Sunday, January 24, 2010

Seamus Heaney, again...

This is another favorite of mine, Gentle Reader, by our incomparable Irish friend.


I can feel the tug
of the halter at the nape
of her neck, the wind
on her naked front.

It blows her nipples
to amber beads,
it shakes the frail rigging
of her ribs.

I can see her drowned
body in the bog,
the weighing stone,
the floating rods and boughs.

Under which at first
she was a barked sapling
that is dug up
oak-bone, brain-firkin:

her shaved head
like a stubble of black corn,
her blindfold a soiled bandage,
her noose a ring

to store
the memories of love.
Little adulteress,
before they punished you

you were flaxen-haired,
undernourished, and your
tar-black face was beautiful.
My poor scapegoat,

I almost love you
but would have cast, I know,
the stones of silence.
I am the artful voyeur

of your brain's exposed
and darkened combs,
your muscles' webbing
and all your numbered bones:

I who have stood dumb
when your betraying sisters,
cauled in tar,
wept by the railings,

who would connive
in civilized outrage
yet understand the exact
and tribal, intimate revenge.

This piece, like many of Heaney's poems from this period, draws on the bog, both for material and metaphor. The body of his "little adulteress" was pulled from the peat bed in 1951. The author's musing on the details of her body and her history leads him to dredge up memories from the swamp of his own experience of Ireland's conflict with Great(er) Britain.

In the first stanza he begins by reliving part of the young woman's execution. Significantly, he is not a simple observer––this is first-person experience: "I can feel the tug of the halter..." His language is highly intimate, erotic even, as he segues to an exterior perspective. From "the nape of her neck" he moves to "her naked front," then with greater detail to "her nipples." He begins to use seafaring jargon, referring to the "frail rigging of her ribs." The third stanza moves into the present––she is a corpse now––but continues to echo the sailing imagery with an anchor ("weighing stone") and buoyant "rods and boughs."

The fourth stanza begins to be less personal. The victim is viewed as organic material, a "sapling." Time spent under ground has turned her bones to "oak" and her skull into a "brain-firkin" (a kind of small barrel). Shaved hair has become the stubble of a harvested field. Heaney continues to use enjambment, creating a rhythmic awkwardness to match his discomfort with coming subject matter. Simultaneously, we see a kind of enjambment of imagery––consider the "rods and boughs" that are part of both the sailing metaphor and the notion of her having bones of "oak." The "stubble or corn" comes from the world of agriculture, and colors our understanding of "her noose" (earlier called a "halter") as a "ring," perhaps like the ring in the nose of an animal. The next stanza then changes the meaning of this "ring"; it stores "memories of love," like a wedding ring, but the next line––referring to her as a "little adulteress"––reveals that the "love" was illicit.

Heaney's words become yet more sympathetic, describing her as "beautiful" and "undernourished"; a "poor scapegoat"––for where is the man who shared in her sin? And now we begin to see the author's own sin, we become privy to an equally intimate "moral nudity." (Does he hope we will see his soul with the same understanding and kindness with which he has viewed her body?) His understanding has enabled him to "almost love" her, yet he confesses that he would have acceded to her death, at least by the consent of "silence." (The notion of casting "stones" here is ambiguous: is this a reference to death by lapidation, or are these light and dark stones cast as votes?) The author describes himself in terms yet more damning: he is a "voyeur." His consideration of her is not unsullied by personal interest; she is material for him to craft. Yet he sees her in ways more intimate even than her lover, who never viewed the honeycomb of her exposed brain, her "muscles' webbing," or––a beautiful line––"all [her] numbered bones."

He then shows us that his hypothetical assent to her death was not mere sentiment, because he has already committed an equivalent sin of omission. When Irish women were punished by being shorn and smeared with tar, then handcuffed in public––their own adultery was political: having relationships with British enemies of Irish independence––he too "stood dumb." His disapproval is weakened by being alloyed with insincerity. Yes, he would later speak of his "outrage," but this was "conniv[ing]," a nod to the "civilized" establishment. (Is this poem itself an example of that disingenuous impulse? After all what could be more "civilized" than turning his condemnation into literature?) Bone deep, he understands (and therefore––to some degree––sympathizes) with this "tribal, intimate revenge." He is a collaborateur, yet who among us could say different?

[Note: the body pictured above is not the body described in this poem. (You might have noticed that the head isn't shaved; besides which, the body in the image is male.) Unfortunately, there are no pictures available of the "little adulteress." For those who are interested, Heaney did write a different poem about the body in the photo: see here.]

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