An intimate walk with the Heaney clan
Writing book reviews can sometimes be intimidating. You read a book that grabs you, but then it is by someone you revere and who is still alive, someone who could pick up the phone and reprimand you for whatever reason. So you sweat more when reviewing that book, after you have got enough nerve to actually write the review.
Another scenario – you read a book you completely enjoy, by a deceased luminary, and fear still seizes you. Why? Well, the poet is so large, so loved that his/her poems are in the psyche of many and you fear you will miss something important that everyone else sees, gets and expects to be included in the review.
That has been my experience with the Faber & Faber 2018- published 100 Poems, by Seamus Heaney. As an admirer of Heaney, who writes with intimacy and dignity from the place of ‘the commoner’, ‘peasant’, the farmer, the ‘average Joe’, I accepted the book with great appreciation, but as a reviewer, the task is dreaded. If only the following quote could suffice as the review. “Seamus Heaney’s 100 poems is an excellent read; a treasured experience and intimate walk with the poet and his Heaney clan. Read it. Have the experience.”
Having read the 1998-published Opened Ground, which collected over 400 pages of poems from the 1960s through to the 2000s, it was with a quiet awe that I received the newer and physically smaller collection of 100 poems.
Unlike Opened Ground, selected by the Ireland-native Heaney himself, the slimmer, 2018 publication presents poems chosen by close family. It therefore does not have ambitions of being a Heaney-definitive-collection. It is a thin slice of the 1995 Nobel laureate’s work, but it represents the poems his family hold closer to themselves, for varying reasons.
This brings us to that never-ending dialogue of whether or not autobiographical details should be necessary when reading and ‘decoding’ poems. The short, (biased) answer is no, you don’t need the writer’s life story to read the poems.
Avoiding the dialogue, I’ll highlight some poems in the collection that, like his family, resonated with me. The first five poems together: Digging; Death of a Naturalist; Blackberry-Picking; Follower and Mid-Term Break, is truly a demonstration of an epic start. Then there’s Casualty, one of the poems in which Heaney brings us the life of the ‘small person’, as he gives us the large experience.
In Casualty, as Heaney juxtaposes the ‘larger’ tragedy of the 13 civil rights activists killed on Bloody Sunday in Ireland in 1972, he shows us the ‘smaller’ life of a ‘dole kept breadwinner’, who refused to let the killing of the 13 and the curfew that ensued, stop him from traversing the streets to pursue his ritual of pub and liquor.
In The Singer’s House, which immediately follows Casualty in this collection, we see Heaney bringing the Irish folk beliefs to print and the world, as he writes:
People here used to believe
that drowned souls lived in the seals.
At spring tides they might change shape.
They loved music and swam in for a singer
who might stand at the end of summer
in the mouth of a whitewashed turf-shed,
his shoulder to the jamb, his song
a rowboat far out in evening.
Both examples: the first of zeroing on the life of an average Joe, as big events unfold, and the other of bringing to the world’s stage the oral history and myths of the Irish, are two of Heaney-trademarks that endear him to readers and confirms his designation as a poet who writes of, for and from the people.
There are quite a few elegies in this collection, including: In Memoriam Francis Ledwidge (a Heaney-ancestor killed in 1917); Casualty and Elegy. The latter, which her wrote for Robert Lowell, like the others, brings defining nuances of the deceased to the page.
In The Skunk, which could be read as an elegy also, we see Heaney successfully comparing the deceased wife to the ‘sexy’ image of the skunk. See the first and last stanza below of The Skunk.
Up, black, striped and damasked like the chasuble
At a funeral Mass, the skunk’s tail
Paraded the skunk. Night after night
I expected her like a visitor.
It all came back to me last night, stirred
By the sootfall of your things at bedtime,
Your head-down, tail-up hunt in a bottom drawer
For the black plunge-line nightdress.
Nature plays a great part in Heaney’s poetry, whether or not the poem serves primarily as an ode to nature, as in Song, which in some ways reminds of Robert Frost’s Stopping By the Woods on A Snowy Evening, or if the poem reflects the relationship between man and nature, as in from The Republic of Conscience and others.
Other favourites in the collection include: from Clearances; The Cure at Troy; The Rain Stick; A Sofa in the Forties: A Call; A Dog Was Crying Tonight in Wicklow Also; the Clothes Shrine; The Lift; Had I Not Been Awake, and Miracle.
Whether Heaney writes of love, as in from Clearances for example, or whether he chooses history to reflect mankind’s weaknesses, hopes and strengths, you come away from a Heaney book enriched.
Below are the first two stanzas from the Cure of Troy
Human beings suffer.
They torture one another.
They get hurt and get hard.
No poem or play or song
Can fully right a wrong inflicted or endured.
History says, Don’t hope
On this side of the grave,
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.
Title: 100 Poems by Seamus Heaney
Publisher: Faber & Faber: 2018
Ratings: Highly recommended
Ann-Margaret Lim has published two critically acclaimed poetry books with Peepal Tree Press: The Festival of Wild Orchid and Kingston Buttercup, which are available at Bookophilia and other outlets. Email her at: firstname.lastname@example.org