Saturday, 3 November 2012

Seemly, humane, rational, revelatory, steady, traditional, sane, grounded

Human Chain, by Seamus Heaney.  (Faber ISBN 978-0-571-26922-8, published 2010)

Early in this book Seamus Heaney describes ‘The Conway Stewart’, a newly purchased fountain pen, “The nib uncapped, / treating it to its first deep snorkel / In a newly opened ink-bottle.” Heaney may live in the age of the email and the text message, but his interest in writing implements goes back to the start, when he compared his pen to a spade that digs deep. He is avid for pencils, paper, the traditional means of getting a poem on the record. Importantly, this poem is reprised later in the collection when he uses the voice of Colum Cille, the great saint of Iona:

My hand is cramped from penwork.
My quill has a tapered point.
Its bird-mouth issues a blue-dark
Beetle-sparkle of ink.

Wisdom keeps welling in streams
From my fine-drawn sallow hand:
Riverrun on the vellum
Of ink from green-skinned holly.

My small runny pen keeps going
Through books, through thick and thin,
To enrich the scholars’ holdings –
Penwork that cramps my hand.

The first verse evokes the illuminated world of medieval Ireland, the second signs in on the Joycean project of continuity in Irish writing (riverrun is the giveaway opening word of Finnegans Wake), while the third verse finds the poet already toying with the prospect of his future readership. Has Heaney put enough conundrums in his work to have the scholars working for centuries?

Placed together, these two smaller poems in the book remind us of one of Heaney’s favourite interests, which is also one of his favourite techniques, joining together the new world with the old world. The learning of ancient Ireland and the classical world is used to explain and dramatise the learning experience of Heaney himself in his own short time on Earth. Undoubtedly the standout example in this accomplished metier here is a poem called ‘Route 110’, where a trip on the bus from Smithfield Market, second-hand copy of Virgil in hand, parallels or re-enacts Aeneid IV itself, a trip into the Underworld.

In finding words to describe Seamus Heaney’s poetry I come up with seemly, humane, rational, revelatory, steady, traditional, sane, grounded. Somewhere in his voluminous interview book ‘Stepping Stones’ (2008) Heaney early “wanted pressure and density, wasn’t susceptible to freewheeling rhythm and full-frontal statement,” and it is his dedication to “pressure and density” in poetry that marks all of his work. Compression is at work in the title poem, four short verses to describe lifting the load:

With a grip on two sack corners,
Two packed wads of grain I’d worked to lugs
To give me purchase, ready for the heave

This serves both to identify with others he has seen doing the same and to remind himself of his, and our, mortality:

That quick unburdening, backbreak’s truest payback,
A letting go which will not come again.
Or it will, once. And for all.

The human chain is not only the line of people moving the sacks, it is any line of people moving the essentials for living. The human chain is the process of doing things together, often without a word (or poem) spoken. But as the last verse just testified, the human chain is also the backbone, the links of the spinal column that make possible all of this work, the straightened chain that makes us all human.

The quality of Heaney’s success is measured in how he can say all of these things without aphorism or footnote, in the matter-of-fact relay of a simple observation, the diction seemingly inevitable, the words plain as day. John Banville remarks that “in these marvellous poems Heaney displays all that sweetness and ease of gesture, that colloquial accommodation, that are the unmissable traits of his art.”

Another standard towards which Heaney strives is forcibleness, “what sets the seal of inevitability on much of the best writing.” It is “the attitude that makes you feel the lines have been decreed, that there has been no fussy picking and choosing of words but instead a surge of utterance.” His ordered cadences and pedalling of tones come at us familiarly in this latest collection. Mortality is the drive behind a pair of riddles titled ‘Uncoupled’. The poet asks:

Who is this coming to the ash-pit
Walking tall, as if in a procession,
Bearing in front of her a slender pan

No question-make is attached to this question, as if the actual answer is not nearly as important as the wonder of wondering who this person is, in and of herself. Likewise in Part II:

Who is this, not much higher than the cattle,
Working his way towards me through the pen,
His ashplant in one hand.

The book puts in a new perspective his large corpus of personal memory poetry, the staking out of a value system learnt in childhood and put to the test by extreme circumstance. Memory poems fill Heaney’s space, have done from the start, normally less autobiographical excursions than attempts at moments of presence, of meaning drawn back from chaos through the existence of others, family, friends, even strangers and as in this case, his parents. At the end of the poem his father is called away by voices
So that his eyes leave mine and I know
The pain of loss before I know the term.

Even the use of the little word ‘term’ discloses Heaney’s mastery. ‘Term’ in the sense of the “the meaning of the word”, but also the term of his father’s life, and his own life. At times, the brilliant and meticulous measure of his lines sound like the last word in Johnsonian impeccability.

Like Les Murray, the most well-known living poet in Australia, Heaney writes a largely rural poetry that is bought by a largely city readership. Both employ versions of pastoral as the basic lay of the land for exploring other ideas and emotions. Heaney is not antipathetic to the urban, unlike Murray who makes a show of his antagonism toward city life and city dwellers, but at times I wonder if part of the attraction of these poets is how they satisfy the romantic desire for a nostalgia world they rarely experienced, or don’t know at all. Heaney’s poetry often depicts a safer Ireland of childhood and youth, pre-bookish, pre-academic, and significantly, pre-Troubles. In an interview in The Irish Times Heaney even points to a state of being that brought this poetry about. “I think that post-1994, post the cessation of violence, the cessations, something changed in me, something changed in everybody. Things were restored to a more equable condition. Actually, I realised how deprived we had been really for 25 years,” and later he continues, “... in the 1970s and 1980s, the inner being of anybody conscious and answerable on the island was cornered in a different way than now. The spirit is in a different posture, and now it’s opener, it’s less battened down, less huddled.”

One other theme that Heaney readers are more conscious of with each passing year is summarised in the words of Colum Cille:

Derry I cherish ever.
It is calm, it is clear.
Crowds of white angels on their rounds
At every corner.

These are the words of self-imposed exile, of someone looking back at a world that is all his, but cannot be anymore. Heaney’s residence in the Republic now takes up a fair proportion of his life and with it a body of work seeking meaning in a place, the North, upon which he may meditate at length. Whether in the icon of his childhood or the still unresolved later traumas of the conflicts in that place, Seamus Heaney produces a poetry prepared to enable catharsis.

-- Tin Tean, 2011.

From Toorak through Fitzroy

Here is a poetry of hard lessons, a beating out of tough facts into sayings that are smooth as he can make them. Shelton Lea wants to fix it in the least words. This last collection before Lea’s death this year (Nebuchadnezzar, Melbourne, Black Pepper, 2005) contains poetry of mature control. Within the personal world of his own experience and its geographic confines (“where distances cannot be described by maps”), Lea does what he does best: talks out his bravado, his passions, his temperaments, his dreams and his griefs.

The moods and status of an adopted child troubled Shelton Lea:

it wasn’t that i was different to them.
they were different to me.
that ache, that longing in me
was as certain as the sky.

(‘to lael’)

His poetry dramatises the quandary of identity, sometimes defiantly, sometimes softly. He is someone at odds with those around him, waking each morning to “wonder at the source of self.” Perhaps it explains his praise of other heroic loners like Barrett Reid and Adrian Rawlins, his attraction to groups of fringe dwellers. And in ‘my unknown father’ the unbearable tear between longing (“i had dreamed that i had actually touched / my unknown father’s shoulder”) and pathos (“yet we have never met. / i turned to leave the room”) shows up again and again in other relationships.

Between the lines of this poetry we see an aging man who believes that kicking against the pricks is still worth the bloody effort. Shelton Lea was always one of the main subjects of his own poetry. When a collection suddenly turns posthumous (he died on the evening of the launch of this very book), we see the choices the poet made with a stark focus,

from toorak through fitzroy;
from reform schools through jails;
from deserts to seas.


He knows politics, social inequity and the clash of wills. Yet his poetry is leavened by camaraderie, a shared suffering and a shared survival. He talks to his kind, be they Aborigines, drug-takers, boozers, jailbirds, or fellow authors. Many poems speak directly to ‘bra’, the brother who, though an outsider to society, is an insider to the Australian society of this writing and its memory. He shouts:

you don’t hurt me none bra
for the wind is different here in fitzroy.
it is our land won by fists and diatribe
where we can stalk the remnants of the sense of tribe,
where within ourselves we count.


When the voice gets aggressive or surges into violence, the perspective inevitably turns also from the subject to Lea himself. The connection between lowlife behaviour and stints behind bars cannot be lost on the reader. He is a marijuana-smoking Villon, too ready it seems to up the tension or find a fight. A challenge for any of us is judging when he is aggressor and when the threatened. When is he the criminal and when is he the victim? Lea’s personal voice will brag or swagger, then switch to threat or attack in a moment. His wistful moments sometimes come as a relief, like coming down after a high, or recovering from a punch-up. Then his lyrical talent serves as antidote, as in this subtly ironic portrait, ‘clifton hill’:

the paradigm of early afternoons
filled with birdsong
fishgurgle through still ponds.
spiders and their webs describe the sky in perfect mathematics
the parabolic curve of nits and gnats.
the Clifton hill train sound slap
is sea sound;
the regular fatwah, fatwah
of wheels over sleepers.

This possessive, intense connection with place is expressed in a language of hardship tinged with sentiment. In Oxford Street “buses collide with the air.” Melbourne is “all that grey skyline / below the liveried clouds.” Sitting in Barwon Jail he sees

looming in the background
the you yangs
a sullen frown

When the locations for his poems are not breakfast tables or hotel bars, Lea is usually found in the streets or out in the bush somewhere. Polite and proper locations are absent; there is no scent of the salon or the seminar room.

We did not hear everything we could have from Shelton Lea. Perhaps that’s true of all poets, but in this collection we notice attempts at reconciliation and personal resolve that are a change in his personal trip. The book is even given the dry dedication:

for Leith
who head-butted my shattered heart
back into shape.

And one measure of the man can be seen in ‘poem from an adoptee’ in which he goes from addressing his Mum, “last time i saw you / i glanced at your flatulent arse,” only, by the end of the same poem, lauding her:

for i have lain betwixt your legs once
as warm and wonderful as a pet bear,
and yea i yearn for the knowing of you
because you are never there.
and yea i bless you for my life.

One of Lea’s great strengths as a poet is his unremitting honouring, like John Forbes and others of his peers, of the permanent lower-case. This well-nigh universal practice was anything but when he started his apprenticeship; out of non-capital poetry he has gained huge returns in terms of a natural voice, the true language of the streets, a spacious accommodation for listeners.

Other strengths that come especially to the fore in this late book are heartfelt recollections of the Heide art scene, Kings Cross in the 1960s, and the lifestyle of the young and stoned. He has perfected the art of line reduction. Experiment is not his scene. He has trusted to the end his brand of common voice, a combination of the vernacular and the well-earnt truism.

At the same time there are certainly weaknesses in some of these poems. For me a particular temptation is his sentimentalism, as distinct from sentiment. Lea can accidentally devalue the beauty or effect, even the meaning, of a poem by trying too hard for the lachrymose, or the merely flowery, effect. I won’t trouble you with examples, suffice to say there are lapses. The other problematic weakness here is that
some of the works do not translate from their performance roots onto the page; they may only mean something to those who were there at the time.

One of my favourite poems in Nebuchadnezzar is ‘it can only be once’, an expression of acceptance about loss and death that is a fitting way to close. It opens:

it can only be once
in your life
that you take the orange train

The classical weight of these words holds the attention. The orange train is life’s passage, but also the transport of your death and my death. The poet knows enough though to add that “we never travel alone”, a consoling thought when we find out that

there is always baggage that is blues
and the stops
which are stops.
you lug your life up
and down
so many steps that you are fatigued

The poem plays out a series of hard facts, of brutal realities, then softens them with a kind of stoical happiness, made most agreeable in the beautiful lines

yet your steps quell the shadows
on behalf of themselves

This could be enough, self in equilibrium. Acceptance rather than resignation should be a decent end in itself. However the poet then expands the witness of his own life by exclaiming “the dream is an absolute”, then concludes with an unexpected analogy of that absolute:

like dancing in the meadows
with tough bright girls
whose dresses swirl
with their fingertips’ turn.

The poem displays many of the excellent qualities of Lea’s best poetry. There is an ordering of the pragmatic and the emotional into a coherent narrative. His love of the well-placed saying is matched perfectly by his delight in the personalised image. He lets his positive motives win out over his warring negative tendencies. His favourite free verse form gives Lea the freedom to put all these factors together, where they hold together under their combined strain.

-- Blue Dog, 2005