North

This is part of an essay I originally wrote back in 2011 in my first year of University. I decided to post it today because of his fairly untimely demise. I found Heaney’s work in North slightly drab to have to analyse in an academic manner, but his fluency with words was undeniable. 

I am going to attempt to do some work excavating the meaning and essence of the collected poems in ‘North’ by Seamus Heaney, first published in 1975. The poems in North explore a number of intriguing and mysterious themes such as the national and cultural past of his homeland, life, death, sex, gender, and land and blood myths, bringing about a unique vision of Ireland’s rich and bloody history. Bearing in mind the socio-political context at the time of writing, North has shown to have had a profound impact on how the troubles and violence in Ireland are observed. One way he does this is to highlight the complex relationship between the past and present, directly and indirectly. In light of his art, Heaney has been described by Malcolm Bradbury as “the poet of poets” and makes up two thirds of the sales of living poets in the UK whilst being awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1995.

In order to read the poems in their proper context, one must firstly get an overview of the history of Ireland up to 1975 to clarify and understand the complex relationship between past and present, knowledge of Heaney’s own background also being crucial as to appreciate the engagement between identity of the self and the political landscape of the time, growing up as a young boy. The earliest historical references found in North concern the Iron Age where Heaney adopts an almost Anglo-Saxon prose to describe the brutality of Viking invasion, predominantly featured in Part I in poems such as ‘The Grauballe Man’ and ‘Bog Queen’. After a long period of unrest and political turbulence concerning control of the land, the Act of Union was signed in 1800 to legally bind Britain to Ireland. The first real instances of national Republicanism followed the Great Hunger of 1845-49 leading to the creation of Sinn Fein in 1905, who ‘campaigned for an independent, united Ireland’ (BBC; 2001).

After the original IRA was formed in 1919, the era we widely denote as ‘The Troubles’  began, characterised by violence against civil rights protesters and culminating in ‘Bloody Sunday’ in 1972.  Heaney engages in a clear manner with the contemporary struggle for independence, marred by barbarism and religious fanaticism (giving the impression he is almost bemused by it) to create an analogy with the Ancient world of sacrifice and religion .

Born into a Catholic family on a farm in Northern Ireland just before WWII, Heaney’s geographical and archaeological approach to poetry is somewhat unsurprising. His father a farmer and his mother having links to the industrial revolution, rural and religious tension manifests itself in the earthy subject matter which he approaches. This is featured particularly in his early work like ‘Digging’ where he draws a comparison between his father’s farming work and his own literary achievements.  Poems such as ‘Punishment’ and ‘Bog Queen’ were almost undoubtedly inspired by the discoveries of Scandinavian and Irish bog bodies in the early 1950’s; – ‘on the gravel bottom, my brain darkening, a jar of spawn, fermenting underground’. This sentence to me depicts a unique sense of a bizarre organic restless soul who is trapped under the ground, the brooding body of the past, a vision which is encouraged by the spooky brutality of Heaney’s words.

In North, my view is that Heaney is making a stand by immortalising his words to be read not so much as a moral guideline but as an observational document to highlight the need for examination and pushing through the boundaries of history to understand our selves, writing that “the bog is a dark casket where we have found many of the clues to our past and to our cultural identity”. It is a coherent explanation of Heaney’s use of contrast between past and present. Other poems with historical references contained in subject matter are featured throughout North, half-known just from looking at the titles: ‘Act of Union’ – which compares the signing away of the Country with the violation of a female; this humanistic approach is also found in ‘Strange Fruit’, which immediately recalls the 1939 poem with the same title regarding the lynching’s of black people in the US. The violent theme of death is again featured in both poems, even with a similar turn of phrase again from Heaney: ‘Here is the girl’s head like an exhumed gourd.’ and ‘Here is your fruit, for the crows to pluck’ . Both poems seem to deal broadly with civil rights and the Callous and imprudent disposal of human lives, the corrosive effect his has on society.

Heaney addresses his own personal relationship with the past predominantly in part II of North. In a stark change of tone, Heaney brings the text into a more modern era with a direct use of the English language to approach more personal and contemporary topics. As a wider reference to the Troubles in Ireland, we can point to ‘Orange Drums, Tyrone, 1966’, which is perhaps a reflection of an Orange Order parade, the largest old protestant organisation (BBC; 2001) in Northern Ireland. The drums in the poem resonate as ancient Nationalist carnival, yet pervading undertones of darkness and violence; ‘It is the drums preside, like giant tumours… the goatskin’s sometimes plastered with his blood. The air is pounding like a stethoscope’ – showing an internal religious conflict, a constant problem. Heaney is also citing Irish poet W.B. Keats with his references to the ‘Orangemen’ recalling Yeats’ own memories of that period, whose work is shadowed to some extent by Heaney’s. Continuing on the theme of the passing of time in ‘Fosterage: For Michael Mclaverty’, Heaney writes his formative years by referencing his former teacher and perhaps how he feels fostered by this Father figure, who Heaney could relate to unlike his farmer father. He is acknowledging the effect his own past has had on shaping the person he has become, perhaps best described in the line ‘he discerned the lineaments of patience everywhere and fostered me and sent me out, with words imposing on my tongue like obels’.

The final poem in North, ‘Exposure’ leaves Heaney and the reading pondering the possibilities of the future; ‘Escaped from the massacre, taking protective covering, from bole and bark, feeling every wind that blows’,  mans vulnerability is exposed and explored in the book and we know it is closing time. It is clear we need to learn from our past, no matter how bloody or unpleasant it appears. Truth and learning is key. Perhaps Heaney is unsympathetic to the idea of mythologizing violence of the past simply because he see’s parallels of it with the modern day and vehemently rejects the idea of the contemporary troubles being distorted, mythologised or trivialised in the future, a message heavily implied and reiterated throughout the relationships between past and present explored by Heaney in North. Give this book to young poets as a piece of archaeology itself, one which set the framework for a large amount of modern day Irish political writing.

They came to their houses with pick axes

And you looked on with pride

I saw them waving their signs, hooting horns

And knew I’d won

 

This time round

But wasn’t always like this

Once was proposed to you a bomb,

And you took it as your call

 

More of an insider calling

Because that day you didn’t hear

Reasonable protest, legitimate concerns,

Shrugged off like a boring week

 

And in the quest to fill every page

Entered my vision field, cut you made

Today, so I could win again

Hearing you made it into fertile lands

 

And you make me have to admit

You labour all my senses.

Find me an occupation

And move him out that big house

A real hurdle to clear this time

New laugh for a fresh faced crowd

 

I can’t put up with what others put up with

But ignore my pain

So find me someone to be

I can talk to them normally again

 

Find me an occupation

A useful claim on my body

That asks not too much of my head,

So the others I can somehow study

 

And late at night do you think I could do cards?

Like I did with that drunk driver

Get into household objects, make Polaroid’s

Or go with the grain, every common striver

 

I sometimes remember what school was like

When I see some kid’s young face

The path of most resistance

In this long and churlish race

 

Find me a job, concrete life

So I’m kept up at night, not keeping

When I’m in a cloud, I can only remain silent

A sleepy felt prick, hardly feeling

 

If we screw up yesterday’s newspapers

Can’t we screw up yesterday’s news?

Find me an occupation

‘Cos that’s a simple cruise

 

And you must feel that sense of duty

Perverting the room and the streets

For a cure we walk off with boys

And top ourselves up with sweets.

If you see me get up and stand by the morning window

I am remembering the accents of one-sided phone calls

And afternoons with mother

And what I was doing on this day, or that day

The details of an old house, an old friend

And how soon it would take for life to resume.

 

In those moments, you may take me

For I am on autopilot

Tying to think of some metaphor for

Watery lips, cucumber smile

Secret reflections, unspoken connections

And whether dreams satisfy

The real needs of my heart.

 

Or whether that was all just fodder,

Fodder for some listless afternoon

Or another short poem

With places and cathedral backrooms

Where men turn their wants

Into allegorical nursery-rhymes.

 

They don’t want to realise how soon

Life will resume

At best they know it’s like a

Half-forgotten old holiday trip

With some quirks, some follies

And their dreams can only be – lost to the world.

They cleared out my house,

Or place of living

Because I tempted the mould

 

And the swarm

Came and landed

Conjoining the pavements which

 

The rain washed away,

The sweat of the day,

More bad news,

 

Which faded none through our restless clocks

I come, the wine is gushing

And man, has she grown up to discover

 

A cluster of holes

Up in my head

As tree’s and worms breed

 

My bed creaks

My bones speak aloud

We’ll gather in packs

 

Remove your fashion and style and

I won’t remember you if

You sit there in the corner, alone

 

Isn’t that what you want?

Isn’t that what you want?

To start poking at my holes.

The room was full of Christians

Colliding in grace

I said ‘at least you do it for the love of it’

And in the way that it does

Their hair matted, lips pouted, middle-lives

Slightly higher black population

Because it’s good and proper

To ignore your tumours.

 

What is time if not for wasting?

And what are words if not for creating?

Such faith is like a fingernail

Just attached to the skin

Matter, benign, growing on the spinal cord

When you go to bed tonight

Close the curtain full

To cancel the divine light.

 

There’ll be one less Christian in the room

Upon waking up.

A gentle wind breezed through the old dancehall, dissipating to the corners of the vast open room. Rosa had left the back door through which she’d slid perched slightly open to release some of the musty smell. It was the same smell as the back room of some church she remembered from her childhood days and of the great hallway in her aunt’s house, the grandfather clock standing at the end as a surveyor ticking off the days. She recalled other fleeting images from this time, half-formed memories or dreams, the ones which never go away but you can’t quite put your finger on them; a thermometer, a staircase with a balcony and some other vaguely disturbing scenes which defied physics.

The crack in the door blew in the warm evening air as Rosa surveyed the scene in front of her: a lonely stage with nothing behind it and a few broken seats lying about the place. She fixed ahead and tried to imagine the commotion at this spot of times long gone, the jeering and whooping of the crowd delighting themselves with macaroons and the stage performers bearing their all in a scene whose memories were totally lost and forgotten to the world. She almost expected a flurry of sounds and visuals to arrive, transporting her back to that very moment like you might see on some tacky TV drama. But even she couldn’t trick herself into that. She never could make sensations appear when she thought they ought to. Besides, she was not alone.

Undoubtedly, many people had stood here as she was standing and had the same thoughts. The place was well known as a derelict corner of real nostalgia in this city and was a popular place for urban explorers to visit, taking photographs and looking back at them and convincing themselves of its creepiness. But the place needn’t be creepy. The late sun had cast an ethereal glow on every wall, rays of light split by shadows like those which are sometimes visible as light yellow spears through the clouds when looking up at the sky. Rosa thought to herself that this must have been how religious folk came up with the idea of transcendence into heaven, shining down onto Earth and the tunnel of light we supposedly enter as we die. She thought of how your life is supposed to flash before your eyes. She thought that just before she died, she wanted every memory that is just like this to flash before her; every useful moment of solitude, every sense of good abandonment, all the young conversations in which she stumbled upon a simple truism about life that had somehow remained engrained. No, this idea far from creeped her out. These were the things that gave life. She would also be meeting them soon.

Them’, she chuckled to herself. Of course it’s going to be a he. It was a strange place to meet, naturally. It had been her quirky decision and she had hoped it was not too obvious. Hearing the roar of an engine in the distance and a man yelling ‘reverse – put it in gear and reverse!’ made her realise that most people most of the time are living well and truly in the present, engaged in actions with no thought for the morrow or the days of yore, only the time-being and a single consciousness. She was going to meet someone she talked to on the internet. It was a curious website on which they had met where people are drawn together because of their mutual interests in a certain geographical base, but the other person is anonymous. The idea was that neither person would become corrupted or prejudiced against the other because of what they looked like, where they were from – anything. That way true friendship or love could flourish. Electronic data bears all the fruits of the world nowadays from shopping to the most intelligent writing, to babies, Rosa thought. Of course there are hallmarks, giveaways. Rosa had learned of her virtual other-half that they were perhaps a few years older, for they could remember the Clinton era with great clarity, and because of certain phrases used, such as ‘at the end of the day’ which suggested a Southern, lower middle-class upbringing. The two had discussed feminism and the question of why Eliot was not as studied, not as considered as Orwell, when her moral fortitude was impossible to improve and when she maintained creativity whilst being oppressed – even the oppression coming mainly from within.

Rosa flipped over her bag, observed her copy of Beautiful Losers and considered how apt. She opened a bottle of apple juice she’d forgotten about and watched the orange strip becoming slowly more intense in its incandescence, the sun lowering as a ticking surveyor. She was about to stretch her legs simply just to do something, when she heard leaves crunching outside and the door creep ever so slightly, as she turned her back to it in haste.