Seeing Things by Seamus Heaney

Seeing Things returns to a greater length, though many of its poems — particularly the 48 in Part II, “Squarings” — are short; the squarings are all twelve lines each. “Glanmore Revisited” offers seven sonnets in its short sequence. “The Schoolbag” is also sonnet length, while “1.1.1987” and “An August Night” are three lines each. Compact Heaney is by no means confined. The brevity in some sense gives him license to be more expansive. As he says in Stepping Stones, “You could think of every poem in ‘Squarings’ as the peg at the end of a tent-rope reaching up into the airy structure, but still with purchase on something earthier and more obscure.” (p. 320)

Seeing Things by Seamus Heaney

As bookends of the two parts of Seeing Things, Heaney places two translations: one from the Aeneid, the other from Dante’s Inferno. From the Aeneid, he has selected “The Golden Bough,” which is mostly a dialogue between Aeneas and a Sibyl. He implores her for “one look, one face-to-face meeting with my dear father.” Heaney’s own father passed away between the publication of The Haw Lantern (which itself contains a sonnet sequence prompted by his mother’s passing) and that of Seeing Things. The Sibyl replies that though Aeneas be of the highest birth, “But to retrace your steps and get back to upper air./This is the real task and the real undertaking./A few have been able to do it…” She reminds him, “…if you will go beyond the limit,/Understand what you must do beforehand.” Engaging with the newly dead is no task for the faint of heart. “No one is ever permitted/To go down to earth’s hidden places unless he has first/Plucked this golden-fledged growth out of its tree…” In this volume, Heaney is reaching for the golden bough, he is seeing things, and working to come back.

The closing translation, “The Crossing,” relates Dante’s encounter with Charon, just as Dante and Virgil are about to enter the underworld. In that, it reflects the poem that opens Part I, “The Journey Back,” in which “Larkin’s shade surprised me. He quoted Dante.” Three more poems in Part I — “The Schoolbag,” “Scrabble” (the first poem in the “Glanmore Revisited” sequence) and “The Sounds of Rain” — are marked as “in memoriam,” so throughout the first part of Seeing Things Heaney is reckoning not just with the death of his father, but of several other people who were meaningful to him. Of those three, I particularly liked “Scrabble,” dedicated to Tom Delaney, an archeologist. He talks about scrabbling in the earth as archeologists do, and moves into another meaning:

Year after year, our game of Scrabble: love
Taken for granted like any other word
That was chanced on and allowed within the rules.
So ‘scrabble’ let it be. In transitive.
Meaning to scratch or rake at something hard.
Which is what he hears. Our scraping, clinking tools. (p. 31)

Visiting the underworld, like Dante, like Aeneas, scraping meaning, using tools to remember against eternity, holding the golden bough of poetry to see things about the lives and world around him. Related processes take place in “Markings,” where Heaney talks about delineating a soccer pitch “…four jackets for four goalposts,/That was all”. Like the archeologist scraping through layers, marking time with the tools of their trade, so others create meaningful spaces, from the goal-making jackets to:

… lines pegged out in the garden,
The spade nicking the first straight edge along
The tight white string. Or string stretched perfectly
To mark the outline of a house foundation…
Or the imaginary line straight down
A field of grazing, to be ploughed open
From the rod stuck in one headrig to the rod
Stuck in the other (pp. 8–9)

Part II, “Squarings,” contains a series of formally similar and thematically linked poems that Heaney wrote over an eighteen-month period in 1988 and 1989. Each one is twelve lines, and Heaney originally considered putting together 144 of them; the twelve lines squared. In the event, he gathered 48, a not quite square number, in four sections of twelve poems each, the number of lines made square into the number of poems. He enumerated the sections “Lightenings,” “Settings,” “Crossings,” and “Squarings.” Writing these poems, he says in Stepping Stones, he “felt as free as a kid skimming stones, and in fact the relationship between individual poems in the different sections has something of the splish-splash, one-after-anotherness of stones skittering and frittering across water.” (p. 319) Heaney had a very particular feeling about the process of writing the twelve-liners, he “experienced something halfway between a stiffening of linguistic resolve and a dissolution of it. … I may exaggerate but I don’t misrepresent if I say that, in general, I was subject to the poems and not the other way round. … I learned what inspiration feels like but not how to summon it. Which is to say that I learned that waiting is part of the work.” (Stepping Stones, pp. 319–20)

In xxi, part of “Settings,” Heaney describes the one and only time he fired a gun. He aimed at a target and hit it true, seeing

The target’s single shocking little jerk,

A Whole new quickened sense of what rifle meant.
And then again as it was in the beginning
I saw the soul like a white cloth snatched away

Across dark galaxies and felt that shot
For the sin it was against eternal life —
(p. 77)

In the second poem of “Squarings,” xxxviii in the full sequence, Heaney captures a moment of a visit to Rome, when he is “moved to prophesy” and declaims:

“Down with form triumphant,” (said I)
“Form mendicant and convalescent. We attend
The come-back of pure water and the prayer-wheel.”

To which a voice replied, “Of course we do.
But the others are in the Forum Café waiting,
Wondering where we are. What’ll you have?”
(p. 98)

The grandiose squared with, squared off against, the convivial. Fortunately, Heaney brings them all to life, returning from parts known and unknown with their tales.

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