It is with no little trepidation…
If you know poetry and if you know Heaney, then you know this collection, its quality, its warmth and its generosity. And I don’t intend to set forth on a review as such: poems like The Turnip-Snedder, Anahorish 1944, Wordsworth’s Skates or The Talmud Man in Springtime have no need of reviews, they are edifices that stand for themselves, although of that particular foursome I found the middle two most engaging this time round, that will of course change, some other time.
I just thought that I would dribble on a bit about the 3 separate pieces near the middle of the collection that Heaney calls ‘found prose’: I think I can probably get away with calling them prose poems. They are all glimpses or remembrances of childhood and all roughly 200 words long. The first one is called The Lagans Road and comes directly after the poem Edward Thomas on the Lagans Road, which contains the death-defyingly beautiful line ‘Utter evening, as it was in the beginning‘. In this, Heaney walks us along a short stretch of road to his old school, and his first day there, ‘where our names were new in the rollbook and would soon be called‘ and where there were ‘coathooks nailed at different heights…so everyone… could reach them, everyone had a place…‘ Passing through a Beckettian landscape – ‘It was one of those narrow country roads with weeds in the middle…For a minute or two every day, therefore, you were in the wilderness‘; an ‘elfland‘ complete with a ‘fey‘ called Philomena; before conjuring ‘the Indians of the Pacific Northwest‘ and their journey to their land of the dead – ‘coming along a forest path where other travellers’ cast-offs lay scattered on the bushes, hearing voices laughing and calling.’
Next is a piece with the title ‘Tall Dames‘. The title he associates with Yeats, and he is telling of his childish sense of awe, or fear, or exoticism of the other, when ‘the gypsies‘ or ‘travellers‘ would stay near his village, the ‘land of eros, glimpsed occasionally when the circus‘ came to town. The ‘marvellous upfront women in unerotic woollen shawls‘ and ‘the menfolk on the road…with a smell of woodsmoke off him‘ just going about their business. It is hard to avoid the feeling that the piece was included, and possibly written, for the last stunning sentence:
Every time they landed in the district, there was an extra-ness in the air, as if a gate had been left open in the usual life, as if something might get in or get out.
The final piece is called ‘Boarders‘ and makes the bus ride to school some voyage into the underworld, a crossing of the Styx, complete with its own Charon: ‘drivers mounting steps as ominously as hangmen‘. As he comes along to collect the fares, once he has everyone on board, and once he parks the bus:
Unfamiliar, uninvolved, almost it seems, angered, he deals with us one by one, as one by one, we go farther into ourselves, wishing we were with him on the journey back…
The fully-laden bus labours up the pass to the top where it halts and ‘when we start again…the known country fall(s) away behind us‘, resuming a journey, the young Heaney clearly did not relish.
The three short pieces are rich with language, evocative of time and place and while they are in Heaney’s telling, specific to a time and place, they are also available to all of us as vehicles to our own remembrances of childhood, of the nostalgia and loss invoked.
There was one other poem I wanted to mention, The Nod, in which a Saturday evening visit to the butchers, from where he left with a parcel ‘...seeping blood. Like a dead weight in a sling, / Heavier far than I had been expecting‘ is paired with a description of ‘the local B-men, / unbuttoned but on duty…/ neighbours with guns‘ , nodding at his father ‘as if deliberately they’d aimed and missed him‘, to menacing effect. And some persist in the view that Heaney was not a political poet.