A sequence in memory of Czeslaw Milosz using a title that opens a variety of connotations: no longer alive; excellent, top-rate; extraordinary. Each poem in the sequence talks of issues and experiences that in one sense or another are ‘not of this world’.
Ultimately the sequence is about ‘meaning’.
- ‘Like everybody else …’
The poem suggests that the legacy of religious conditioning never really goes away.
The speaker confesses that his Catholic observance, as one of millions, has been (deliberately using the past tense) a submissive, unquestioned practice: Like everybody else, I bowed my head to participate in the symbolic consecration of the bread and wine before looking up to the raised host and raised chalice ‘transformed’ into the body and blood of Christ. He did not question Transubstantiation; indeed he accepted without question that a change occurred. He has however come to question the meaning of ‘belief’ (whatever it means)..
He took Communion as a matter of course, received the mystery on my tongue; he went dutifully and piously through the act of thanksgiving as a devotion that permitted fresh start.
There was never a battle between Heaney’s ‘head’ and his faith. Something fundamental has happened but how and when is not clear: There was never a scene/ When I had it out with myself or with another. In theatrical terms the loss occurred off-stage but is an acknowledgement that it has left a gap.
For whatever reason, Heaney suggests, conditioning as a youngster has left an indelible mark on him: And yet I cannot disavow. Words and symbols such as ‘thanksgiving’ or ‘host’ or ‘communion bread’ make themselves constantly felt like thirst: an undying/ tremor and draw, like well water far down.
- Sonnet form in 3 sections; break after 8; no rhyme scheme; lines based around 12 syllables;
- the whole poem pitched as a quotation;
- assonant chains: [ai] Like/ I/ wine/ eyes/ made later myself/ I/ undying; [ei] raised/ raised change/ rails/ place; combination of assonant [ɒ] and alliterative velar plosive [k]: loss occurred off-stage/ I cannot; [e] felt/ There was never/ when/ bread/ tremor combining with bilabial continuant consonant [w]: draw like well-water; [au] initial bowed later echo out/ disavow/ down;
- punctuation reflects the series of devotional stages;
2. Brancardier (Fr. ‘stretcher-bearer’)
When Heaney was 17, he and a cousin were sent on a pilgrimage by a Catholic aunt. He recounts the experience matter-of-factly, if not without a touch of the irreverence and that youth and new-found freedom can generate.
A journey by train, from Ulster to the shrine of St Bernadette in Lourdes via Paris: You’re off, a pilgrim, in the age of steam. The heady combination of religion, adventure and freedom brings out a humorous but sacrilegious aside (picked up from somewhere or other) on behalf of the Blessed M. M. Alacoque,/ That she be canonised; the aunt would have been dismayed by the allusion to an imagined female Catholic cleric! Her name is at best obscure, perhaps remembered from some irreverent children’s rhyme containing an allusion to boiled eggs (in French oeuf à la coque).
A stop-over in Paris and then onwards.
Being in France tests your learning; it might also reveal a pledge of sobriety engineered by his Catholic aunt Sarah: pas de vin, merci … du thé. You will get what you asked for: the waiter will take you at your word.
Memories of where he stayed on his pilgrimage have faded (Hôtel de quoi in Rue de quoi?) but not his job as a ‘brancardier’ or his functions and uniform with coloured bandolier.
Heaney notes how lacking in warmth the surroundings and the treatment of the sick were: on stretcher in precincts of the shrine/ Or on bleak concrete to await their bath, an immersion in chilly but consecrated spa-water!
Do we sense an early symptom of doubt: the concept of miraculous recovery seems more a matter of faith than a reality, even mildly absurd: the word ‘cure’ hangs on the air/ Like crutches hung up near the grotto altar./ And always prayers out loud or under breath.
The queuing Catholics are from all over: Belgian miners with tools of the trade: brass lamps; Catholic brotherhoods in full regalia: Sodalities with sashes, poles and pennants; the use of metonymy to identify the Spanish: Mantillas. All of them are rosary-bearing people in the bosom of the Church sending the Latin unam sanctam catholicam acoustic echoing through that underground basilica.
The young man discovered a credibility gap between his spiritual expectations (not what was meant to be) and the basilica’s appearance: The concrete reinforcement of the Mystic/ al Body. Yet he acknowledges Lourdes as a focal point: the Eleusis of its age, a magnet for millions of Faithful around the Catholic world akin to Eleusis in Ancient Greece that attracted the followers of pagan goddesses Demeter and Persephone, Antique equivalents of St Bernadette.
He recalls the modest if not risible mementoes of his visit: a container of Lourdes water On a shoulder-strap (très chic) to show, rather flippantly, to his priest; an incongruous globe for someone’s mantelpiece with snowflakes falling like white angel feathers around the main iconic figurines; finally, for his CV (for stretcher-bearing work!), a certificate. He makes no mention of spiritual gain.
- 8 quatrains; rhyme scheme abba cddc sometimes tight, sometimes loose; lines based on 10 syllables; italics used to pick out non-English phrases;
- Sound effects in (1): assonant [i:] brancardier/ steam/ Loaghaire/she; [ɪ] pilgrim in; the locomotion are accompanied by a series of percussive [d] sounds; [æ] Alacoque That;
- In (2) alveolar [l] Lourdes/ learning/ learning; assonant [i:] Paris(ee)/ merci/ oui;
- In (3) repeated gone; French endings dental ‘y’ [j] and [ei] brancardier/ bandolier/ (lyay);chain of velar plosive [k]: quoi/ quoi/ brancardier/ coloured; alveolar [l]: lift and lay; sibilant variations: sick/ stretchers/ precincts/ shrine;
- Varied [a] sounds: await/ bath/ And always/ hangs/; pairs:[eə] air/ prayers; [i:] bleak/ near; chains: [ʌ] crutches hung up/ under; plosive [k] bleak concrete/ cure/ crutches;
- [i:] sounds in (5): dungarees/ carrying; Sodalities/ rosaries; alliterative pairings: miners/ March; Sodalities/ sashes; poles and pennants;
- In (6) the Latin accusative feminine endingsunam sanctam catholicam make for a true assonant acoustic; near assonance of meant [e] reinforcement [ə]; chain of alliterative [k] sanctam Catholicam acoustic/ concrete; in (7) variable ‘ou’ sounds: Eleusis [u]; brought [ɔː]; shoulder [əʊ]; Lourdes[ʊə]; alliterative sibilant [s] with alveolar [t]: plastic/ shoulder strap (très chic)/ Lourdes water; assonant [əʊ] dome/ englobed;
- In (7) alliterative labio-dental fricative [v]: Of the Virgin above and bi labial plosive barefoot Bernadette; assonant [əʊ] snow/ grotto; [ai] like white; [ɪ] Virgin/ it/ liquid/ certificate; [e] feathers/ stretcher-bearing;
- certificate; a very ordinary qualification granted emphatic status;
3. Saw Music
The poem compares spiritual and non-spiritual expression; the epilogue returns to Milosz and his view of comparative ‘worth’: recognising it, expressing it, having faith in it.
Its epigraph of an antiphonal response introduces a poem that explores two particular forms of expression that are somehow ‘out-of-this-world’. The renunciation contained in the Church-service cue and response: Do you renounce the world? I do can imply, as in this piece, faith in otherworldly qualities.
Heaney recalls the moment artist Barrie Cooke started painting religious pictures entitled godbeams. Heaney takes on the challenge of transposing abstract visual images into words.
Cooke’s beam-like Vents of brightness represent the light of heaven: as stretched sheets of fluted silk (luxury) or rayon (more commonplace). / In an old-style draper’s window; the addition of an interlace of shape, texture and see-through is reflected in Heaney’s choice of the language of weaving, painting and architecture: Airslides, scrims/ And scumble. Columnar sift.
The palette upon which the liquid colours are mixed is a mess, ever sludge and smudge like puddles on the spirit’s winnowing floor (upon which the spiritual mind seeks to separate the grain from chaff, the valuable from the dross).
The water imagery acts as a link in time and place: the speaker has seen such ‘puddles’ before: a wet night/ In Belfast around Christmas. He recounts the story of the man/ Who played the saw inside the puddled doorway and the technique and accessories required by a busker to produce a range of sounds from a saw Pressed light or heavy as the tune required.
The textures of saw music are picked out onomatopoeically: Flop-wobble grace notes or high banshee whine.
The ‘musician’ is a beggar in the rain, seeking people’s generous donations at a time of Goodwill to Men. The light reflecting on the coins reflects Man’s meagre response! Yet, with the gentleness of a lover, he continues lovingly to coax meaning from a potentially vicious carpentry tool that his bow caressed and crossed/ Back across unharmed.
A quote from Milosz clarifies the direction Heaney’s poem has taken: in his personal league-table of worth, Milosz would have dismissed Barrie Cooke’s oil-painting for all its spiritual aspiration as Daubs fixed on canvas/ a paltry thing compared with the out of this world sound from the saw that cries out to be expressed.
Milosz (born Lithuanian hence Vilnius; he died in 2004) lies this god-beamed day/ Coffined in Krakow (Heaney attended his funeral) in his adoptive Poland (hence Warsaw). To Heaney’s mind Milosz would have regarded the down-at-heel musician as an undeterred ‘messenger’ and would not have renounced the untranscendent music of the saw calling out to the universe on that rainy Belfast evening, however paltry.
- Dennis O’Driscoll’s Stepping Stones (p. 485) provides a thumb-nail of Barrie Cooke: his connections with Heaney whose portrait he has painted and whose work he has illustrated; his ‘godbeam’ paintings; also Milosz )p.495;
- In Human Chain, Hermit Songs, IX Heaney celebrates two of his ‘Greats’ the first Czeslaw Milosz (1911-2004. The final sentence of Milosz’s poem, ‘Meaning’ (Collected Works, p.569) hints at an interpretation of Saw Music:
there will remain/ A word wakened by lips that perish,/ A tireless messenger who runs
and runs/ Through interstellar fields, through the revolving galaxies,/ And calls out,.
- The sounds produced when a saw is played with a violin bow have an undeniably ethereal quality unlike any other ‘instrument’.
- medieval religious Art introduced rays, aureoles and even golden circles to identify the central figures;
- seven 4-line stanzas plus a single line that sums up ‘worth’ ; no rhyme scheme; lines based around 10 syllables;
- the dominant assonant effect is [ai] echoing the key-word cries: more than 15 examples between brightness (line 2) and might in the penultimate line; (1) also uses [ei] paint/ rayon/ draper’s [e] begun/ vents/ heaven/ stretched; [i:] beams/ sheets; alliterative chains are mainly sibilant [s]: brightness/ stretched sheets/ silk/ style draper’s/ Airslides/ scrims And scumble/ sift overlapping into 2; the sibilant link continues, interweaving assonant [ʌ] sludge and smudge/ shower/ puddles and adding to the [ɪ] chain of scrims/ sift with spirit’s winnowing;
- 7 enjambed lines carry the narrative from (2) into (3) with similar weave of alliterative and assonant effects of [ɪ] Christmas/ inside/ in /display/ tinselled/ blinking; sibilants Belfast/ Christmas/ inside/ shop/ display Of tinselled stuffs and sleigh bells;
- (5) offers the onomatopoeic [ɒ] of Flop- wobble and [i:] link from (4: )steel/ Vaselined/ banshee: consonant alveolar plosives [t] and [d are frequent in both (4) and (5);
- stanza 6 features the echo of [i:] greased teeth alongside sibilant[s] and [k] caresses/ crossed/ across; canvas/ cries/ expressed and assonant [ʊə] daubs/ paltry;
- the final 5 lines introduce assonant [au] out/ renounced, however peppered with consonant [v] and [w] sounds;
- Vaseline: a multi-purpose petroleum jelly used as a lubricant (as here) or dry-skin cream;
Background to the sequence:
- The sequence confirms Heaney’s admiration of Milosz, an Eastern European poet (1911-2004), Polish speaking, of Lithuanian origin, who lived through successive periods of political turbulence from the Russian Revolution onwards and via Communism, Nazism, The Cold War and Iron Curtain to Polish Independence from the Russian Federation. He was Nobel Prize-Winner for Literature in 1980, twenty years after moving to the USA where he was at once diplomat, scholar, translator and professor at Berkeley University. His poetry, mainly in Polish, was banned in Poland until after 1980.
- Many factors chime with Heaney’s experiences in Ulster. In an interview Heaney referred to him as ‘my hero’ and nominated him as ‘The Giant at my Shoulder’ for an Irish radio series in 1999.