Hand and Foot
- Opened Ground: Poems 1966-96 by Seamus Heaney
Faber, 478 pp, £20.00, September 1998, ISBN 0 571 19492 3
- The Poetry of Seamus Heaney: A Critical Study by Neil Corcoran
Faber, 276 pp, £9.99, September 1998, ISBN 0 571 17747 6
- Seamus Heaney by Helen Vendler
HarperCollins, 188 pp, £15.99, November 1998, ISBN 0 00 255856 4
When Seamus Heaney left Belfast in 1972, to work as a freelance writer in the relative safety of the Republic, Northern Ireland was a war zone. Internment and Bloody Sunday had recruited so many to the Provisional IRA that Civil Rights marches had given way to carbombs. While Heaney in County Wicklow wrote the poems that would go into North, common ground was eroded. Moderates still hoped for power-sharing, but the prospects for compromise were damaged in February 1973, when the Loyalist Association of Workers called a general strike – flexing the industrial muscle which would later destroy the Sunningdale Agreement.
That difficult February, Heaney published in the Listener one of his worst but most interesting poems. ‘A New Life’ riskily compares the impregnation of Mrs Heaney to British imperialism in Ireland. In bed with his wife, who was expecting a child at the time, the poet sees himself as ‘the tall kingdom’ looking over Erin’s shoulder. With the help of some fudged physiology (the womb of conflict is located in the North), Heaney is able to correlate sex with colonial penetration, but only by forcing an analogy between the guilt he feels at causing the pains of childbirth and the responsibility England shrugs off for the Tudor conquest, 1798 and the legacy of Loyalist extremism. Riven by inconsistencies, the poem struggles to yoke the personal to the political by stacking up double entendres about invaders who ‘came’ among the ‘mounds and ring-forts’ of Ireland/Mrs Heaney and produced from ‘broken ground’ the bloody issue of Ulster.
Those familiar with Heaney’s work will recognise ‘A New Life’ as a discarded version of ‘Act of Union’, the double, irregular sonnet which lies near the heart of North, and which is reprinted in Heaney’s grand new retrospective volume, Opened Ground. To compare the magazine text with its revision is to have a fascinating insight into Heaney’s way with difficult material. Halved in length, ‘Act of Union’ moves tersely and at times with probing intuitiveness into the matter of history and territory which is at the quick of the early books. Though it includes a few long picturesque lines – parturition is called ‘a bog-burst,/A gash breaking open the ferny bed’ – these are not allowed to compromise the taut verbal structure. Hence the poem’s conclusion. In 1973, it had seemed possible to allegorise out of the Heaney marriage the reconciliation of Britain and Ireland through their Ulster offspring: ‘The triangle of forces solved in love’. Loyalist agitation changed that, and a couple of years later, in North, the ‘broken ground’ of ‘A New Life’ is bleakly revised to echo the ‘breaking open’ of the landscape/wife’s ‘ferny bed’:
I foresee will salve completely your tracked
And stretchmarked body, the big pain
That leaves you raw, like opened ground, again.
This is Heaney’s first use of the resonant phrase which provides the title of Opened Ground; his subsequent use of it shows how closely fractious politics and the demands of craft can run together in his work to produce a form of words which sounds final in its simplicity but has had the capacity to take on new meanings as his writing has developed. In the years since North the idea of ‘opening up’ has become a leitmotif in Heaney, associated with the freedom of the imagination and with his belief that a more inclusive definition of Irishness can ease the problems of the North. His ‘ground’ has also shifted, not just in the sense that migration from Ulster to Wicklow has been followed by transatlantic shuttling between Dublin, Harvard and Oxford, but conceptually, too: his recent work has focused less on the squelch of bogland and more on ontology and language – those bases of human experience which poetry can subvert or confirm.
A typical example is one of the ‘Squarings’ sequence, number xl, reprinted in Opened Ground, from Seeing Things (1991):
I was four but I turned four hundred maybe
Encountering the ancient dampish feel
Of a clay floor. Maybe four thousand even.
Anyhow, there it was. Milk poured for cats
In a rank puddle-place, splash-darkened mould
Around the terracotta water-crock.
Ground of being. Body’s deep obedience
To all its shifting tenses. A half-door
Opening directly into starlight.
Out of that earth house I inherited
A stack of singular, cold memory-weights
To load me, hand and foot, in the scale of things.
Where ‘Act of Union’ labours to deliver its sexual-political analogy, this douzain has a light abruptness. In ‘Squarings’ Heaney is happy to settle for approximations (‘maybe’, ‘dampish’) and gestural incompleteness (‘Anyhow, there it was’). Yet the almost makeshift syntax is more than provisional: it broadens and consolidates in the third tercet to secure the ‘Ground of being’ and hint at transcendence in ‘Opening directly into starlight’.
This opening of the ground owes something to a residual Catholicism (or at least a religion-shaped hole) in Heaney: the traditional cottage, or ‘earth house’, is like the clay of the body which lifts its eyes to the heavens, or like the grave from which we will be raised. And the sense of gravid fluency which comes with the freed-up syntax of the final tercet is linked to his suspicion that the bearing of familial and historical burdens (such as those attested by ‘Act of Union’) is a precondition for airiness. The paradox that gravity can help you rise, that weights can lift each other in a tentative balance, was advanced both in Heaney’s contribution to Homage to Robert Frost (which he published in 1997 with Joseph Brodsky and Derek Walcott) and in such poems as ‘Weighing In’ and ‘The Swing’ (an Ulster version of Frost’s ‘Birches’) in The Spirit Level (1996), the most recent book of his excerpted for Opened Ground. Of course, nothing in Heaney’s late poetics can change the pessimism of ‘Act of Union’, but to encounter its ‘opened ground’ between the same covers as ‘Squarings’ xl is to admire the poet for finding words adequate to the crisis of the mid-Seventies which could grow beyond their moment.
Fuller than a selected poems yet more abstemious than a collected, Opened Ground presents Heaney’s dialogue with himself almost too coherently. Though quality has guided his choice, he excludes a number of intriguing poems that point to roads not taken in his work, preferring pieces that are more characteristic than successful. ‘Act of Union’, for instance, has a richer prehistory in Opened Ground than in the New Selected Poems (1990) because it includes both ‘Undine’ – a monologue much disliked by feminists, in which a watersprite is grateful to a man for clearing out her ditches – and the almost self-parodic ‘Poem’:
Love, I shall perfect for you the child
Who diligently potters in my brain
Digging with heavy spade till sods were piled
Or puddling through muck in a deep drain.
Fortunately, the going is not often so muddy, and the scale of Opened Ground (twice the length of the New Selected Poems) means that many superb recent lyrics can be reprinted – 35 of the 48 ‘Squarings’, for a start. The general rule is that Heaney’s dozen or so books are represented in proportion to their date. Between a third and a half of the Sixties poems are reprinted. After that inclusions mount, and room is even found for previously uncollected items: a translation of the Middle English ‘Names of the Hare’ (1981), the slight Harvard celebration poem, ‘Villanelle for an Anniversary’ (1986) and the formally intricate ‘A Transgression’ (1994), which reopens to touching effect the familiar Heaney subject of the remorse which afflicts those who make a break for freedom against the rules of the group – in this case through an act of truancy which is resolved when the schoolboy gets home to the understanding and love of his parents.