Monday, December 9, 2013

Book 139, Northern Ireland: "Death of a Naturalist" by Seamus Heaney

One of the great things about having access to a university library is the fact that I can read a lot of poetry in its original collections, not in Compleat Works or Selected With Annotations stuff. I kinda wanna see how a writer's oeuvre was originally presented to the public, warts and all.

The Spirit Level is of course widely available - but after I'd picked it up, I realised:

1) I might've read it before, back when I first started getting curious about Heaney.

2) It wasn't actually written while Heaney was living in Northern Ireland (where he did in fact spend the first thirty-three years of his life).

3) I just wasn't connecting with the poems. 

Call me shallow, but the pieces in The Spirit Level all seemed messy and disperse and referring to incidents and people I wasn't familiar with, which is in itself not an unfamiliar sensation during this project. But I do want to honour great writers by saying nice things about their work, and to have a good time reading myself.

So I've decided to go back to the volume that started everything off: Heaney's very first collection, published by Faber and Faber back in 1966:

It's easy to like Death of a Naturalist. Most of these poems are these wonderfully earthy things, reflecting on what it means to be a poet who's grown up in the country as the son of a farmer, hence you've got schoolkid classics like Digging, wherein he imagines himself digging with his pen into his heritage, just as his forefathers dug with their spades for potatoes. Also the scary frogspawn of the titular poem, his mother's dairy alchemy in Churning Day, the tragedy of a child's death in Mid-Term Break, the assumption of adulthood and responsibility around the horse-plough of Follower. And of course the weird Thomas Wyatt-esque loss of innocence in Blackberry-Picking, another piece we kept on seeing on our literature worksheets, and which someone told me actually referred to the Eucharist.

All very sensual, all very real, all very lovely on the ears and accessible. In fact, quality actually goes sideways towards the end of the book when we just start getting fluffy love songs and nature poems, whose depth can in no way compare to the stuff in the first half. But if I'd wanted depth, I'd have gone with The Spirit Level, no? My own damn fault for being stupid and impatient.

Since we're on the topic of Northern Ireland, however, we've gotta mention The Troubles. And though the violence only peaked in the seventies (during which time Heaney wrote works like Wintering Out, which I personally find a tad forgettable), we do actually have a threatening yet thoroughly human figure of a Protestant activist whose "fist would drop a hammer on a Catholic" in The Docker. "Oh yes, that kind of thing could start again", the poet says, and sure enough it did.

Things have been peaceful enough since the nineties, thank god, and I'm planning to visit Belfast next year. Still, it did drive Heaney to Dublin, where he spent the rest of years until his death in April (which I shamefully didn't remark upon in this blog). What's the relationship between Northern and Republic of today? I've heard of people switching nationalities just to get their university fees slashed. Will find out through travel, not literature, I dare say.

Anyhow, Singapore's experiencing troubles of its own right now. Not sure how I could (should?) turn that into literature.

View Around the World in 80 Books!!! in a larger map

Representative quote: 

"From A Potato Digging"

Live skulls, blind-eyed, balanced on
wild higgledy skeletons
scoured the land in "forty-five,"
wolfed the blighted root and died.

The new potato, sound as stone,
putrefied when it had lain
three days in the long clay pit.
Millions rotted along with it.

Mouths tightened in, eyes died hard,
faces chilled to a plucked bird.
In a million wicker huts
beaks of famine snipped at guts.

A people hungering from birth,
grubbling, like plants, in the bitch earth,
were grafted with a great sorrow.
Hope rotted like a marrow.

Stinking potatoes fouled the land,
pits turned pus into filthy mounds:
and where potato digger are
you still smell the running sore.

Next book: Sir Walter Scott's Waverley, from Scotland. Or shall I do Robert Burns?

No comments: