North by Seamus Heaney

It’s funny that Dennis O’Driscoll begins his interview of Seamus Heaney about North by quoting a description of it as “a very oblique and intense book” because I found it not nearly as oblique as Wintering Out or Door Into the Dark. Heaney divided North into two parts, “a first section that has poems full of linguistic burr and clinker, and a second section full of more discursive, at times unbuttoned, things such as “Whatever You Say Say Nothing.” (Stepping Stones, p. 160).

North by Seamus Heaney

Heaney opens and closes the first part with poems about Antaeus, serving notice that there will be wrestling, and rootedness, and indeed wrestling with rootedness. The discussion with O’Driscoll notes that Heaney was writing North when he and his family had returned from California and moved from Northern Ireland to County Wicklow in the Republic. He had lifted himself from his native soil, the very material he’d announced in “Digging” that he would work with, and he must at times have wondered whether he would prove to be Hercules or Antaeus. He’d left the relative security of teaching and was making an attempt at freelancing. “I’d got myself to a point where there were no alibis. That much was clear the first morning I took the children down to the school in Ashford and the headmaster wrote “file“, i.e., poet, in the column of the rollbook where he had to enter ‘Occupation of Parent’. No more of your ‘lecturer’ or ‘teacher’.” (Stepping Stones, p. 156) There were advantages, too. “I have an especially happy memory of writing ‘Bog Queen’ because it was the first time in my life, believe it or not, that I’d spent a whole uninterrupted workday on a poem.” (Stepping Stones, p. 158)

In North, Heaney both lifts and digs, and lifts up what he has unearthed. The title refers not only to Ireland’s north, as might be expected, but to wider reaches of northern Europe. The title poem, for example:


I faced the unmagical
invitations of Iceland,
the pathetic colonies
of Greenland, and suddenly

those fabulous raiders,
those lying in Orkney and Dublin
measured against
their long swords rusting

Immediately after, he brings both together with “Viking Dublin: Trial Pieces,” six parts over four pages and a bit, that range from Viking years to Heaney’s present, raiders and skulls and writers, line upon line, craft matching craft.

Like a child’s tongue
following the toils

of his calligraphy,
like an eel swallowed
in a basket of eels,
the line amazes itself,

eluding the hand
that fed it

That line is an incision on “a jaw-bone/or a rib or a portion cut/from something sturdier” but also the poet’s line; equally, it is the line of trade and raiding mapped out by the Vikings “a longship, a buoyant/migrant line”. It is a line

That enters my longhand,
turns cursive, unscarfing
a zoomorphic wake,
a worm of thought

I follow into the mud.

And it is a line of descendants, from Vikings down to the speaker, a complex legacy.

V
Come fly with me,
come sniff the wind
with the expertise
of the Vikings —

neighbourly, scoretaking
killers, haggers
and hagglers, gombeen-men
hoarders of grudges and gain.

With a butcher’s aplomb
they spread out your lungs
and made you warm wings
for your shoulders.

Old fathers, be with us.
Old cunning assessors
of feuds and of sites
for ambush or town.

“Come to the Bower,” “Bog Queen” and “The Grauballe Man,” among others, speak of figures found by archeologists in various bogs and other sites of northern preservation, reminding readers of the long history of habitation, how the past can look back, how it can be unexpectedly present after centuries buried away. “Punishment” makes that kind of doubling more explicit, with a young woman put to death in a bog

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 …

She is paired with others punished by communities in the Troubles of the 1970s, and the speaker who did not speak against modern barbarity.

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 next poem is titled “Strange Fruit,” and it’s a fourteen-line examination of “the girl’s head like an exhumed gourd.” It’s a successful poem, looking back and tying antiquity to the present, but as someone from the American South, for me that title can only refer to lynchings, and so it strikes a discordant note.

North‘s second part addresses Northern Ireland, and its state in the 1970s, much more directly than its first. “The Unacknowledged Legislator’s Dream” imagines a poet jailed by unnamed authorities, “My wronged people cheer from their cages. The guard-dogs are unmuzzled, a soldier pivots a muzzle at the butt of my ear…”

“Whatever You Say Say Nothing” speaks, among many things, of “Northern reticence/the tight gag of place and times:”

Smoke-signals are loud-mouthed compared with us:
Maneoeuvrings to find out name and school,
Subtle discrimination by addresses
With hardly an exception to the rule

That Norman, Ken and Sidney signalled Prod,
And Seamus (call me Sean) was sure-fire Pape.
Ph, land of password, handgrip, wink and nod,
Of open minds as open as a trap.

The six parts of “Singing School” tell a tale of the land in its times, and also of the desire of a poet to be more than just that place, just those times. The first four parts — “The Ministry of Fear,” “A Constable Calls,” “Orange Drums, Tyrone, 1966,” and “Summer 1969” — chronicle, while the last two — “Fosterage” and “Exposure” — reach for an individual escape, or at least an individual reckoning. As an unnamed person says to the speaker in “Fosterage,” “Go your own way/Do your own work. Remember/Katherine Mansfield — I will tell/How the laundry basket squeaked … that note of exile.” Closing the volume with “Exposure,” Heaney writes

It is December in Wicklow:
Alders dripping, birches
Inheriting the last light,
The ash tree cold to look at …

The diamond absolutes.
I am neither internee nor informer;
An inner émigré, grown long-haired
And thoughtful; a wood-kerne

Escaped from the massacre,
Taking protective colouring
From bole and bark, feeling
Every wind that blows;

Those winds blow all through North, with Heaney in new soil, digging, wrestling, lifting.

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