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Strapped on, wheeled out, forklifted, locked
In position for the drive,
Bone-shaken, bumped at speed,
The nurse a passenger in front, you ensconced
In her vacated corner seat, me flat on my back –
Our postures all the journey still the same,
Everything and nothing spoken,
Our eyebeams threaded laser-fast, no transport
Ever like it until then, in the sunlit cold
Of a Sunday morning ambulance
When we might, O my love, have quoted Donne
On love on hold, body and soul apart.
Seamus Heaney? Oh it’s on now. I haven’t forgiven you yet, you vino voleur, you grog guzzler – I will have my vengeance!
And yet – when I read the poem quoted above, titled Chanson d’Aventure one of the early entries to this collection, I could not help but remember my father back home in Ireland. That frustration with wanting to say what is on your mind, but incapable of giving expression to these thoughts due to physical infirmity. Heaney’s words are instantly evocative for me of witnessing my dad’s irritation at his condition. The poem itself refers to the writer’s own stroke in 2006 (I just wasted ten minutes searching the Irish Times website to find mention of this. A golden goose for whoever can find it for me).
I should not be surprised really. A lot of Heaney’s work conjures up images of an Ireland I know, instantly familiar and well realized here through verse. The title is take from one of the poems collected here, which is dedicated to Terence Brown and describes the action of passing ‘bags of meal‘, along a line of aid workers. In this moment the individual becomes a part of a chain of humans, united in a rare moment of communal activity. The work is true, the goal worthy, allowing the insecurities and seperateness of the individual to vanish. An annihilation of self that he suspects can only be equaled by death itself: “A letting go which will not come again/ Or it will, once. And for all.”
My favourite poem from the selection here is The Conway Stewart, a beautiful transformation of a new pen into a living creature, an ally for the poet to help in the composition of future works:
The nib uncapped,
Treating it to its first deep snorkel
In a newly opened ink-bottle,
I am also fond of An Old Refrain which contrasts the ordinary English words for countryside fauna with the local idomatic descriptors of Heaney’s Northern Irish childhood.
Where I start to look in askance at the page is the later poems referring to the Aeneid and provincial French poetry. On the one hand I admire the effort to place poetry drawing a connection between Irish countryside life with Provence, but it is not an association that comes naturally. For one the poet mentioned here Eugène Guillevic seems like a more natural companion to English masters like William Wordsworth and Thomas Hardy. Peppering verse with different French words does not help the attempt at solidifying the connection between Ireland and the Continent. Ireland is part of Europe, but I feel as if this attempt to be more European only succeeds at turning a blind eye to life in my homeland. I am reminded of John Banville‘s early attempts to be a more European author:
“So I decided, with no cosmopolitan experience, to turn myself into a European novelist of ideas: Banville, the modern European master. I was young. I was reckless. There are people who tell me they think Doctor Copernicus and Kepler were my best books, but I feel now that in those novels I took a wrong direction, that I should have done something else.”
Even that famous neologism of Ireland’s most famous literary expat James Joyce – ‘riverrun‘ – appears in the poem Colum Cille Cecinit. Joyce is literary Ireland, but how many of the Irish have read Ulysses, or even A Portrait of an Artist As A Young Man? Perhaps that is an unfair question, but it played on my mind when reading some of these poems. They seem isolated from life at home.
Yes the material is familiar to me and I do not think Seamus Heaney could fail to evoke strong memories of home and the past if he tried, but I suspect for me it is not enough.
The custom of the Northmen reveres the life of war. Verily these huge men fight continually; they are never at peace, neither among themselves nor among different tribes of their kind. They sing songs of their warfare and bravery, and believe that the death of a warrior is the highest honor.
‘cough’, ok time for Emmet to do some name-dropping.
This one time, Seamus Heaney nicked my glass of wine. That is the end of the anecdote. You may applaud.
In 1999 Heaney’s translation of Beowulf was published. I remember at the time I thought it an excellent reintroduction to the text, as well as a neat commentary on the epic poem’s privileged status in English literature, courtesy of the author’s stylistic choices. John Gardner’s Grendel is another excellent parody and commentary on the text, one which I would happily recommend to anyone.
I never realized Michael Crichton had had a go as well.
Eaters of the Dead concerns the adventures of a scholar from Baghdad, named Ahmad ibn Fadlan in Northern Europe. Actually his full name is given as: “Ahmad ibn-Fadlan, ibnal-Abbas, ibn-Rasid, ibn-Hammad.” Courtesy of a dalliance with a merchant’s wife (Crichton makes it clear that Fadlan is all man), the Caliph sends him on a diplomatic mission to the Bulgars to instruct the people there in the Muslim religion, at the request of their king.
Crichton’s authorial voice appears throughout the book commenting on Fadlan’s ‘historical’, account of what happened next.
After passing through 10th century Turkey, Fadlan and his party encounter a group of vikings, led by the warrior Buliwyf. Through a combination of superstition and the sheer martial superiority of the Northern ‘barbarians’, Fadlan becomes an unwilling member of a mission to liberate a King Rothgar from so-called ‘mist-monsters’.
The majority of the narrative is concerned with the cultural differences between Fadlan and the twelve warriors who have press-ganged him. Unfortunately this tends to boil down to various vikings calling him a ‘stupid Arab’, or his admiration for their sexual prowess.
In fact there is not a single female character in this story. King Rothgar’s queen is mentioned and a proxy ‘Grendel’s mother’, is unveiled, but for the most part the women in this story are simply there to be sexually available to Buliwyf and his men. Fadlan is at first ashamed at public displays of sexuality and retreats making obeisance to Allah, but eventually he joins in.
Oh and the Grendel of old Saxon legend is revealed to be a tribe of ‘wendols’, or as Crichton makes clear in the afterward, neanderthals. I have a number of problems with this demystified take, not least of which the 10th century setting, as well as the descriptions of these neanderthals riding horseback. I was under the impression that not only would this bipedal species have long been extinct by the period of Crichton’s choosing, they would also be too large to be carried by horses.
Secondly the wendols are revealed to be a matriarchal society that worships a stone carving of a pregnant woman. The vikings react with disgust at sightings of her icons and when combined with the unusual emphasis on male virility throughout the book, a disturbing subtext begins to emerge.
This is a very peculiar book. As a fantasy it is a failure, a pale imitation of Beowulf. Vikings are a source of fascination for modern readers still and I wonder if it is because the simplistic take on their civilization – war-mongering sea-raiders, much given to slaughter and rapine – is not as morally conflicted as the European culture that followed. In that sense Crichton’s work is yet another indulgence in vicariously enjoying a life unfettered by contemporary mores.
Once again though my main objection to this author’s work is his insistence on pretending to pseudo-science. With Eaters of the Dead Crichton is attempting a revisionist work, challenging our perception of viking culture, while at the same time introducing contemporary prejudices into the narrative. This is a trend that would eventually led to his becoming held up as a authoritative global warming sceptic – following the publication of his book State of Fear, which was a work of fiction, but once again attempted to sit on two stools, occasioning much criticism.
Crichton writes at one point: “But Ibn Fadlan was a writer, and his principal aim was not entertainment [...] his tone is that of a tax auditor, not a bard; an anthropologist, not a dramatist.” Stangely fitting that.