Sunday, December 5, 2010

Seamus Heaney - Poet of Silence, Poet of Talk

Seamus Heaney and Howard Moss can stand, almost allegorically, for two kinds of poet. One starts from silence, the other from talk. Heaney’s slow, weighted monosyllables are dredged up from darkness; Moss’s lines, in their lucidity, give us conversation as it would be in Utopia, all light and feeling. Heaney’s best poems go back to riddles, charms and ritual; Moss’s to song, letters, social interchange. Heaney, all blind sense, feels the heft and shape of things; Moss clarifies emotions into interpretation. Both poets have, of course, the defects of their virtues: Heaney is least interesting when most explicit, Moss most predictable when he moralizes his apercus.

Heaney, to my mind the best poet now writing in Ireland, seems the only one of his generation not in some way inhibited by the shadow of Yeats. Though he shares Yeats’s love of the archaic, with its combination of the civilized and the stark, he unearths his archaism not in Celtic legends but in the bodies of long-dead Vikings, buried and preserved in Irish and Scandinavian bogs:
As if he had been poured
in tar, he lies
on a pillow of turf
and seems to weep
the black river of himself.
The grain of his wrists
is like bog oak
the ball of his heel
like a basalt egg.
For Heaney, things in their “opaque repose” can be searched out only by divination, in a “somnambulist process of search and surrender” (as Heaney described it in a lecture to the Royal Society of Literature two years ago). When the diviner has found out, as by instinct, a hoard in the nether darkness, he must then gather words with “a binding secret” between them to lift the treasure into view. The serpentine line of Norse art “like an eel swallowed / in a basket of eels” becomes for Heaney a metaphor for his own intertwining of national and personal truth.
The autobiographical poems closing Heaney’s new collection make explicit his meditation on the troubles of Ulster, where he was born, but seem, paradoxically, less deep in their reflections than the poems where meaning resists intellectual reduction. History in these poems is as absorptive, mysterious, and dark as the many-layered bog, where
ferments of husk and leaf
deepen their ochres.
Mosses come to a head,
heather unseeds,
brackens deposit
their bronze . . .
a windfall composing
the floor it rots into.
The seedtime of the soul and the dissolution of the flesh melt equally into history, exhumed only temporarily in Heaney’s penetrating vision, where gravity and preservation unite.
Howard Moss’s ironic and fluent narratives keep up the memorably polished standard of earlier poems like “Menage a Trois.” Here is the opening of “Shorelines,” a poem about “the dreariness of things gone wrong for good”:
Someday I’ll wake
and hardly think of you;
You’ll be some abstract deity,
a myth --
Say Daphne, if you knew her
as a tree.
Don’t think I won’t be grateful.
I will be.
This mixture of tartness and pain animates the poem which opens the volume and sets the tone for the whole: it is called “Chekhov,” and remarks that under all the Babel of talk, there exists one silent hell — “to lose the very ground you stand on.” This abyss underlies even the most Arcadian of Moss’s landscapes, but his genius lies in finding ways to describe it which are instantly recognizable as our modern ways of masking pain: “We hardly see each other any more”; “Not that you loved me. Or I loved you”; “It’s fishy here, and an unhappy place/ Or let’s say we are.” Though Auden is recognizably Moss’s master, Moss has none of Auden’s preceptorial instructiveness and none of Auden’s preoccupation with ideology. For Moss, if affections, attachments and love go, there is no institution or philosophical construct to flee to; instead, there is a soulless desiccation:
Bathed in the acid of truth,
all things
Become possible:
to be a cold snake
At an interview
to live on scraps of soap
To keep oneself warm,
to resemble a cat
Constantly stalking the
Shadow of nothing
In the most remarkable poem in this collection, “Tattoo,” the indelible branding of the flesh becomes a grotesque allegory for the soul’s yearning for “the ritual scarring/Of the Cupid of wounds,” and the tattoo parlor by the docks a modern version of the Spenserian masque of Cupid:
Think of these: rinses, makeup, ampules,
A dressing room blooded by Band-Aids of healing,
Eye-pencilled alphabets, ink blots of jungle,
A gypsy tearoom run by a surgeon,
A beaded curtain, a paintbox, a sudden
Movement of pain, the animal willfully
Formed at the end of a point, a child’s stencil . . .
All night the dye-needle branding its stories
Into the flesh to be told there forever.
When Moss is most absolute, he comes very near the simplicity of song. Intellectuality is still present, in the form of wit, but language empties itself of intellectual reference and of ambiguous or equivocal diction. The course of love, that first love which yields “the clearest of all sleeps, then nothing clear,” is traced in Moss’s best lyric quatrain in this volume:
Starting out as love, it climbed the stairs,
And then came down as something else again;
I did not recognize its killing features
Until I saw they were my very own.
Both of these volumes by accomplished poets at once put language in relief and, in another sense, make it disappear before our eyes as we are given the illusion of a voice in the air penetrating, without any medium at all, into our consciousness and feelings. Such voices heard make our own voices less anonymous, and compose that floor that Heaney speaks of into which the rest of us, unheard, are destined to dissolve.

People who read this post also read :


Post a Comment

Please leave your comments!