and grounded by Rooney’s unerring feel for the power of poetry to capture and distill our restless lives, line by rich and compact line.” Rooney’s poems and translations from French and Haitian have appeared in AGNI, Cream City Review, The Shop, Mudlark, Prairie Schooner, and Poetry Ireland Review.

Meg Tyler is an associate professor of humanities at Boston University. Teaching and research interests include ethical philosophy, Irish studies, lyric poetry, creative writing, poetry in translation and the intersection of art and literature. She directs a poetry series and chairs the Institute for the Study of Irish Culture. Her book, A Singing Contest: Conventions of Sound in the Poetry of Seamus Heaney, was published by Routledge in their series, Major Literary Authors. Her poetry chapbook, Poor Earth, came out from Finishing Line Press in 2014. Her poems and prose have appeared in Agni, Literary Imagination, Kenyon Review, Harvard Review, Irish Review and other journals. A chapter on Heaney’s last two volumes recently appeared in “The Soul Exceeds Its Circumstances”: The Later Poetry of Seamus Heaney, edited by Eugene O’Brien (Notre Dame University Press, 2016).

Daniel Tobin was born in Brooklyn, New York, to Irish American parents, and his writing explores Irish ancestry and Irish American heritage. He is the author of a collection of essays on Irish American poets and poetry, Awake in America (2011), as well as Passage to the Center: Imagination and the Sacred in the Poetry of Seamus Heaney (1999).

Tobin’s 9th book of poetry, The Mansions, is a trilogy of poems collected in one volume, comprising "From Nothing," "This Broken Symmetry," and "At the Grave of Teilhard de Chardin." The entire design has been in the works for fourteen years and will see the light of day this autumn from Four Way Books.

Praised for their formal control and narrative adeptness, Tobin’s other poetry collections include Where the World Is Made (1999), Double Life (2004), The Narrows (2005), Second Things (2008), Belated Heavens (2010), The Net (2014), and From Nothing (2016).
His numerous honors and awards include fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. He is the recipient of the Robert Penn Warren Award, the Discovery/The Nation Award, and a Katharine Bakeless Nason Prize. Tobin teaches at Emerson College in Boston.

Wednesday, October 11, 2023

All She Wrote Books-- Makes it Move to East Somerville

When I heard that the All She Wrote Books was moving from Assembly Row in Somerville, to Artisan Way in East Somerville--I decided to contact the owner. According to the store's website:

Christina Pascucci Ciampa is the founder/owner of All She Wrote Books. All She Wrote Books is an intersectional, inclusive feminist and queer indie bookstore that supports, celebrates, and amplifies underrepresented voices through its thoughtfully curated selection of books spanning across all genres.

 How has this relocation gone so far, and will the new location have as much foot traffic as the as the Assembly Mall site?

All She Wrote is being displaced from our current storefront in Assembly Row, and is moving to a new location in East Somerville (off of Washington Street) on October 15. There are a mix of emotions as we close this current chapter and start a new one. However, we’re excited to continue our fight for inclusivity and literacy in Somerville and beyond. As far as foot traffic is concerned, All She Wrote Books is a destination for many in our community, and don't see that being an issue in the new location.

How has it been for you to live and work in Somerville?

All She Wrote Books has been in Somerville since 2019, and started as a pop-up bookstore, which I ran out of my home. We had our brick-and-mortar open in July 2020, and have been in our current space for the last 3 years. I love living and working in East Somerville, and I know I am fortunate to be able to have All She Wrote Books exist in this corner of Somerville.

According to the store's website you were a survivor of domestic abuse, and this drove you to look for books that addressed this. Often great pain creates great art and great vision. Your take on it?

Yes, I have experienced trauma and pain and that's informed things, but All She Wrote Books wasn't created from that. It came from my hope for a brighter future for my community, here in Somerville and across the globe. To say that one thing has led to all of that would be inaccurate. Do I think great things can come from dark days? Sure, but there's more to creativity and inspiration than that. All She Wrote is a perfect example.

Are you a writer?

Yes, I have been writing for many years, both personally and professionally.

You guys are a feminist and queer indie bookstore. But I believe that you are more inclusive than that? What other types of work do you carry?

We carry BIPOC and AAPI authors across all genres. We also carry Zines, and other hard to find queer/feminist publications. We also carry local authors who align with our mission as a queer/feminist bookstore.

What are some bestselling titles, currently?

Top selling titles include: Lucky Red by Claudia Cravens, Safe and Sound by Mercury Stardust, Historically Black Phrases by Tre'vell Anderson and jarrett hill, and Black Sheep by Rachel Harrison.

If someone asked you—why should I visit your bookstore—what would you say?

All She Wrote Books is more than just a feminist/queer independent bookstore. When I think of the words “intersectional”, “feminist”, “queer” that are in our mission statement — I think of them as guiding lights for those who are not only actively seeking queer/feminist spaces out like ours, but for those who want more spaces like ours in the world. And we need more spaces like ours like never before.