Concluding his essay on Wallace Stevens in Poetry and the Age, Randall Jarrell commented: “A good poet is someone who manages, in a lifetime of standing out in thunderstorms, to be struck by lightning five or six times; a dozen or two dozen times and he is great.” If that is so, Seamus Heaney was a lightning rod. From Death of a Naturalist through Human Chain, his exquisitely conceived poems demonstrated rare wisdom and an uncanny talent for conveying our emotional experience in clear, natural language. But Seamus Heaney was more than a poet to those who connected with his work. As the eloquent obsequies celebrating his life attest, Heaney had a universally perceived ability to foster a genuine intimacy with his readers in a way that was beyond words.
This intimacy is chiefly attributable to the strong autobiographical strain in his work, for above all Heaney was a poet of the home and family. His deeply personal poems are endowed with the emotion of that familiar universe in which most of us live and share our lives, generally trying to maintain our equilibrium while we strive to survive and thrive, where we welcome the peaks of our joy and suffer the depths of our sorrow. Heaney recorded the times of his own life in such evocative details that we easily fell under his spell. To the readers who enjoyed partaking in that world where he lived and opened his life for all to see, Seamus was family.
Though Heaney’s prosody usually featured rhymes, rhythms and line lengths that emulated human speech fitted to traditional poetic forms, a trait he learned from Robert Frost, it was still insistently contemporary in attitude. Like a true original he uniquely transformed the fourteen-line sonnet, originally identified with courtly love, to speak of family in a way that enabled him to control his emotional timbre, avoid noxious sentimentality and give the reader a place in the poem. In particular, the wonderful eight sonnet sequence, “Clearances,” written in memory of his mother, appears to fit the occasion now, as it did then, of coming to grips with the passing of one who meant so much, even as it difficult to explain to someone outside poetry how this intimate relationship could be so ‘personal’ given the distances between each of us.
As we learn in “Clearances” Heaney’s relationship with his mother, like so many other mother-son bonds, was complicated. He clearly loved his mother and cherished the time he spent with her. But his inner life was ill-suited to hers, for she patently lacked the education and cultivation to share the material aspects of Heaney’s professional calling or grasp the matters he wrestled with in his adult life. She could not be there for him in this most important area of his life. In “Clearances” he tries to make sense of this conflict; to understand the yearning for the poignant silences that became his most enduring memory of being in her presence and to find peace in that longing for the spiritual and psychological space that became necessary for him to gain.
A nine-line epigraph (consisting of three tercet stanzas) is a revealing prelude that establishes the mother’s principal role as teacher, but also that the student son seeks to transcend the lesson:
She taught me what her uncle once taught her:
How easily the biggest coal block split
If you got the grain and hammer angled right.
* * *
Taught me between hammer and the block
To face the music. Teach me now to listen,
To strike it rich behind the linear black.
The opening sonnet presents his mother as the progeny of a “turncoat” at whom a cobble was thrown “a hundred years ago.” But the stone stays front and center:
Call her ‘The Convert’. ‘The Exogamous Bride’.
Anyhow, it is a genre piece
Inherited on my mother’s side
And mine to dispose with now she’s gone.
Instead of silver and Victorian lace,
The exonerating, exonerated stone.
The “exonerating, exonerated stone” is Heaney’s ironic joke, for the stone has a different significance now: exonerated of its initial offense, it now serves a heraldic purpose, an artifact of family individuality and courage, in lieu of the “silver and Victorian lace” that most mothers hand down to their children.
In Sonnet II we see his mother as a homemaker and disciplinarian who placed a premium on order, cleanliness and good manners:
Polished linoleum shone there. Brass taps shone.
The china cups were very white and big–
An unchipped set with sugar bowl and jug.
The kettle whistled. Sandwich and tea scone
Were present and correct. In case it run,
The butter must be kept out of the sun.
And don’t be dropping crumbs. Don’t tilt your chair.
Don’t reach. Don’t point. Don’t make noise when you stir.
We can clearly hear his mother’s curt instructions in the last two quoted lines. As Heaney explained in his interview in The Paris Review (“The Art of Poetry,” No. 75)
And there was a nice social punctilio about the McCanns—that was my mother’s family name; it came out in their concern with dress codes and table manners and things like that. They liked you to have your shoes polished and your hair combed. They had a little allotment garden out at the back and a washhouse with a set of wringers. And I suppose I would call the McCanns democrats. They had a strong sense of justice and civil rights and they were great argufiers. They genuinely and self-consciously relished their own gifts for contention and censoriousness.
But Sonnet II abruptly departs from its description of pristine and proper home life by devoting the final six lines to a touching description of his mother being welcomed by her father (Heaney’s “grandfather”) to “Number 5, New Row, Land of the Dead” as “they sit down in the shining room together.” Once these initial introductions are completed we are ready for the real purpose of these poems.
In Sonnet III a remembrance of the two peeling potatoes becomes a waypoint of describing the complex tenor of their relationship:
When all the others were away at Mass
I was all hers as we peeled potatoes.
They broke the silence, let fall one by one
Like solder weeping off the soldering iron:
Cold comforts set between us, things to share
Gleaming in a bucket of clean water.
And again let fall. Little pleasant splashes from each other’s work would bring us to our senses.
So while the parish priest at her bedside
Went hammer and tongs at the prayers for the dying
And some were responding and some crying
I remember her head bent towards my head,
Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives—
Never closer the whole rest of our lives.
The possessiveness expressed by “all hers” works ambiguously, indicative of both the emotional bond and servitude (albeit one blessed by the love of being together). “Cold comforts set between us, things to share” evoke the spare, unadorned nature of the task and environment (and perhaps their relationship as a whole), yet “Gleaming” heightens their spiritual value, taking its lead from “shining room” in the preceding sonnet. It is only the sound of the splashings that breaks the spell of their mutual reverie, a spiritual ecstasy that approaches sexual intimacy (one that pointedly eschews the erotic), which is then amplified in the last three lines. The last rites being administered by the parish priest, the clumsy “hammer and tongs,”clearly conflict with their spiritual reverie shared by mother and son with their “fluent dipping knives.” Heaney’s adroit poetic craftsmanship intends the allusive ramifications of meaning that flow from these descriptions, for these themes are followed to their logical resolution within the sequence.
Thus, Heaney tell us, in virtually wordless housework was his spiritual relationship with his mother formed and circumscribed, and hence we might quickly infer that there was little meaningful interaction when Heaney’s life took him away from home. But such a reading is much too precipitous. The connection between the two in this scene is lit with unsuspected fire, ironically, for the image that impresses us most is the jarring, unconventionally modern one that is so removed from peeling potatoes: “Like solder weeping off the soldering iron.” Electricians use solder to make (and sometimes undo) connections. The solder, anthropomorphically figured as “weeping,” is a psychic projection of the pain of this connection and disconnection, a figurative sloughing off of those emotional connections in order to adhere to those other things that he needs to thrive as a poet. With the soldering imagery Heaney effectively mourns the coming of age change and what will ultimately be a new phase of their relationship, and in this way conditions us for the eventual separation that necessarily ensues.
Sonnet IV further clarifies the matter: “Fear of affectation made her affect/Inadequacy whenever it came to/Pronouncing words ‘beyond her.’” His mother’s reticence bred a parochial rejection of sophistication (“She’d manage something hampered and askew/Every time, as if she might betray/The hampered and inadequate by too/Well-adjusted a vocabulary”), and when he is in her company the future Nobel laureate is forced to reduce himself to fit within her borders:
So I governed my tongue
In front of her, a genuinely well-
Adjusted adequate betrayal
Of what I knew better. I’d naw and aye
And decently relapse into the wrong
Grammar which kept us allied and at bay.
By seeking impossible congruities (“decently relapse into the wrong/Grammar”) with his beloved mother Heaney ultimately betrays himself, resulting in the self-deprecating anomie of “allied and at bay.” [The phrase, “allied and at bay,” reminds me of the final line, “Unhappy and at home,” in his poem, “The Tollund Man,” where Heaney uses paradox to achieve a subtle rendering of the conflicted soul.]
Sonnet V uses the mundane and seemingly mechanical folding of sheets to expose his eventual resistance.
The cool that came off sheets just off the line
Made me think the damp must still be in them
But when I took my corners of the linen
And pulled against her, first straight down the hem
And then diagonally, then flapped and shook
The fabric like a sail in a cross-wind,
They made a dried-out undulating thwack.
So we’d stretch and fold and end up hand to hand
For a split second as if nothing had happened
For nothing had that had not always happened
Beforehand, day by day, just touch and go,
Coming close again by holding back
In moves where I was X and she was O
Inscribed in sheets she’d sewn from ripped-out flour sacks.
The psychological reserve (“Coming close again by holding back”) that became the hallmark of their adult relationship is no better exemplified than in Heaney’s use of bedroom linen to evoke a subsisting emotional complex where the most common of gestures becomes laden with powerful meaning (“So we’d stretch and fold and end up hand to hand/For a split second as if nothing had happened”). The latent tension between the two is further exemplified by Heaney’s reference to tic-tac-toe, which, for equally-suited players, is a zero sum game that cannot be won or lost. Heaney uses the words “cool,” “dried-out,” “sail in a cross-wind” and “touch and go” strategically so that, when we read the last line, the family’s poverty seems to be offered as a way to explain the source of the polarities that produced the “cross-wind” between the two, with the violence of “ripped out flour sacks” as signified scar tissue.
In Sonnet VI Heaney calls this part of his formative years “our Sons and Lovers phase,” finding that elevated strain of sarcasm and sympathy that in lesser poets would otherwise serve as self-pity in his own version of D.H. Lawrence’s infamous mother-son conflict. But within the sonnet sequence we come to understand that their relationship is far more significant than the facial portraits in these few descriptions of their time together. Something is clearly happening in the spaces “behind the linear black” of the verse. Upon his mother’s death (Sonnet VII) other revelations supervene:
The searching for a pulsebeat was abandoned
And we all knew one thing by being there.
The space we stood around had been emptied
Into us to keep, it penetrated
Clearances that suddenly stood open.
High cries were felled and a pure change happened.
Those “clearances” are the fields of our inner vision in which the meaning of our experience is revealed by life’s transitions. In fact, silence and space, “the nothing that is” of Wallace Stevens’ “The Snow Man,” are appropriated by Heaney to the purpose of describing the loss of his mother in the final sonnet:
I thought of walking round and round a space
Utterly empty, utterly a source
Where the decked chestnut tree had lost its place
In our front hedge above the wallflowers.
The white chips jumped and jumped and skirted high
I heard the hatchet’s differentiated
Accurate cut, the crack, the sigh
and collapse of what luxuriated
Through the shocked tips and wreckage of it all.
Deep-planted and long gone, my coeval
Chestnut from a jam jar in a hole,
Its heft and hush become a bright nowhere,
A soul ramifying and forever
Silent, beyond silence listened for.
The space, “Utterly empty, utterly a source,” is that psychic and spiritual reality, the “nothing that is” which becomes the means to live. While the blunt symbol of mortality is encapsulated by the felled chestnut, what endures with us is not that image, but just its opposite, the “hush become a bright nowhere/A soul ramifying and forever/Silent, beyond silence listened for.” Space and silence become Heaney’s touchstones, the portals to the “shining room” and the “bright nowhere,” the apotheosis of the ersatz heritage represented by the cobble in Sonnet I.
In “Clearances” we know the yearning for that deeper spiritual connection with life. It is not governed by material rationale, but by an innate sense of who we are, where we need to be and what we must do to get there. The agent of this spiritual connection is both within and beyond ourselves. Once in a while we penetrate the clearances and find a brief peace, a reconciliation with ourselves, that shows us that we are getting closer on our way to the City of Love. In Seamus Heaney’s passing, the space we stood around has been emptied into us to keep, penetrating those clearances that now stand open before us. Let us cherish this time for what Seamus has given us “beyond the linear black.”