The Mouth, the Meal and the Book

Christopher Ricks

  • Field Work by Seamus Heaney
    Faber, 64 pp, £3.00, June 1979, ISBN 0 571 11433 4

Those of us who have never swallowed an oyster have presumably never lived life to the full. The Augustan poet was not merely mocking the heroic when he said that the man must have had a palate coated o’er with brass who first risked the living morsel down his throat. Seamus Heaney offers ‘Oysters’ (‘Alive and violated’) as his opening. Opened at once are the oyster, the mouth, the meal and the book. It is at the start a delicious poem, not least in its play of the obdurate against the liquid:

Our shells clacked on the plates.
My tongue was a filling estuary,
My palate hung with starlight.

‘Clacked’, for once, does not rebuke the ‘tongue’ of other people; ‘plates’ finds itself soothed out into ‘palate’, rather like ‘oysters’ into ‘estuary’.

But indignation flickers, and though it is appeased it is not expunged.

Bivalves: the split bulb
And philandering sigh of ocean.
Millions of them ripped and shucked and scattered.

We are not to sigh Shucks. For even the happiest recollection is liable to be blandly tinged with snobbery, as if memory were a fine cellar:

And there we were, toasting friendship,
Laying down a perfect memory
In the cool of thatch and crockery.

So in the end, having next riddled the oysters (they are something of a riddle themselves) as ‘The frond-lipped, brine-stung/Nuts of privilege’, the poem is stung too:

And was angry that my trust could not repose
In the clear light, like poetry or freedom
Leaning in from sea. I ate the day
Deliberately, that its tang
Might quicken me all into verb, pure verb.

The anger is real, but is headstrong. Instead of the nouns of privilege (property and possessions), there is to be the imaginative activity that is alive only as verb. At least since Ezra Pound, this has been a lure for poets, a thrill and a delusion. For as Heaney’s last line acknowledges, ‘verb’ is indissolubly a noun. And the word which matters most is ‘trust’.

When we come to close this book which opened with ‘Oysters’, we have finally contemplated the hideous devouring of a living morsel through all eternity. For the book ends with ‘Ugolino’, Dante’s insatiable avenger, gnawing undyingly and unkillingly upon the head of the man who had starved to death his children and him:

That sinner eased his mouth up off his meal
To answer me, and wiped it with the hair
Left growing on his victim’s ravaged skull,
Then said …

The ‘eased’ is cause of wonder: and of horror, like the serviceableness and decorum of that napkin of hair. ‘Ugolino’ too is in part about trust:

                      how my good faith
          Was easy prey to his malignancy …

The word ‘prey’ feels how intimate may be the bonds between trusting and tasting. Both the first and this last poem in the book speak of ‘my tongue’.

Field Work is alive with trust (how else would field work be possible?), and it could have been created only by an experienced poet secure in the grounded trust that he is trusted. Heaney is the most trusted poet of our islands. (Larkin is now trusted not to produce bad poems, but not necessarily to produce poems.) Field Work is an even better book than North, Heaney’s last collection, in that it is more profoundly exemplary. One poem is admittedly sceptical of the word ‘exemplary’ when applied to poets, as is clear from the question which the poet, lodged in the ninth circle of Hell, puts to his wife when (‘Aided and abetted by Virgil’s wife’) she visits his damnation. About the poets now alive, he asks:

                          whose is the life
Most dedicated and exemplary?

But Heaney’s art is urgently exemplary while being aware that urgency may easily be in collusion with violence and threats. A landscape’s peace of nature, a person’s peace of mind, a land’s peace: ‘The end of art is peace’ could be, we are told, the motto of the woven harvest bow.

North, by bending itself to deep excavations within the past of Ireland and of elsewhere, achieved a racked dignity in the face of horrors. The poems were truly enlightened. But Field Work shows, more variously and with high composure, that there is something more primary than enlightenment. Henry James said of Eugénie de Guérin and her piety, what could not be said of Heaney and his, that she ‘was certainly not enlightened’. Yet when James went on, ‘But she was better than this – she was light itself,’ the respectful directness of this does itself have something of light’s unarguable presence. Its presence is not sentimentalised in Heaney’s poems. ‘I think the candour of the light dismayed us.’

Ungullible trust will always be of value, but especially so in Ireland torn by reasonable and unreasonable distrust and mistrust. The resilient strength of these poems is in the equanimity even of their surprise at some blessed moment of everyday trust. So the book’s second poem, ‘After a Killing’, likewise gives us food for thought, but this time the food is not outré like oysters. What hope is there, after a killing? Only this – and if we insist on prefacing it with ‘only’, we have already sold the pass:

And today a girl walks in home to us
Carrying a basket full of new potatoes,
Three tight green cabbages, and carrots
With the tops and mould still fresh on them.

Such an ending, in its tender hope, looks cynicism’s desperation levelly in the eye. The gait with which the line itself ‘walks in home to us’ is simply sturdy. There are no exclamations, even of gratitude, just a sense of gratitude. What could be less novel than those new potatoes? Some may think that this is bathos, but the presence within these poems of William Wordsworth (Dorothy and he at one point make a fleeting appearance, grave comic spectres not lightly to be called up for comparison) is a reminder that after the Augustans had derided it there really was discovered to be such a thing as the art of sinking in poetry.

Art practises what it preaches, and it turns into substantial worth what might be unworthy in both of those verbs. Heaney’s poems matter because their uncomplacent wisdom of trust is felt upon the pulses, his and ours, and they effect this because they themselves constitute a living relationship of trust between him and us. He trusts you not to snigger at surprising simplicities:

trusting the gift,
risking gift’s undertow,

says Heaney of a man with a musical gift, and it is brought home that there may be as much wisdom in trusting your own gifts as in trusting those who bear gifts.

What saves the poems from cadging is their supple legitimate pre-emption, their conscious, resourceful and bracing acknowledgement of what is at stake. Braced to, not against, as in the description of the sunflower as ‘braced to its pebble-dashed wall’, where even ‘dashed’ is secure and stable and not destructively hasty. A great deal of mistrust is misconstruction, and like the acrobat half-feigning a faltering Heaney’s poems often tremble with the possibilities of misconstruing and misconstruction which they openly provide but which only a predator would pounce upon.

It is there, for instance, in the play of ‘mould’ against ‘fresh’:

                               and carrots
  With the tops and mould still fresh on them.

After all, one near-fetched sense of the word ‘mould’ would bring it into contention with ‘fresh’. Heaney’s sense of the word here (the brown earth, not the green mildew) is manifestly unmistakable, but the force of the line is partly a matter of the other sense’s being tacitly summoned in order to be gently found preposterous. Nothing can more bring home the innocent freshness of carrots with the earth still on them than the calm rejection – utterly unutterable – of the dingier sense of ‘mould’.

Heaney practises this beneficent sleight throughout the poems. It is there earlier in this same poem in the line, ‘As if the unquiet founders walked again’, where the faltering sense of ‘founders’ is felt under the feet of the line, a line which walks so differently from ‘And today a girl walks in home to us.’ The founder of modern Ireland may perhaps founder. Or here:

And as forgotten water in a well might shake
At an explosion under morning

Or a crack run up a gable,
She began to speak.

It is unthinkable that Heaney just didn’t notice the subterranean ripple of ‘well might’. It is not an unfortunate oversight: it is a fortunate overseeing, and its point is to ‘shake’ our sense of these relationships without shaking our trust. If you were to notice nothing, you well might be impervious to the unseen ripples.

The ripple has, even in this sardonic poem (‘Sibyl’), an affinity to comedy. Indeed, ‘well might’ is a comic counterpart to Kingsley Amis’s satirical shaking of the word ‘just’. Amis invoked Shirley:

Only the actions of the just
Smell sweet and blossom in their dust.

And in doing so expressed his settled distrust:

Which does the just about as much
Good as a smart kick in the crotch.

Just about as much.

Heaney’s comedy, like all the best comedy, is a matter of trust. So ‘The Skunk’ is an exquisitely comic love-poem, and you have to love your wife most trustingly, and trust in the reciprocity, before you would trust yourself to a comparison of her to a skunk. No offence meant; no offensive launched. Then the poem is at once followed by ‘Homecomings’, where the loved woman is a clay nest and the man is a martin. Affectionate, delicate, calmingly dark, and as confidently trusting in its own arc as is the bird in its flights nimbly and repeatedly home, the poem goes out of its way (except that this is how the martin skims and veers) to speak in ways which would lend themselves to misconstruction if it weren’t that love is a nesting trust. ‘Far in, featherbrains tucked in silence’. For in this sweet evocation of the bird within the nest of the woman’s head, nothing could be more remote than any accusation that anyone is featherbrained. How could we appreciate such trustful remoteness except by calling up the sheer ludicrousness of its possibility?

Mould my shoulders inward to you.
Occlude me.
Be damp clay pouting.
Let me listen under your eaves.

The tucked-in pressure is there in the way in which ‘mould’ wants to expand into ‘shoulders’; and the mouth of the clay nest may be ‘pouting’, but in the confidence that no other pouting is going on (pure Keats, this). Nothing could be more unmisgivingly an act of loving inclusion than the stern word ‘occlude’ here, just as nothing could be less furtive, more openly trusting, than the final eavesdropping.

No need of manna when the actual is marvellous, our conversation

     a white tablecloth spread out
Like a book of manners in the wilderness.

Likewise, the word ‘implicated’ is consciously innocent in Heaney: implicated, not in wrongdoing, but as the plaiting of the harvest bow. Heaney’s resourcefulness is astonishing, not least in that astonishment is not then something which the poems incite. This pacific art has learnt from the poet to whom Heaney offers here an elegy, Robert Lowell, but the effect is altogether different from Lowell’s Atlantic astonishments. But then Heaney’s trust in other poets is itself part of his art, as in the rueful comfort to be divined within the conclusive line: ‘Our island is full of comfortless noises’. Be not afeard, the isle is full of noises … And that’s true too.