Tuesday, 20 March 2007

Seamus Heaney versus King Kong?

Off piste yesterday in order to try and allow temperature to drop and tonsils to lose their white frosted coating. The goblins that chose to appear on the end of my bed like extras from a bad gothic Hammer film managed to disappear by dawn. As it was Mother’s day and St Patrick's day over the week-end, for some reason I started reading some of Seamus Heaney’s poems as he has recently won the T.S. Eliot prize. I was especially drawn to re-read an old favourite poem ‘Clearances’ dedicated to his mother (which I publish in full below as I don’t trust the link to bring it up successfully). Think combination of tonsils, temperature, goblins and Mother’s day had made me rather maudlin, like the effects of gin or watching poor Ginger die in the film of Black Beauty. I am rather prone to being easily manipulated by filmic push button sentiment. I have long since ceased to beat myself up over it or regard myself as intellectually challenged if a cheap trick can make me snivel. Dirk Bogarde mounting the steps to the guillotine in the film of A tale of Two Cities, the original Lassie crawling home to Elizabeth Taylor on bloody paws, Shane’s nobility riding into the sunset, mortally wounded, with the boy crying out his name, King Kong lovingly placing Fay Wray safely down before plunging from the Empire State building (yes I know that particular relationship was unlikely to work but one always hopes that true love can overcome such small obstacles as size and species).

I think I was overexposed as a child to every old movie shown on the television. I knew who shot Liberty Valence, that Harvey was a giant six foot rabbit, that those bouncing bombs would work on the German dams before I knew how baby’s were made and how the eleven plus would determine my life forever. Such wet Sunday afternoons in front of the tiny bakelite TV are lodged deep in my psyche and I had my sentimental buttons forged then so that Mr Speilberg, the past master at finding such things, could push them with a small alien and a little girl in a red coat years later.

Poems have to work much harder to push such buttons, the lack of immediate visuals allows the intellect to get to work darn quick on any images created by the poet. I can sneer at a cheap trick and anything that even verges on sentimentality. However, sometimes I can indulge in emotions and nostalgia because someone has taken those two things and, for me, framed them with such discipline and craft that I can reach for the tissues and have a guilt-free weep.

‘Clearances’ is one of those poems that pushes my buttons; the chipping away at the black rock and the appeal for that skill that is so important in such dark times; the ability to listen to others and ourselves. The following sequence of sonnets just reins in that grief to allow it to become something strong enough to be examined in the linear black. Of course Seamus Heaney being an Irish man is not afraid of sentiment he faces it head on but he knows how to mine it for something richer. A cut above Speilberg perhaps but then we can never play two such disparate crafts against each other. Speilberg came from a culture that always understood that film rather than poetry is the royal road to accessing Jo Public’s admiration and their emotions. Seamus Heaney, of course, can pack them to the rafters but there’s no popcorn or million dollar pay-offs, no quick immediate visual to hook you in and have you repeated endlessly on prime time TV at Christmas. Nobel Prize for Literature versus an Oscar is of course like trying to set up King Kong versus Tosca but then of course falling from a high building was the way they both chose to wind up proceedings. Perhaps King Kong the opera isn’t too far down the road ( perhaps like Jerry Springer it already exists) and I’ve already seen the film of Tosca.

In Memoriam M.K.H., 1911-1984
by Seamus Heaney

She taught me what her uncle once taught her:
How easily the biggest coal block split
If you got the grain and the hammer angled right.

The sound of that relaxed alluring blow
Its co-opted and obliterated echo,
Taught me to hit, taught me to loosen,

Taught me between the hammer and the block
To face the music. Teach me now to listen,
To strike it rich behind the linear black.

A cobble thrown a hundred years ago
Keeps coming at me, the first stone
Aimed at a great-grandmother's turncoat brow.
The pony jerks and the riot's on.
She's couched low in the trap
Running the gauntlet that first Sunday
Down the brae to Mass at a panicked gallop.
He whips on through the town to cries of 'Lundy!'

Call her 'The Convert.' 'The Exogamous Bride.'
Anyhow, it is a genre piece
Inherited on my mother's side
And mine to dispose with now she's gone.
Instead of silver and Victorian lace
the exonerating, exonerated stone.

Polished linoleum shone there. Brass taps shone.
The china cups were very white and big --
An unchipped set with sugar bowl and jug.
The kettle whistled. Sandwich and tea scone
Were present and correct. In case it run,
The butter must be kept out of the sun.
And don't be dropping crumbs. Don't tilt your chair.
Don't reach. Don't point. Don't make noise when you stir.

It is Number 5, New Row, Land of the Dead,
Where grandfather is rising from his place
With spectacles pushed back on a clean bald head
To welcome a bewildered homing daughter
Before she even knocks. 'What's this? What's this?'
And they sit down in the shining room together.

When all the others were away at Mass
I was all hers as we peeled potatoes.
They broke the silence, let fall one by one
Like solder weeping off the soldering iron:
Cold comforts set between us, things to share
Gleaming in a bucket of clean water.
And again let fall. Little pleasant splashes
From each other's work would bring us to our senses.

So while the parish priest at her bedside
Went hammer and tongs at prayers for the dying
And some were responding and some crying
I remembered her head bent towards my head,
Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives --
Never closer the whole rest of our lives.

Fear of affectation made her affect
Inadequacy whenever it came to
Pronouncing words 'beyond her'. Bertold Brek.
She'd manage something hampered and askew
Every time, as if she might betray
The hampered and inadequate by too
Well-adjusted a vocabulary.
With more challenge than pride, she'd tell me, 'You
Know all them things.' So I governed my tongue
In front of her, a genuinely well-
Adjusted adequate betrayal
Of what I knew better. I'd naw and aye
And decently relapse into the wrong
Grammar which kept us allied and at bay.

The cool that came off sheets just off the line
Made me think the damp must still be in them
But when I took my corners of the linen
And pulled against her, first straight down the hem
And then diagonally, then flapped and shook
The fabric like a sail in a cross-wind,
They'd make a dried-out undulating thwack.
So we'd stretch and fold and end up hand to hand
For a split second as if nothing had happened
For nothing had that had not always happened
Beforehand, day by day, just touch and go,
Coming close again by holding back
In moves where I was x and she was o
Inscribed in sheets she'd sewn from ripped-out flour sacks.

In the first flush of the Easter holidays
The ceremonies during Holy Week
Were highpoints of our Sons and Lovers phase.
The midnight fire. The paschal candlestick.
Elbow to elbow, glad to be kneeling next
To each other up there near the front
Of the packed church, we would follow the text
And rubrics for the blessing of the font.
As the hind longs for the streams, so my soul . . .
Dippings. Towellings. The water breathed on.
The water mixed with chrism and oil.
Cruet tinkle. Formal incensation
And the psalmist's outcry taken up with pride:
Day and night my tears have been my bread.

In the last minutes he said more to her
Almost than in their whole life together.
'You'll be in New Row on Monday night
And I'll come up for you and you'll be glad
When I walk in the door . . . Isn't that right?'
His head was bent down to her propped-up head.
She could not hear but we were overjoyed.
He called her good and girl. Then she was dead,
The searching for a pulsebeat was abandoned
And we all knew one thing by being there.
The space we stood around had been emptied
Into us to keep, it penetrated
Clearances that suddenly stood open.
High cries were felled and a pure change happened.

I thought of walking round and round a space
Utterly empty, utterly a source
Where the decked chestnut tree had lost its place
In our front hedge above the wallflowers.
The white chips jumped and jumped and skited high.
I heard the hatchet's differentiated
Accurate cut, the crack, the sigh
And collapse of what luxuriated
Through the shocked tips and wreckage of it all.
Deep-planted and long gone, my coeval
Chestnut from a jam jar in a hole,
Its heft and hush became a bright nowhere,
A soul ramifying and forever
Silent, beyond silence listened for.


Tom Kennedy said...

This is a very belated comment, but I agree with you, "Clearances" is a beautiful poem. Heaney's almost effortless use of language with its subtle understatement is a pleasure to read; and unlike Hollywood blockbusters, where repeated viewings yield dimishing returns, Heaney's poems continue to deliver more and more when allowed to ferment and be re-read.

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