for Eamon Grennan
Godi. Fanciullo mio, stato soave, Stagion lieta è cotesta.
The epigraph is from Leopardi’s ‘II Sabato del Villaggio’ (‘Saturday in the Village’): ‘Enjoy the sweet hour, my child, in this pleasant and delightful season’.
Heaney spent countless hours behind the wheel of his car drinking in the surroundings. The sight and sounds of something that carried poetic charge might bring his journey to a temporary halt.
Ballynahinch Lake is much more, however, than the richly textured description of water-birds taking to the air within an idyllic frame – it dips into the private subtleties of husband-wife relationship … of things said and unsaid … routines that may not always suit both parties. By poem’s end one wonders whether the epigraph is a carpe diem exhortation to his wife to cheer up or Heaney’s acknowledgement that on occasion he might be a bit of a pain.
The wife who is chauffeuring Heaney has deferred to his bidding (so we stopped and parked); as a result he may concentrate wholly on what he sees and feels while she sits and waits.
The concurrence of clarity (spring-cleaning light), place and time lends itself perfectly to the poet’s observation, not least the sustained (held), out-reaching (opened) luminosity (captivating brightness) that created a perfect setting (utter mountain mirrored in the lake), irrepressible to their senses (entered us) and tailor-made for ‘their’ tastes (wedge knocked sweetly home Into core timber).
Within sight (not too far away) but not in earshot (far enough … not to carry) a scuffle and fuss – a pair of waterbirds wing-slapping onto water (splashed up and down) without let-up (on and on).
The muscular contortions (strong white flex) that mystified the watcher – was this mating behaviour (excitement) or death-agony (throes) – translate into the thrust required for lift-off … wings at full power (big sure sweeps) seeking to overcome the downward pull of gravity (dips).
These were no insubstantial creatures in death-transit (rafter- skimming souls) to some Nordic mythological elsewhere (in and out of the house of life), rather solid power-packs (air-heavers … far heavier than the air) in take-off mode.
Heaney suddenly senses that the impact of the sight might not have been equally appreciated (something in us had unhoused itself). He has not consulted Marie as to how the scene affected her.
He is watching her intently – something is distracting her (car key only half-turned); she aims her voice directly to the windscreen, avoids eye-to-eye contact (in profile) and measures her words (in thought).
Her reply when it comes relates to this latest one-of-many such stops (this time) and seems equivocal (yes … useful to stop)!
That said she prepares to get on on with the job (inclined her driver’s brow). Heaney’s last poet’s-eye memory is of her bodily tremor as the engine fired (shook a little).
The inter-reaction in this poem between water-birds and their environment has already captured Heaney’s attention in Postscript of The Spirit Level (1996).
- Ballynahinch: freshwater lake in the west of Ireland located in the Connemara area of County Galway;
- Eamon Grennan Irish poet born 1941 in Dublin but living largely in the United States; student at both Harvard (1973) and University College, Dublin;
- spring clean: a thorough cleaning that takes place once winter has gone;
- captivate: charm, attract and hold the interest;
- utter: complete, consummate;
- enter: move in, make an impact and leave a mark;
- wedge: tapered timber block used in construction and carpentryfor centuries; simple but versatile – useful to adjust levels, space items, apply leverage, fill holes
- core: of solid structure;
- rumpus: scuffle, fuss;
- waterbirds: birds that rest, wade in fresh water;
- flex: muscular, biomechanical contraction;
- lift off: steep launch;
- sweep: pulling action;
- dip: downturn of undulating flight;
- rafter: internal beam supporting roof;
- skim: fly close to;
- souls: spirit of a dead person;
- translate: proceed from one place to another;
- house-of-life: what precedes the transition from life to death in Norse mythology
- heave: haul (something weighty)
- unhouse: deprive of protective shelter
- bend: incline the body:
- key: ignition-key to start the engine;
- in profile: seen from the side;
- at arms’ length: avoiding close contact;
- brow: forehead
- ignition: starting the motor:
- fire: spring to life;
- 3-verse structure; the first in one sentence, totally enjambed, describes the perfection of the lake’s setting; line length 10 -12 syllables (includes a half line); verse heavy in nasal [m] [n] alliterative effects; [w] ‘wedge…sweetly’;
- unrhymed except for an assonant echo: ‘opened…home’;
- compound for neat grouping of ideas: ‘spring-cleaned’, both its thoroughness and post-winter timing;
- ‘enter’: Heaney uses it here and elsewhere to indicate the strength of poetic charge;
- carpentry metaphor seeks to explain how something new impacts on what was there before and somehow completes the picture;
- verse 2 zooms in on waterbirds visually; vocabulary of movement initially in water translated into flight;
- 2 sentences , the second, hyphenated to separate real-life bird movement from the transmigration of the soul notions of Nordic saga built into the compound ‘rafter-skimming’;
- caldic-style kenning ‘house of life totally enjambed; syllable count 10-12
- accretion of prepositions and adverbs ‘up and down and on and on’;
- richness of alliterative effects: bilabial plosives [p] [b]’rumpus…pair…birds…splashed…up’; sibilant ‘skimming souls translating…house’; aspirant ‘house…heavers…heavier’;
- and assonant effects: ‘enough…rumpus…up’/ ‘on…on…strong’/ ‘lift…big…dips’;
- unrhymed but assonant end-of-line echoes: ‘throes…souls’;
- verse 3 moves to the poet’s consideration of his wife’s feelings;
- single, totally enjambed sentence of 10-12 syllable lines
- assonances: ‘something…us unhoused’/ ‘key…screen…wheel/ ‘directly…profile…time…inclined…driver…fired’;
- unrhymed with end-of-line echoes: ’screen…deed’/ ‘bent…length’;
- 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: fourteen 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;
- syllables without highlight are largely the unstressed sound as in common, little [ə]
- 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;
- a full breakdown of consonant sounds and where in the mouth they are formed is to be found in the Afterthoughts section;