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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.