Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Taking Bearings: Seamus Heaney’s District and Circle

District and Circle is Seamus Heaney's twelfth book and it is very much a re-visiting of his own past, a circling and remapping of terrain familiar from forty years of previous work. Few poets are likely to abandon their lifetime's concerns and preoccupation and jump on board some skittish new craft, but what's remarkable about this collection is the extent to which it situates itself in the essential elements of the earlier work – as if the poet wanted to re-ground himself by testing the old sources again and subjecting them to the pressure of experience and craft. In their solidity and immediacy the early poems in the book give the same kind of pleasure as the first Heaney collections, though it’s a pleasure somewhat diluted by familiarity. From the outset Heaney was a poet of extraordinary materiality: the visible world swarmed in to be reconstituted in dense stacks of language – those processions of thickly textured nouns and adjectives, that lust for exactitude, for a language that answered the demands of memory and clanged with the force of hammer on anvil.

District and Circle is full of the physicality and richly textured responsiveness that announced itself forcefully in Death of a Naturalist, charged with the 'thingness' of totemic implements: turnip-snedder, hammer, spade, harrow-pin, 'the weight of the trowel' with its ‘lozenge-shaped/Blade’, the blows of Barney Devlin’s 'midnight anvil'. The poems set themselves to pinning down 'the mass and majesty of the world'; they’re a bit like the remembered railway sleepers in one poem, 'block-built criss-cross and four-squared'. Take a poem like 'Höfn', for example, with its turbo-charged Anglo-Saxon pith:

The three-tongued glacier has begun to melt.
What will we do, they ask, when boulder-milt
Comes wallowing across the delta flats

And the miles-deep shag-ice makes its move?
I saw it, ridged and rock-set, from above,
Undead grey-gristed earth-pelt, aeon-scruff.....

All this 'thingness', this vivid intensity, is lent an extra force by the book's sense of working on the edge, on the boundaries between life and death, between the real and the imagined – or unimaginable, as in 'Anything Can Happen', the poet’s response to 11 September – or between one realm of experience and another, as in the prose pieces which evoke the arrival at the school porch with its 'rows of coathooks nailed up at different heights along the wall', or the arrival of gypsies in the district, 'as if a gate had been left open in the usual life, as if something might get in or get out'. The book is haunted by death; there are elegies for Czeslaw Milosz, Ted Hughes, George Seferis, and the superb 'The Lift' for his sister.
One of the highlights of the collection is the title poem, set, like the opening poem in Station Island in the 'vaulted tunnels' of the London Underground, a place realised in extraordinary concrete detail, intensely alive and yet a visionary underworld to which the poet has descended like Dante or Orpheus to meet 'My father's face glazed in my own waning/And craning' and to be ‘transported/Through galleried earth with them, the only relict/Of all that I belonged to. . .' Like many of the poems in this book, it is hyper-alert to the world's surfaces, and glazes every realised thing with an eerie plangency. Some have seen this as a response to the July 2005 bombings in London but it is really another Heaney underground or underworld poem – as a poet gets on he begins to be 'aware of the underground journey a bit more', as he said in a recent interview. Like almost all of the poems in the book it is as much a journey into his own past, as much as the district as the wider circle. The strap-hanging figure in the underground train, 'well-girded, yet on edge,/Spot-rooted, buoyed, aloof,/Listening to the dwindling noises off' is the poet performing his delicate balancing act on the 'flicker-lit' threshold of past and present, life and death.
We see the same investment in the weight of the real in the poem to which the pieces that make up 'District and Circle' originally belonged, 'The Tollund Man in Springtime', which returns after more than thirty years to one of Heaney’s most famous poems. The original poem concluded with a fatalistic identification with the sacrificial victim; the new take is a denser imagining, the Tollund Man spirited from the man-killing parishes to investigate the world that has revived him, 'the thickened traffic/Swarm at a roundabout five fields away/And transatlantic flights stacked in the blue.' Again it's a poem thick with the world, this ghostly presence like a 'bulrush, head in air, far from its lough' hovering over 'check-out lines, at cash-points, in those queues/Of wired, far-faced smilers.' But the Tollund Man is also a guardian-like figure come to release Heaney from his Parnassian obligations. In an interview in The Telegraph he described him as a kind of releasing revenant: 'He came again to remind me that lyric poetry was OK. The Tollund Man releases me into pleasure… love poems… bits and pieces… little quickies… more personal stuff towards the end. They're more spontaneous.' In a way maybe this is part of the point of a book like District and Circle. Most of it is a consolidating kind of book, the book that someone would write at the latter end of a career, the book of a poet at ease with his material and his craft, reconfirming, re solidifying, remaking that, reminding us of what went before.

If self is a location, so is love:
Bearings taken, markings, cardinal points,
Options, obstinacies, dug heels and distance,
Here and there and now and then, a stance.

(‘The Aerodrome’)

This is a books that takes bearings and markings and stands by them, the poet saying this is my map, these are the co-ordinates, this is its scenery, its psycho-geography, its sustaining comforts. Nothing is left unremembered or unmemorialised. Once that consolidating impulse has been satisfied, maybe the poet will be released out of habitual Heaneyness into a dimension of risk and unease, and maybe this is what is intended by the closing poem, 'The Blackbird of Glanmore' with its echoes of previous Heaney poems and its Janus-like glance at life and death:

The automatic lock
Clunks shut, the blackbird’s panic
Is shortlived, for a second
I’ve a bird’s eye view of myself,
A shadow on raked gravel

In front of my house of life.

Hedge-hop, I am absolute
For you, your ready talkback,
Your each stand-offish comeback,
Your picky, nervy goldbeak –
On the grass when I arrive,

In the ivy when I leave.

Seamus Heaney, District and Circle. Faber and Faber, 2006. 74pp. UK £12.99.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Lost Country: Dunya Mikhail

I was in Cúirt the other week to give a reading and to enjoy some of the fare on offer. I read with Dunya Mikhail, an Iraqi poet currently based in Michigan. She speaks and writes in three languages: Arabic, English and Aramaic. The Aramaic comes from her Christian background – Aramaic, the language Christ spoke, is the language of the Chaldeans, the Iraqi Christians who pre-date Islam. Mikhail has published five books since the 1980s, and New Directions publishes The War Works Hard , translated from the Arabic by Elizabeth Winslow (winner of a 2004 PEN translation Fund Award). Carcanet will publish it in July of this year. As that title implies Mikhail’s chief subject is war. The poems are blunt and satiric and return obsessively to war and its effects, not surprising for a body of work produced between 1985 and 2004.

Born in 1965, at the juncture of the most atrocious campaign the Baath party waged to trounce the smallest pockets of popular resistance, Dunya Mikhail’s imagination was saturated with horror stories of imprisonment, torture, death, disappearances, massacres, and rape; she was surrounded by uprootedness and endless wars.

(Saadi Simawe, Introduction to The War Works Hard)

Again according to Simawe, her work is fresh and innovative in the Arabic literary tradition: '.... in her poems, the Arabic language is liberated from traditional clichés of idiom and of style...' The following lines are from the title poem, written in Baghdad though not published until after the poet emigrated to the US in 1996:

The war continues working, day and night.
It inspires tyrants
to deliver long speeches,
awards medals to generals
and themes to poets.
It contributes to the industry
of artificial limbs,
provides food for flies,
adds pages to the history books,
achieves equality
between killer and killed...

The poems in The War Works Hard are like this, direct, sardonic, downbeat, stripped of rhetoric or grandiosity. 'War poet' is a hard tag to bear, it tends to excite a fake kind of excited attentivness rather than the genuine attention that all poetry needs. Mikhail is a poet whose subjects happen, because of the sheer pressure of circumstance, to include war and the absence, loss and separation that come from it.

Yesterday I lost a country.
I was in a hurry,
and didn't notice when it fell from me
like a broken branch from a forgetful tree.
Please, if anyone passes by
and stumbles across it,
perhaps in a suitcase
open to the sky.....
....If anyone stumbles across it,
return it to me, please.
Please return it, sir.
Please return it, madam.
It is my country. . .
I was in a hurry
when I lost it yesterday.

The War Works Hard.Translated from the Arabic by Elizabeth Winslow.Introduction by Saadi Simawe. New Directions,2005.

Dunya Mikhai's site

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

The Charm Factor

Today the wannabe poet progresses like the academic, the civil servant, the manager, up a series of marked steps to become a member of the fraternity and sorority of Published Poets. The obedience such an ascent requires can be at odds with the very principles of the art. It is an art of speculation not in the old sense but entirely in the new, speculating on the prize, the publisher, the public -- poetry has become as keen to embrace the main chance as the basest prose.

The above is from Michael Schmidt’s lecture ‘What, How Well, Why?’ given at the StAnza festival in Scotland this March. Schmidt, the founder of Carcanet and Professor of Poetry at Glasgow University argues for a critical culture that’s open and receptive as well as rigorous: ‘If we want our poets to develop and grow without pollarding, trellising, pruning, grafting, we need a diverse and vigorous culture of reception.....’ The kind of insularity that routinely dismisses Modernism and post-Modernism ends up privileging the literal and the banal. Down with the poetry cheerleaders, Schmidt argues, poets need ‘to demand a little less solidarity, a little less local backslapping, more debate and engagement, at the same time giving the reader less of a condescending embrace.’

One of the points Michael Schmidt makes is that Britain is ‘a nation of countless poets and a strictly limited number of poetry readers’. However much we might like to delude ourselves (and we do, we do) that is pretty much the situation in this part of the world. The Cat Flap knows many excellent poets who sell three books a year, of which two to circulating libraries. One acquaintance recently produced his annual royalty statement, lamenting: ‘I seem to have sold minus three books last year. How is this possible?’ It is, of course, entirely possible. You think you have sold those three books and all your boats have come in, and then the bookseller returns the things and you’re back in the red again, quashed entirely.

How many readers does a poet need, in any case? Need for what?, you might think. To be considered a viable entity, to be eligible for an IDA grant or a VAT rating or an Aosdána nomination or a productivity audit by the Muses? It’s a question that vexes August Kleinzahler in a recent review in the LRB of The Long and the Short of It: Poems 1955-2005 by Roy Fisher. He begins by quoting John Ash in 1979: ‘In a better world, he would be as widely known and highly praised as Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney.’ And then continues: ‘This would be a very strange world, and not necessarily a better one. Fisher has never aspired to the sort of readership that Heaney and Hughes enjoy; it’s not clear he has aspired to much of a readership at all.’ Indeed, Kleinzahler makes it sound as if Fisher went out his way to repel all boarders: ‘Astringent in tone, the voice denuded of personality and with all the warmth of a lens, exploratory, restless, difficult: it is poetry almost entirely without charm.’

This begs all kinds of questions: what exactly is charm in poetry and why should we necessarily think it a good thing? Do we have to have the comforting print of a ‘personality’, preferably a ‘warm’ one, before we can investigate a poet’s work? Kleinzahler goes on to consider Fisher’s poetry in some depth, but we’re left feeling that Fisher really should have tried to come a little closer to the reader, should have withheld himself a little less – which would have made him a much different and probably a less interesting poet. But isn’t the consideration of audience a distraction from the main business of writing poetry? Doesn’t the audience come after the event rather than before or during it? It seems to this reader that a lot of poets get the order wrong and write as if the audience were already filing into the room, wanting to be comforted, reassured, ready to applaud at the appropriate cues. Which is what Schmidt is saying too as he writes of the obedience that often attends the successful poetry career. Healthier, maybe, to write for the Unreader, the Absent Reader, than the eager face in the front row. Perhaps we should end with a charmless, reader-repelling Fisher poem:

3rd November 1976

Maybe twenty of us in the late afternoon
are still in discussion. We’re talking
about the Arts Council of Great Britain
and its beliefs about itself. We’re baffled.

We’re in a hired pale clubroom
high over the County Cricket Ground
and we’re a set of darkening heads,
turning and talking and hanging down;

beyond the plate glass, in another system, silent,
the green pitch rears up, all colour,
and differently processed. Across it in olive overalls
three performance artists persistently move
with rakes and rods. The cold sky steepens.
Twilight catches the flats rising out of the trees.

One of our number is abducted
into the picture. A sculptor innocent of bureaucracy
raises his fine head to speak out;
and the window and its world frame him.
He is made clear.

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