I still struggle with a notion I first mentioned when writing about Heaney’s inaugural collection, Death of a Naturalist, the idea that with each collection of poetry I should take time to live with it, read through several times, maybe even commit bits to memory so as to have them always at the ready. I remember a formative English teacher saying that you should read a poem seven times before thinking that you understand it. Much of my literary upbringing said that poetry should be absorbed as much as it should be read, it should become a part of the reader. The only poem of Heaney’s I have come close to readily calling to mind is “Digging,” the very first poem in the very first collection.
The truth, though, is that I read Station Island like I read Heaney’s other collections: on the train during my daily commute, in between helping kids with homework, late in the evening when things are quiet and even, occasionally, during longer periods when I can devote some uninterrupted time to reading. I would like poetry to be like a pilgrimage, but in practice it’s more prosaic.
Heaney manages both in Station Island. The eponymous central section arises from a pilgrimage Heaney made more than once in his younger days to an island in Lough Derg in County Donegal, Ireland. The island is home to “Patrick’s Purgatory” and has been a pilgrimage site at least since 1185. As practiced today, the pilgrimage has a three-day fast, an all-night vigil the first night, and nine stations of prayer. Heaney’s poem has twelve stations, and in each of them the speaker encounters a ghostly presence, country people he has known, fellow poets, a young priest, James Joyce. I was most struck by the eleventh and twelfth parts: the eleventh for its nearly mystical vision of a fountain of life and its repeated invocation “although it is the night”; the twelfth for its conjuring Joyce’s voice in Dante’s stanzas, closing the poem with invocation and instruction, the ghost telling the poet “You’ve listened long enough. Now strike your note.”
The first part of the collection is unnamed, itself a collection nearly as long and substantive as Death of a Naturalist. Several poems in this section are about or allude to the sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland, while others follow the title of the fourth, “Away From It All.” Though of course the poet is never completely away, and it is up to the reader to hear the echoes in the lines. “Remembering Malibu” would seem nearly as far away from Ireland as one could get, and yet in its thirteen couplet stanzas there are mentions of “beehive hut,” “our monk-fished, snowed-into Atlantic” and “the Skelligs.” One of the best in the section is “Chekhov on Salhalin” dedicated to Derek Mahon, a fellow Northern Irish poet who outlived Heaney by seven years.
The third part is titled “Sweeney Redivivus.” Heaney explains in his notes at the end of the volume, “The poems in this section are voiced for Sweeney, the seventh-century Ulster king who was transformed into a bird-man and exiled to the threes by the curse of St Ronan.” He adds, “I trust these glosses can survive without the support system of the original story. Many of them, of course, are imagined in contexts far removed from early medieval Ireland.” The title poem of the section captures the character speaking:
And there I was, incredible to myself,
among people far too eager to believe me
and my story, even if it happened to be true.
Sweeney is revived, and let loose, and full of both observations and himself. He’s also fun, showing Heaney’s lighter side without losing the attention to detail and craft that brings the poems to life. “The Cleric,” “The Old Icons” (“Why, when it was all over, did I hold on to them?” — What a great and probing question.) and the last poem in the book, “On the Road” were the ones that struck me most forcefully my first time through Station Island.
The trance of driving
made all roads one:
the seraph-haunted, Tuscan
footpath, the green
oak-alleys of Dordogne
or that track through corn
where the rich young man
asked his question —
Master, what must I
do to be saved?