A sequence in memory of Czeslaw Milosz using an adjectival title that offers a variety of suggestion: no longer alive; not of this world, somewhere else; extraordinary. Each poem in the sequence talks of issues and experiences that in one sense or another are beyond the material world.
The dedication 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 from Milosz’s life chimed 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’ in an Irish radio series in 1999.
- ‘Like everybody else …’
The poem confirms that the religious conditioning of Heaney’s childhood has never really died. Heaney confesses to his lapse but acknowledges that key words never cease to resonate deep within him.
Catholic observance, as one of millions, was a submissive, unquestioned practice. Like everybody else, I bowed my head to participate in the symbolic consecration of the bread and wine, looking heavenwards to the raised host and raised chalice transformed into the body and blood of Christ (yet still wine and bread). He did not question transubstantiation, accepted that a change occurred. His parenthesis hints however that even at that young age the seeds of doubt were already planted (whatever it means).
He attended the Eucharist as a matter of course (received the mystery on my tongue) and went dutifully and piously through the act of thanksgiving confident that previous sins had been written off.
That has changed! There was never a battle between Heaney’s reason and his faith nor at confession (a scene when I had it out with myself or with another). Fundamental, yes, but out of public view (the loss occurred off-stage).
What happened did not clear the decks completely – Heaney confesses to indelible marks, things I cannot disavow. Words and symbols, ‘thanksgiving’ or ‘host’ or ‘communion bread’ that still reverberate (undying), excite sudden, strong feeling (tremor) and apply a force (draw like well water far down).
In a poem addressed to the Polish language, his ‘faithful mother tongue’ Milosz wrote … without you, who am I?/ Only a scholar in a distant country/, a success, without fears and humiliations./ Yes, who am I without you?/ Just a philosopher, like everyone else.
- consecration: the action of declaring bread and wine to represent the body and blood of Christ
- host: consecrated bread of the Eucharist
- chalice: large cup or goblet used in the Eucharist
- mystery: ancient word for the Eucharist’ ; something rather puzzling for a youngster
- shut fast: tightly closed;
- have it out: resolve a contentious issue face-to-face;
- loss: discontinuation with or without a sense of regret;
- off-stage: in the wings, not visible to the audience
- disavow: deny, wash one’s hands of
- thanksgiving: praise, reverence;
- tremor: frisson;
- draw: pull, force that attracts;
- communion: coming-together to observe the Eucharist;
- 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;
When Heaney was 17, he and a cousin were sent on a pilgrimage by a Catholic aunt … two intelligent teenagers at large and left to their own devices. Heaney chuckles at the person he was, revealing that he did what he had to and adding the irreverence and retrospective naivety the experience threw up.
A journey by train, from Ulster to the shrine of St Bernadette in Lourdes – You’re off, a pilgrim, in the age of steam. Two ferries later, an overnight in Paris.
His aunt would have been dismayed at the sacrilegious allusion to some imagined female (!!) Catholic cleric (the Blessed M. M. Alacoque of saintly worth (that she be canonised). Who knows what spurred Heaney to invent a Catholic elder with a name like something out of a children’s story featuring boiled egg (in French oeuf à la coque)!
Then onwards to Lourdes.
An Advance-Level student of French could put his learning to active test for the first time … also, who knows, reveal a pledge of sobriety engineered by his Catholic aunt Sarah: pas de vin, merci … du thé.
The acid test of knowledge – the waiter who took you at your word would return with a pot of tea!
Memories of where he stayed have faded (Hôtel de quoi in Rue de quoi?) but not his job as a ‘brancardier’ or what identified his role (distinctive coloured bandolier).
He recalls the conveyor belt of sick on stretchers in precincts of the shrine, how lacking in warmth the surroundings were (bleak concrete) as they queued for their immersion in chilly but consecrated spa-water (their bath).
He remembers the recurrent background noise (the word ‘cure’ hangs on the air), the associated paraphernalia (crutches hung up near the grotto altar) and appeals for divine intervention (always prayers out loud or under breath). One senses that even in his late ‘teens Heaney’s rational mind judged the concept of miraculous recovery more a matter of faith than a reality.
Those present fell into international groupings: Belgian miners with tools of the trade: brass lamps; Catholic brotherhoods on parade: sodalities with sashes, poles and pennants; the use of metonymy to identify the Spanish: mantillas.
All of them, rosary-bearing people in the bosom of the Church … the vocal confirmation of their Catholic belief (unam sanctam catholicam acoustic) echoing through that underground basilica.
Heaney ponders the gap between a more solemn tradition (not gone) and the branded commodity it was turning into (not what was meant to be), between the basilica’s physical appearance and its spiritual significance: (the concrete reinforcement of the Mystical Body).
He can think of a similar focal point from ancient Greece (Eleusis of its age) a magnet for the followers of pagan goddesses Demeter and Persephone, antique equivalents, perhaps, of St Bernadette.
He chuckles at the market-driven mementoes of his visit: a container of Lourdes water on a shoulder-strap – tongue-in-cheek très chic – a mass-produced globe for someone’s mantelpiece with snowflakes falling like white angel feathers around the main iconic figurines.
Finally the proof of attendance and duty – for his CV for stretcher-bearing work, a certificate.
- Heaney revealed to DOD (47 that) he drank no alcohol until he was 21, that his aunt Sarah was secretary to the Local Pioneer Total Abstinence Society of which he was a member and that he said a pledge-prayer daily; he also noted (p.257) that French waiters mocked the constant requests for ‘teeteeteeteetee’
- brancardier: stretcher bearer;
- age of steam: when trains were drawn by steam locomotives
- Blessed: title of holiness given to senior clerics;
- proper nouns are of towns and streets in Ireland and Paris;
- Rue du Bac: Ferry Street on the left bank opposite the Louvre
- œufà la coque: boiled egg in France;
- canonize: officially declare a saint in the Catholic church;
- learning: discover whether what one has been taught actually works
- trust: have confidence in;
- take someone at their word: interpret what they say; if they have said it wrong they’ll get something different
- de quoi: whatsit, what was it
- designation: official title;
- bandolier: shoulder belt with loops and pockets
- precinct: area used for a specific use;
- shrine: holy place dedicated to sacred person or relic;
- bleak: cold, inhospitable;
- watercure: treatment using water, hydropathy;
- crutch: armpit support for lame person;
- grotto: cave-like recess;
- dungarees: garment with a bib over the chest and shoulder-straps;
- sodality: Roman Catholic brotherhood;
- sash: shoulder decoration part of a uniform;
- pole: wooden rod supporting an emblem;
- pennant: tapering flag
- mantilla: silk or lace worn over head and shoulders in Spain;
- rosary: string of beads acting as a devotional abacus;
- acoustic: to do with the balance of sound in a place;
- Mystical Body: the Catholic church
- unam sanctam etc: drawn from the Catholic Credo, statement of beliefs;
- Eleusis: Greek coastal shrine dedicated to Demeter and Persephone;
- canteen: traveller’s waterbottle;
- strap: strip leather used for carrying or securing;
- très chic: Fr. lit. very fashionable, smart
- dome: rounded roof shape on circular base;
- englobe: enclose within a globe
- barefoot: with nothing on the feet;
- snow-flake: individual piece of snow;
- certificate: document that confirms some fact;
- 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 endings unam 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;
- Saw Music
The poem features specific examples of painting and music, neither of which is quite of this world. Its epilogue turns to Milosz to whom the sequence is dedicated, reiterating his particular view that writing is superior to any other form of communication.
The voluntary renunciation of material values in preference to spiritual existence echoed in the Church-service cue and response (do you renounce the world? I do) opens the way to Heaney’s artist friend Barrie Cooke painting abstracts with religious connotations (godbeams). Heaney takes on the challenge of transposing Cooke’s visual images into words.
He observes beam-like vents of brightness deemed to represent the light of heaven with their appearance of fluted silk (a luxurious, natural product) or rayon (commonplace and man-made) as seen in an old-style draper’s window.
Cooke’s canvas presents an interplay of angled light (airslides), overlays that distort transparency (scrims) or layers that mute colours (scumble) leaving Heaney with a vague impression of something solid, even monumental (columnar sift).
The palette upon which Cooke’s liquid colours are mixed is a mess (ever sludge and smudge) like puddles on the spirit’s winnowing floor, confusing, to Heaney’s mind, when the creative mind seeks to separate what is aesthetically pleasing from dross.
The muddy wetness of Cooke’s palette takes Heaney to another place and time: a wet night in Belfast around Christmas. Heaney focuses on a busker who played the saw sheltering in the puddled doorway of a shop, a beggar in the rain, touting for donations at a time when everything around him promoted Goodwill to Men.
As he started his recital, he displayed his carefully maintained and clearly cherished ‘instrument’ and the manual dexterity (pressed light or heavy as the tune required) that produced a range of otherworldly sounds from a carpenter’s tool.
To those familiar with the sounds Heaney’s onomatopoeia describes the modulations and embellishments of the music very effectively – flop-wobble grace notes or high banshee whine.
The light reflecting on the occasional tossed coin reflected people’s meagre response to the man’s performance!
He plays on, lovingly coaxing melodies from the potentially vicious saw-blade his bow caressed and crossed, miraculously surviving the greased teeth intact (unharmed).
Milosz does not mince words, dismissing painting in a crisp rebuffal (daubs fixed on canvas), a paltry thing) in favour of those who set out their emotions in word (what cries out to be expressed).
Milosz is dead, now ‘out of this world’ (indeed Heaney attended his funeral) – his grave is to be found this god-beamed day in his adoptive Poland (coffined in Krakow).
To Heaney’s mind, Milosz would have respected (not have renounced) the ‘tireless messenger’* humbly seeking to produce saw music whatever its quality (however paltry) in his rain-swept existential world (untranscendent) on an inhospitable Belfast evening …
- saw: hand tool for cutting solid materials;
- vent: opening into ot out of a confined space:
- brightness: sine, idea of well-lit;
- stretched:, pulled to elongate;
- fluted: ridged, with folds;
- rayon: man-made fibre (resembling silk produced from silkworms)
- draper’s: shop selling textile fabrics;
- slide: smooth downward movement;
- scrim: a layer that veils what is beneath it;
- scumble: a paint layer applied to achieve a softer, duller effect;
- columnar: solid, vertical effect;
- sift: exercise that discards or retains elements of a painted object
- sludge: muddy brown/green patch;
- smudge: messy smear
- spirit: inner delf, essential being;
- winnow: refine until only the most worthwhile bits are left;
- puddle: lying water;
- tinsel: shiny foil decoration;
- stuffs: fabrics;
- sleigh: horse- / reindeer-drawn sledge;
- neon: fluorescent lighting;
- bow: horsehair device used to play a stringed instrument;
- Vaseline: petroleum jelly marketed as ointment or lubricant;
- flop wobble: in his search for an assonance Heaney goes for a sound that is limp and shaky;
- grace note: added note to embellish a musical phrase;
- Banshee: legendary Irish female spirit who wailed (whine) a warning of death in the household;
- spit: said of light rainfall;
- threadbare: tattered with age;
- gabardine: raincoat of worsted material;
- basked: lay conspicuously;
- lining: cloth covering an inside surface;
- grease: lubricate with an oily substance;
- unharmed: intact;
- daub: carelessly applied brush stroke
- paltry: of meagre, trivial quality;
- Krakow: town in Poland where Milosz spent his final years and is buried;
- Vilnius: capital of Lithuania where Milosz was born to a Polish speaking family;
- Warsaw: Milosz was a member of the Polish underground in WWII;
- untranscendent: very much of this world – reverse of transcendent: beyond the limitations of the material universe, supernatural;
- Dennis O’Driscoll’s Stepping Stones (p. 485) provides a thumb-nail of Barrie Cooke, his relationship with Heaney whose portrait he has painted and whose work he has illustrated, his ‘godbeam’ paintings; there are comments about 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 inspiration for the otherworldly qualities 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, protests, screams.
- 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;
- Heaney is a meticulous craftsman using combinations of vowel and consonant to form a poem that is something to be listened to.
- the music of the poem: fifteen assonant strands are woven into the text; Heaney places them grouped within specific areas to create internal rhymes , or reprises them at intervals or threads them through the text
- alliterative effects allow pulses or beats, soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies; this is sonic engineering of the first order;
- for example, the final five lines are rich in nasals [m] [n], alveolar plosives [t] [d] and sibilant variants [s] [z] alongside front-of-mouth sounds: labio-dental fricatives [f] [v], bilabial [p] [b], continuant [w] aspirant [h];
- a full breakdown of consonant sounds and where in the mouth they are formed is to be found in the Afterthoughts section;