3 prose-poems celebrate places, people and routine events of school-aged boyhood. Freedom from the particular demands poetry imposes of its creator leaves us with a sense of Heaney-unplugged speaking from the heart.
- The Lagans Road
Heaney walks the iconic road already featured in the Edward Thomas poem towards to a rite of passage – his first day at Primary School – destined to open up a host of new experiences and sense data and set him on the road ultimately to successful independence.
Heaney is an excellent landscape-painter in words, providing detail that both he and the attentive reader can envision: the physical road, the characteristically poorly maintained, infrequently used country road; the bog-side situation and its flora … in sum a wilderness crossing between human settlements, between the old and the new, the past and the future, that Heaney came to experience daily on the journey to and from Primary school.
His very first experience is still fairy-story: his schoolgirl-chaperone (as if the queen of elfland ( ) leading me away from family and familiar settings) is neighbourly flesh and blood: Philomena McNicholll, to the casual observer an ordinary face in a school photograph (ginger hair, freckled face, green gymfrock) but to boy of five a creature of mystery (a fey if ever there was one).
His first impressions are of wartime-style buildings (a couple of low-set Nissen huts) like animals with protective armour( corrugated backs) and the hot-spot of herd-life noise and activity surrounding them.
Reflecting on it years later Heaney makes a link with a legend from US first nations’ folklore that described life as an irreversible path followed by the Indians of the Pacific Northwest on the road to the land of the dead. Faced with an inevitable time-line and, like the starter-Heaney, feeling at the same time lost and homesick, they were stoical about the visual evidence left by those who preceded them and the sounds of life and activity that went with it.
The schoolboy’s-own adventure starts: the going-in … the coathooks (on different levels for children of different heights) … the strange room in which he is registered impersonally for the first time (new in the rollbook) … a new identity soon to introduced to the whole school (soon be called).
Heaney understands he has passed a point of no return.
- wilderness: region with no sign of habitation;
- wetlands: peat rich areas surrounding Heaney’s Mossbawn home;
- fey: mysterious fairy-tale persona;
- whilst the creation of well-turned sentences in prose may have freed him from the strictures of poetic composition Heaney ensures that his talent with words and sounds is ever present;
- Heaney intuitively senses the moment for assonant and alliterative effects: description of the road’s surroundings: grass verges/ high hedges; marsh rushes/ little shrubs and birch trees; Phgilomena: Ginger hair, freckled face, green gymfrock – a fey; Indian folk-lore: cast-offs scattered; the classroom: place/ strange/ names.
2. Tall Dames
Heaney’s ‘Notes and Acknowledgements’ indicate that Tall Dames‘ is adapted from A Gate Left Open , a programme note for the Dublin performance of Janáček’s Diary of One who Vanishes’ (October 1999). He will apply the title to the air of atmospheric mystery generated by his ‘Tall Dames’.
In this second ‘found’ prose piece Heaney picks out wandering groups of people who drifted in and out of his mid-Ulster neighbourhood, focussing here on the women-folk who left a far greater mark on him than the scruffier, smellier, barely articulate tinker menfolk.
Distance has lent him a greater understanding of vagrant groups once commonly labelled as ‘gypsies’ by him and his youngster pals
He acknowledges now that ‘gypsy’ applied to the entertainers forming part of the travelling circus scene; women who, pre-pubescent male though he was, seemed to be offering him some vague thrill of physical pleasure (they inhabited the land of eros) – not least the fortune teller, swathed in her silks and beads who beckoned seductively from the door of her caravan when the youngsters turned up to watch. Who could tell what might happen behind that door into the dark!
A separate breed, equally labelled ‘gypsy’, was anything but – instead they formed a proud and dignified grouping inhabiting the Irish landscape with an updated designation (travellers), a collective name (tinker) that concealed a worthy (honourable) array of trades and skills: fashioners of metal (tin smiths, white smiths), carers of their livestock (pony-keepers), peddlers around the neighbourhood (regulars on the doorstep) who set up temporary camp wherever they pleased (squatters on the long acre).
Heaney depicts the poise, dignity and artfulness of the ‘tall dames’ – magical (marvellous), down to earth (upfront), conspicuous by their dress (big tartan patterns), not in the least bit titillating (unerotic woollen shawls), expert in the art of presentation (baskets full of dyed wooden flowers) and wheedling (cadenced) sales patter (beg and keep begging) aimed at relieving the locals of their money with the same determination as the Catholic Church (with all the stamina of a cantor).
These were earth mothers (children on their arms or at their heels), noble savages (squaws of the ditchback) making their way through the ‘grass-green’ Ulster landscape like creatures of Irish poetic legend (in step with Yeats’s ‘tall dames’ of Avalon).
To boy-Heaney their reality (broad daylight… usual business) might have come from a school book (out of story time).
The tinker men were non-threatening, tied up with their daily duties and exuding encampment smells (woodsmoke) as they searched for lost horses (bit of a halter).
Boy-Heaney on his way to school noted the calm of their settlement (low tarpaulin tent) the hiss of their campfire (green wood … spitting) the stereotypical outdoor tinker ‘kitchen’ (a pot slung from a tripod).
In retrospect he weighs up what they brought: colourful visitations that lit up his childhood; furtherance (an extraness in the air); a portal into a parallel universe (gate … left open in the usual life); an otherworldly promise of the unexpected (something might get in or get out).
- gypsy, traveller: itinerant people described in the passage;
- eros: whether used to add connotations of sexuality in the cupid sense, or more complicated psychological theory is unclear; Heaney sensed a kind of otherworldliness, outside the narrow predictability of the neighbourhood in which he lived as a youngster;
- fortune-teller: person claiming to predict the future using a crystal ball and in return for money;
- swathed: wrapped in several layers;
- incline: bow slightly;
- tin-smith, white-smith, tinker alternative names for itinerants who fashioned items from tin or other light metal to eke out a living
- squatter: who occupies land without seeking permission;
- long acre: fields in farming communities were often known by their pre-metric sizes;
- marvellous: splendid, awesome, the stuff of marvels;
- upfront: leading figure
- shawl: woollen garment thrown over head and shoulders
- tartan: woollen fabric woven with colourful check designs;
- tan: yellowish-brown;
- moss: rootled plant carpeting wetlands;
- cadence: sound of the voice inflected to carry a certain meaning
- beg: ask for charity;
- cantor: church singer who offers cues to the congregation to which they respond
- squaws: originally a North American Indian woman applied here to gypsy women who followed a similar lifestyle;
- ditchback: reference to the area alongside the streams that are plentiful in wetlands;
- Avalon: reference to the legendary island of Arthurian legend; ‘Tall dames go walking in grass-green Avalon’ from William Butler Yeats’ Statesman’s Holiday;
- storytime: periods of calm in classroom or at bedtime; also carries the sense of fictional story
- halter: scrap of rope with which to lead, tether a horse;
- tarpaulin: waterproof cloth, tarred canvas;
- pot: a rounded container used for cooking
- tripod: three legged support from which pots would hang over an open fire;
- Heaney creates phrases that supersede mere prose: ‘land of eros’, ‘glimpsed occasionally’; ‘woollen shawls, woven patterns of tan’; ‘towards you out of storytime’; ‘spitting under a pot slung from a tripod’; ‘left open in the usual life’.
- Heaney is conscious of a distinction between true gypsies, glimpsed when the circus rolled into town and exemplified by the exotic and erotic promise of the fortune teller, who were a different race, and these unerotic , but mysterious and disturbing people whom they nonetheless called gypsies as a sort of colloquial shorthand, even while knowing that’s not what they were. Hence the parade of alternative terms beginning with “travellers” Andrew Grant.
In Retrospect II of Seeing Things (1991 )Heaney and his wife Marie spent time reminiscing in the car-park below the summit of the Glenshane Pass … Heaney dubbed it ‘his Trail of Tears … on the road to boarding school’.
He attended St Columb’s College, Derry as a boarder from 1951-7. The cold weekly journey from home to school and its accompanying sense of displacement are recalled with clarity.
An inhospitable bus with no heat ferried schoolboys who shared the same fate as Heaney (PRIVATE) at a period in life distinguishable by we-all-look-the-same school-uniform (back in the days of peaked caps and braid piping … with gruff ferryman-bus-drivers as ominous ( ) as hangmen transporting hapless schoolboys to their weekly scaffold. A period when bus-conductors carried plump bags of coin and a ticket-punch a-dangle on its chain but on this occasion a driver who collected fares once the bus had its full complement of boarders.
Schoolboys in transit to a common destination had their own special with regular stops outside shop doorways or at appointed crossroads to pick up clusters of boarders carrying what they needed for the school week (suitcases).
If the journey was an ordeal for Heaney the gradient of Glenshane Pass provided a challenge both to the vehicle’s engine (the heavier she pulls) and the bus’s jolted contents.
Ripped from the bosom of his family the boy was in no real hurry to arrive anyway, happy for the driver to prolong his battle with the gear-stick, use gear changes to prevent engine and morale from stalling (let his revs and double-clutchings drag the heart), anything in fact that postponed arrival at the summit with its undersized stopping place at the frontier between the known country and the hostile lands beyond.
A moment of respite for the engine to cool; then, last hopes dashed (seems about to take us back), on again with manoeuvres that put pressure on the tyres and left spin marks on the gravel .
To a disenchanted youngster the legitimate fare-collection was akin to theft (lifting)and bus drivers received poor reviews: this one a stranger (unfamiliar) indifferent (uninvolved), tetchy (almost…angered) impacting on the schoolboys around: one by one we go farther into ourselves.
Forget Derry! Forget school! They would all have preferred to be on the return leg to Castledawson celebrating reprieve – in manic charge of the vehicle flailing downhill, larger than life and running out of control (windows all lit up, empty and faster and angrier bend after bend).
- peaked caps: dome-shaped headgear for boys in 4 or 6 triangular sections sewn together with a visor-shaped peak to shade the eyes; worn more often in grammar- and selective- schools; they would be in school colours and might bear an insignia;
- pipe-braiding: blazers were also part of the uniform; they were of the same colour and were sometimes decorated around the edges of sleeves and lapels with narrow matching ribbon;
- steps, hangmen: reference to the scaffold on which condemned prisoners were executed reflects the inner feelings of a youngster condemned to a week in school, night and day;
- plump: full and rounded;
- punch: small metal device that punches a hole;
- a-dangle: swinging loosely;
- fare: money paid for a journey;
- load: total number carried;
- cluster: close grouping;
- appointed: pre-arranged;
- the going’s good: conditions are favourable;
- change down: move from a higher into a lower gear;
- Glenshane Pass: the highest bit of road on the 37 mile route between Castledawson near where Heaney lived to Derry where St Columb’s College was situated;
- do battle: enter into a conflict, fight for domination;
- gear-stick: metal rod used to change gear;
- revs: engine revolutions;
- double-clutchings: early gear-boxes were primitive compared with the automatic versions today; gear changes then required two kicks on the clutch (the first to disconnect gear from engine, the second to engage a new gear) for each gear-change
- drag, pull heavily: going uphill, heavy transport lost speed and struggled in low revolutions. Heaney recalls the sounds and jolts that went with it.
- summit: highest point
- switch off: kill the engine;
- lock: when the steering wheel was fully engaged to the left or right;
- cut and spin: the effect of bus tyres on gravel – cut: over-steering problem; spin: traction problem, lack of grip;
- cabin: driver-only compartment;
- bang shut: slam with a sharp noise;
- lift the money: steal;
- unfamiliar: alien, a stranger;
- uninvolved: detached, disinterested;
- go into oneself: withdraw into one’s own thoughts;
- flail: wave, swing around wildly;
- empty: without passengers;
- bend: curve, twist in the road;
- prose is given poetic flavouring: plump bags of coin/ ticket-punch a-dangle on its chain; the going’s good; double-clutchings drag the heart; the labour of cut and spin; unfamiliar/ uninvolved.