The first poem of Field Work immediately distances Heaney from the rueful words of time lost and missed opportunity in Exposure the final poem of North. Heaney’s direction has changed: he has discovered the first person plural and a snatch of pleasure in the company of friends. He is not yet sure whether the line he has drawn under Northern Ireland and Belfast will hold good but the omens are favourable beyond the Province’s borders.
In the poems preceding the ‘Glanmore Sonnets’ it is worth considering how each individual lyric, elegy and meditative piece contributes to Heaney’s barely veiled relief at having severed his ties with Northern Ireland.
The title offers a vital clue to the activity in which Heaney and his friends are engaged: people (our) preparing to eat – a starter echoing the collision of solid objects (shells clacked on the plates). From collective to individual experience (my) as he pours sea juices slowly into the mouth (tongue … a filling estuary), their sparkling tang transferred to his taste-buds (palate hung with starlight) and triggering an association (salty Pleiades) with mythological make-believe (Orion dipped his foot into the water). ‘After his failure to sight the ‘lost comet’ in Exposure, one can forgive Heaney his starry ‘conceits’, his taste for ‘Orion’ and ‘the salty Pleiades‘ (MP 155)
Oysters – marine life abused for man’s delectation: creatures in prime condition (alive), ripped from their natural habitat (violated), kept in prolonged animation (on their beds of ice) – molluscs (bivalves) harvested from a womb-like domain (split bulb) the product of an abusive relationship (philandering sigh of ocean) surrendering its oysters in bulk (millions), to be dragged up (ripped), their twin shells forced apart (shucked) and sent forth into the world (scattered).
So how come he is here? On a trip to the western Irish seaboard (driven to that coast), a place of beauty (flowers) bearing the geological imprint of Co Clare or Co Kerry (limestone); a reunion (toasting friendship) sitting in the memory like the taste of fine wine (laying down a perfect memory) in a distinctive Irish dwelling (cool of thatch and crockery).
Heaney’s poetic imagination begins to perk up (I saw) – think ‘oyster’ think poetry in waiting – oysters in transit over perilous terrain (Alps) their life prolonged to preserve quality (packed deep in hay and snow) enjoyed by prosperous fine diners of two millennia before (Romans … south to Rome), a plentiful supply (damp panniers disgorge) of delights recognizable by their shell-shape (frond-lipped) and sea-sharpened piquancy (brine-stung).
The pleasures of the moment, beyond the reach of many (glut of privilege), trigger an adverse reaction (angry) that the Belfast state of mind brought insecurity (my trust could not repose) deprived him of the clear light of what matters to him (poetry … freedom) suddenly flooding back in this west coast setting (leaning in from sea).
Carpe diem he told himself – savour the moment (I ate the day deliberately), renew your faith in something unmistakably local and Irish (tang) – invest your sense of rehabilitation beyond doubt (quicken me all) in new poetic output (verb, pure verb).
- oyster: bivalve mollusc within a rough irregular shell; eaten raw as a delicacy and farmed in the Irish republic for food and pearls along the Atlantic shores of Co Clare and Co Kerry in particular;
- Heaney follows the recommended process: the oyster shell contains a liquid full of a briny flavour that will complement the oyster itself; once the creature is separated from the shell itself he raises the oyster shell to the lip of his mouth, tips it gradually, and savours what happens next;
- clack: sharp sound made by the collision of heavy objects
- estuary: tidal mouth of a large river meeting the sea;
- palate: roof of the mouth; part of the mouth triggering the distinction between flavours;
- Pleiades: in Greek mythology seven sister pursued by the hunter Orion and changed by Zeus into a cluster of stars in the Taurus constellation and visible to the naked eye
- Orion: Greek mythological giant and hunter who was changed on his death into the constellation that bears his name;
- violate: desecrate, treat with disrespect;
- bulb: rounded container in which ‘life’ unfolds;
- philanderer: generally said of men who enter into casual intimate relationships
- shuck: the process of opening/ splitting the oyster shell to reveal the delicate meat inside;
- scatter: cast in random directions;
- limestone: hard sedimentary rock common in the ‘ridge and valley’ landscape that runs across much of south-west Ireland, notably in areas such as the Burren in Co. Clare and the Dingle peninsula in Co Kerry;
- lay down: allusion to quality wine said to mature and improve over time, stored for later consumption;
- thatch: early rudimentary roof covering of reeds or straw characteristic of impoverished areas
- crockery: earthenware or china plates etc.;
- haul: drag weight;
- pannier: baskets transported by beasts of burden;
- disgorge: pour out (literally from the throat), spew out, spill out;
- frond-lipped: with a leaf-like edging – compare deckle-edged paper;
- brine: salty (sea)water:
- sting: sharp tingling sensation;
- glut: plenty, abundant supply;
- privilege: reference to special things available only to select groups;
- trust: firm belief or confidence in the reliability or truth of something;
- lean in: make ones presence felt (connotations of opportunism, prevailing wind effects, intrude on someone’s space in search of intimate contact e.g. through a window);
- tang: strong flavour;
- quicken: activate, stimulate, inject life;
- verb: metaphor for writing using a grammatical component essential to the creation of a complete sentence that describes an action;
- MP (154-5) situates Heaney’s mindset and by extension the collection’s very firmly in the Northern Irish ‘Troubles’: The first poem, ‘Oysters’, sets the agenda, and asks whether it is appropriate for the poet to exercise the gift of his lyric art, his freeness, in the midst of the unfree, the oppressed, the dying. While innocent children, men and women are being crushed, shot or blown to bits, might not song constitute ‘a betrayal of suffering’?”! By reflecting upon the exemplary conduct of other poets who lived through and responded to the viciousness of their times – such as Wilfred Owen, W.B. Yeats, Osip Mandelstam, Zbigniew Herbert, Miroslav Holub – and by celebrating the sacral (to do with sacred rites and symbols) in his day-to-day experience, Heaney began to answer such questions and to learn to trust ‘in the clear light’.
- The oysters are hauled from the heavens, their fall from grace effected in a succession of related images humanising, or, rather, feminising them. He emphasises their genital shape and portrays them as victims of the ocean’s rape (ibid.)
- MP (155) notes that the communal pleasure is short-lived: here he was succumbing again to black melancholy, imperial history, stings of guilt. When his lyric evocation of the Romans journeying over the Alps with their ‘damp panniers’ of oysters is halted by the tart, dismissive phrase, ‘Glut of privilege’, he becomes ‘angry’;
- NC (86) suggests an interesting parallel between the poet’s place in time and space of human kind and the innocence of oysters violated too by the knowledge of their place in the history of human taste … Heaney’s final anger grows from resentment that such self-punitive knowledge keeps him from untrammelled enjoyment of the meal, that such conscience prevents him from reposing his trust ‘In the clear light … It is a ’light ‘ like poetry leaning in temptingly, invitingly, a poetry of the sea, not the land, transcending the diminishments of human history; poetry as alternative, as delight and consolation, as the free play of imagination;
- written in five-line stanzas, cinquains Heaney has only used on a handful of occasions in his published collections thus far;
- meter based on variable syllable counts between 5 and 11; generally unrhymed but catching assonant echoes in some final lexical items;
- six sentence structure; the lengthy fourth is heavily enjambed containing one of several colons that bring pause;
- initially heavy in sounds and tastes; maritime tangs well used;
- watery imagery used to accompany the liquidity of oyster eating;
- mythological conceits centred round some kind of cosmic dimension associated with pleasure;
- bivalves personified as living creatures poorly treated by those who exploit them;
- the ocean personified as productive but indifferent; containers ‘disgorge’;
- ‘ripped and shucked and scattered’ – ‘the shock waves extend to the rhythms, for in the tenth line the two strong stresses within ‘ Millions’ and the three final trochees -break the pattern of iambs (MP 155);
- comparison: friendship and the storing of ever improving fine wine;
- conscience awakened by empires where plenty is not shared equally; less than veiled reference to NI;
- compounds add extra dimensions economically – ‘frond-lipped’, ‘brine-stung’;
- ‘verb ‘for language of poetry – does this count as synecdoche?
- As he seeks to know where he stands Heaney does not eat the day; he eats the oysters produced on the day;
- NC (87) ‘quicken … into verb’ will remove Heaney, once and for all, from the enclosing, static nouns of earth and myth and place-name; and the movement is conveyed in lines as rich in etymological implication as anything in Heaney, in which the Old English and Old Norse derivations ‘ate’, ‘day’, ‘tang’ and ‘quicken’ propel their penitential abruptness into the greater relaxedness of the Latinate ‘deliberately’ and ‘verb, pure verb’.
- 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;
- the final stanza is rich in alveolar plosives [d] [t] and nasals [m] [n] [ng], alongside front of mouth bilabial plosives [p] [b] and velar [k];