The title-sequence of Seamus Heaney’s sixth collection finds him on Station Island, Lough Derg, more commonly known as St Patrick’s Purgatory. It’s the setting for a pilgrimage undertaken by thousands of Irish men and women each year. For three days they fast and pray, deprive themselves of sleep, and walk barefoot round the station ‘beds’ – circles of rough stones said to be the remains of monastic huts. A place, then, strongly associated in the Irish mind with self-denial, contemplation, spiritual renewal; a place, too, that has attracted writers like Sean O’Faolain, Denis Devlin, William Carleton and Patrick Kavanagh; a place where the individual might decently ruminate on his relationship with society.
This setting affords Seamus Heaney a remarkable opportunity, of which he takes remarkable advantage, to ruminate, not only on his very special relationship with a society which has taken him to its heart, but on religion, sex and the dead. The sequence takes the form of a series of meetings with ‘familiar ghosts’. There’s Simon Sweeney, ‘an old Sabbath-breaker’ who urges him to ‘Stay clear of all processions!’ Heaney is nonetheless drawn into the trail of pilgrims for the island. On the way he meets the shade of Carleton:
‘We are earthworms of the earth, and all that
has gone through us is what will be our trace.’
Later on, on Station Island itself, Kavanagh addresses him as follows:
‘Sure I might have known
once I had made the pad, you’d be after me
sooner or later. Forty-two years on
and you’ve got no farther! But after that again,
where else would you go? Iceland, maybe? Maybe the Dordogne?’
And then the parting shot. ‘In my own day
the odd one came here on the hunt for women.’
Not to be outdone by Kavanagh’s friendliness of tone and generosity of spirit, Joyce recommends:
‘You lose more of yourself than you redeem
doing the decent thing. Keep at a tangent.
When they make the circle wide, it’s time to swim
out on your own and fill the element
with signatures on your own frequency,
echo soundings, searches, probes, allurements,
elver-gleams in the dark of the whole sea.’
If these meetings with writers seem a touch self-regarding (the ‘self’ being that of the 45-year-old, smiling public man who virtually admonishes Carleton for not recognising him – ‘then with a look that said, who is this cub anyhow,’ and ‘whoever you are, wherever you come out of’), Heaney is by and large attractively open, self-doubting, sometimes self-critical, as when his cousin Colum McCartney rebukes him:
‘The Protestant who shot me through the head
I accuse directly, but indirectly, you
who now atone perhaps upon this bed
for the way you whitewashed ugliness and drew
the lovely blinds of the Purgatorio
and saccharined my death with morning dew.’
Section VII of ‘Station Island’ is indeed a great deal less saccharined in its portrayal of a sectarian murder than ‘The Strand at Lough Beg’ (Field Work). Here Heaney dramatises a confrontation between a murdered shopkeeper and himself:
‘Forgive the way I have lived indifferent –
forgive my timid circumspect involvement,’
I surprised myself by saying. ‘Forgive
my eye,’ he said, ‘all that’s above my head.’
And then a stun of pain seemed to go through him
and he trembled like a heatwave and faded.
Throughout this sequence Seamus Heaney is resolutely questing and questioning, constantly refining and redefining. He is, for example, now more likely to question the received opinions and stock responses of Irish Catholicism and Irish Nationalism, though the drift of the most intensely lyrical passage of ‘Station Island’ would seem to suggest that the fatalism of both have marked him indelibly:
‘I hate how quick I was to know my place.
I hate where I was born, hate everything
That made me biddable and unforthcoming,’
I mouthed at my half-composed face
In the shaving-mirror, like somebody
Drunk in the bathroom during a party,
Lulled and repelled by his own reflection.
As if the cairnstone could defy the cairn.
As if the eddy could reform the pool.
As if a stone swirled under a cascade,
Eroded and eroding in its bed,
Could grind itself down to a different core.
Then I thought of the tribe whose dances never fail
For they keep dancing till they sight the deer.
The ‘Station Island’ sequence forms the middle section of this book, though it is not as important to the overall effect as the blurb-writer would have us believe. Heaney’s strength resides still in the short lyric, of which a group of 25 makes up the first part, and, I believe, the core, of the collection. Here Heaney has managed to give a further resonance to his precise descriptions of ‘small’ fixtures of the physical world:
When I poured it
it had a cutting edge
I drink to you
in smoke-mirled, blue-black,
polished sloes, bitter
In that example, the ‘Sloe Gin’ displays its ‘cutting edge’ between the words ‘bitter’ and ‘dependable’. In ‘Remembering Malibu’, a poem addressed to Brian Moore, he writes of the island monastic site of Great Skellig:
the steps cut in the rock
I never climbed
between the graveyard and the boatslip
are welted solid to my instep.
Again, that ‘cutting edge’ between ‘I never climbed’ and ‘welted solid’. The otherwise excellent ‘The Birthplace’, with its evocation of another ‘familiar ghost’, Thomas Hardy –
The corncrake in the aftergrass
verified himself, and I heard
roosters and dogs, the very same
as if he had written them –
is marred by an arbitrary/obligatory sex-scene ‘in a deep lane that was sexual/with ferns and butterflies’. Indeed, Heaney’s treatment of sex is by turns coldly clinical (‘She is twig-boned, saddle-sexed’), adolescently furtive (‘my nightly shadow feasts,/Haunting the granaries of words like breasts’, ‘Who would have thought it? At the White Gates/She let them do whatever they liked’), or the customary brew of voyeurism and Catholicism:
The white towelling bathrobe
ungirdled, the hair still wet,
first coldness of the underbreast
like a ciborium in the palm.
As if I knelt for years at a keyhole
Mad for it, and all that ever opened
Was the breathed-on grille of a confessional
Until that night I saw her honey-skinned
Shoulderblades and the wheatlands of her back
Through the wide keyhole of her keyhole dress.
The best poems in the first section of Station island seem to me to be small masterpieces: ‘A Hazel Stick for Catherine Ann’, ‘Changes’, ‘Sloe Gin’, and, above all, ‘Widgeon’, which is worth quoting in full:
It had been badly shot.
While he was plucking it
he found, he says, the voice box –
like a flute stop
in the broken windpipe –
and blew upon it
his own small widgeon cries.
In the third section of the book, however, Heaney rather ‘expectedly’ throws his voice through the figure of Sweeney, the Ulster king who’s cursed by Saint Ronan and is transformed into a bird-man. In a note to Station Island Heaney writes: ‘A version of the Irish tale is available in my Sweeney Astray, but I trust these glosses can survive without the support system of the original story.’ I feel he’s mistaken in that. With the exceptions of ‘Holly’ and ‘An Artist’, these 20 pieces need all the support they can get. They are either unintelligible –
So the twine unwinds and loosely widens
backward through areas that forwarded
understandings of all I would undertake –
or all too intelligible:
They were two-faced and accommodating.
And seed, breed and generation still
they are holding on, every bit
as pious and exacting and demeaned.
Not even the weak third section of Station Island can take away from the fact that this is a resourceful and reliable collection, his best since Wintering Out. In the unlikely event of a truly uninvited shade being summoned up in some reworking of the ‘Station Island’ sequence, I suspect that its advice to Seamus Heaney would be along the following lines. 1. That he should, indeed, take the advice he gave himself as long ago as 1975 – ‘Keep your eye clear as the bleb of an icicle’ – but take it quietly rather than rehearse it again and again. 2. General Absolution is too much for even a Catholic confessional poet to hope for. 3. That he should resist more firmly the idea that he must be the best Irish poet since Yeats, which arose from rather casual remarks by the power-crazed Robert Lowell and the craze-powered Clive James, who seemed to have forgotten both MacNeice and Kavanagh. In the meantime, Heaney is a very good poet indeed – which is enough to be going on with.
Heaney’s version of the Middle Irish Romance Buile Suibhne (‘The Frenzy of Sweeney’) is a masterful act of repossession. Though he’s much indebted to J.G. O’Keefe’s edition, published in 1913 by the Irish Texts Society, Heaney brings great exuberance and tenderness to the story of the king of Dal-Arie, who, having been cursed by Saint Ronan –
He shall roam Ireland, mad and bare.
He shall find death on the point of a spear –
leaves the horrors of the Battle of Moira (637 AD) to fulfil yet another curse by the same saint:
His fingers stiffened,
his feet scuffled and flurried,
his heart was startled,
his senses were mesmerised,
his sight was bent,
the weapons fell from his hands
and he levitated in a frantic cumbersome motion
like a bird of the air.
For years Sweeney will hop, skip and jump over the length and breadth of Ireland, and indeed Britain (where he spends a year with another madman, Alan), until his death at the hands of a swineherd. Sweeney’s hardships already have some popular literary currency, in the work of Flann O’Brien (Sweeney kept going until he reached the church at Swim-Two-Birds on the Shannon, which is now called Cloonburren) and W.D. Snodgrass (– ‘“Your daughter is dead,” said Lynchseachan. – “The heart’s needle is an only daughter,” said Sweeney’): but Heaney’s version, at once scholarly and readable, is unputdownable, a ripping yarn. Section 40 of Sweeney Astray, acknowledged by O’Keefe to be ‘the most interesting poem of the story’, is lovingly presented by Heaney as Sweeney’s praise of the trees of Ireland.
The problems raised by Sweeney Astray are common to any process of translation from one language to another: in this case, from one world-picture to another. It is impossible to take into account the insatiable and deep-rooted Gaelic interest in the lore of place-names, which is not always so riveting in English. Nor can the complexities of the many verse-forms used in Buile Suibhne, with their stress on assonance and alliteration and internal rhymes, be conveyed in English: Heaney’s version does at least convey something of the rhyme-scheme:
Are you Sweeney, the bogey-man,
escaped out of the fight at Moira?
I am the early bird, the one
who scavenges, if I am Sweeney.
When your end comes, will it be
death by water, in holy ground?
It will be early when I die.
One of your herds will make the wound.
And this is Heaney’s rendition of the culmination of the tale, one of the most poignant moments in the whole of literature in Gaelic:
Moling ordered his cook to leave aside some of each day’s milking for Sweeney’s supper. This cook’s name was Muirghil and she was married to a swineherd of Moling’s called Mongan. Anyhow, Sweeney’s supper was like this: she would sink her heel to the ankle in the nearest cow-dung and fill the hole to the brim with new milk. Then Sweeney would sneak into the deserted corner of the milking yard and lap it up ... [The herd] got up in a sudden fury, seized a spear from a rack in the house, and made for the madman. Sweeney was down swilling the milk out of the cow-dung with his side exposed towards the herd, who let go at him with the spear. It went into Sweeney at the nipple of his left breast, went through him, and broke his back.
My impatience with the ‘Sweeney Redivivus’ section of ‘Station Island’ is accounted for in part by the absence of such luminous images as the cow-dung brimming with milk. Seamus Heaney’s retelling of Sweeney’s story must rank with Thomas Kinsella’s The Tain as the most significant recent contribution to the body of Gaelic literature available in English.
Would Craig Raine be content with the self-contained immediacy of the milk in the cow-dung? I suspect that he’d be more likely to find a replica. He speaks of
and its replica,
(halved, then served
Raine’s third collection follows the procedures of The Onion, Memory (1978) and A Martian sends a postcard home (1979): his poetic strategy is to present a series of striking similes or metaphors with the hope of forcing his reader to admire the justice of those similes and metaphors. Christopher Ricks need look no further (certainly not across the Irish Sea) for textual substantiation of his theory of the self-reflexive image.
Here, as before, the best of Raine’s poems present something more than a concatenation of metaphors, effective though these may be. They are most effective when drawn from one area of experience, grouped around a single event or figure, or unified by a strong narrative. The tradesmen from the ‘Yellow Pages’ of The Onion, Memory, ‘In the Kalahari Desert’ (for me, his most successful single poem), ‘Memories of the Linen Room’ and the title-poem from A Martian sends a postcard home: in all these cases, Raine has learned an important lesson from the 17th-century concettists: that the sustained metaphor in the service of an argument is the most satisfying, if the most difficult, modus operandi, that a conceit bears the same relationship to a string of metaphors as the Bayeux tapestry to a line of washing. A successful conceit, that’s to say. In ‘A Free Translation’, for example, Raine sees lots of Eastern promise in a domestic setting, and the details amass gently and persuasively:
we have squeezed
a fluent ideogram
of cleansing cream
across the baby’s bottom.
The ending of the poem (endings always pose a problem to the necklace-maker, even if the beads are all of the same size, shape and colour) is less than original, however:
time to watch
your eyes become
Chinese with laughter
when I say that
orientals eat with stilts.
My favourites from Rich are ‘The Season in Scarborough 1923’, ‘The Gift’, the marvellous ‘The Man Who Invented Pain’ –
the kind of day
a man might read
the Sunday paper
by his pigeon cree,
walk out to bat
and notice the green
on a fielder’s knee –
the excellent versions of Rimbaud and Tsvetayeva, and the quite brilliant ‘Inca’:
Now, there is only this:
the long, unwritten poem
which almost celebrates
a daughter’s parsnip heels
and her pale, perfect nipples
like scars left by leaves.
Inca. How her nightdress rides up.
How she comes, a serious face,
from every corner of the garden,
cupping a secret
she wants me to see,
as if she had somehow
invented the wheel. O Inca.
In a review of The Onion, Memory, I accused Craig Raine of a certain lack of feeling, a surface dandyism. I suspect I was wrong even then. ‘Inca’ alone would now prove me wrong. Note, though, the qualities which are not always so evident in Raine’s work but which contribute to the success of ‘Inca’: the irony implicit in the words ‘unwritten’ and ‘almost’, a line-length corresponding to a perceptible rhythm rather than the short Lego sections he more commonly builds from, and, Heavens above, an almost total absence of other than appropriate and discreet simile and metaphor. The least said the better, by the way, about that Sunday reviewer’s wet-dream – The Martian School, The Metaphor Men. Who are they? Christopher Reid, perhaps? David Sweetman? Norman MacCaig? Philip Larkin? Seamus Heaney, perhaps? Doesn’t Heaney’s description of a lobster –
articulated twigs, a rainy stone
the colour of sunk munitions –
vie with Raine’s
scraping its claws
like someone crouched
to keep wicket at Lord’s.
Like Station Island, though for less obvious reasons, Rich is divided into three parts. Parts One and Three are subtitled ‘Rich’ and ‘Poor’, while Part Two consists of a prose meditation on Raine’s childhood in the North of England, as if ‘91, Revere Street’ formed a junction with ‘Terry Street’: ‘A Silver Plate’ is, to say the least, helpful to a reading of poems in Rich (‘The Season in Scarborough 1923’, ‘A Hungry Fighter’) and to autobiographical poems in the earlier books – ‘Mother Dressmaking’, ‘Listen with Mother’ and, above all, ‘Anno Domini’. ‘Anno Domini’ was called ‘the fragmented biography of a faith-healer, whose greatest miracles are imaginative’. We now discover that the faith-healer is Raine’s own father, who, after an accident in a munitions factory, underwent brain surgery: ‘My father remembers the whirr and bite of the saw that took off the top of his skull. They removed part of his brain and inserted a silver plate.’ And that’s not all: ‘He was and is a brilliant raconteur, with a large repertoire of brutal boxing stories, in which he is always the hero. He turned professional when he was sixteen and fought for the featherweight title of Great Britain, a bout he lost to Micky McGuire.’ Raine writes fluently, always entertainingly, sometimes movingly, about his childhood: ‘A Silver Plate’ fills out an already substantial collection, his best so far.
Listen to Seamus Perry and Mark Ford discuss Seamus Heaney in their Close Readings series on the LRB Podcast.