Heaney reflects on a visual arts installation dating from May 1994. The title triggers instant thoughts of primeval forest and the sights and sounds of tree-tops, Heaney’s launch recalls the Spring-is-in-the-air suggestiveness of the most famous of the English madrigals, by Thomas Morley published in 1595 (Now is the Month of Maying).
Spring was in the air in Harvard Yard and with it a hush of anticipation: There was whispering everywhere.
An English visual artist had installed a sound system in the tree-tops: Voice boxes in the branches; 1990’s technology disguised, wrapped in sacking/ Looking like old wasps’ nests, or (suggestive of the way they were suspended) like bat-fruit in the gloaming with the lumpy profile of Shadow Adam’s apples.
Heaney ‘paints a picture’ in sound whereby fitful amplification distorts utterances: sibilant ebb and flow/ Speech-gutterings, desultory/ Hush and backwash and echo.
What he hears opens imaginative possibilities: a spiritual dialogue in Nature (a recording/ Of antiphonal responses/ In the congregation of the leaves) or a Disney-like animation: a wood that talked in its sleep or (renewing the animism of plants with souls present in A Herbal) Reeds on a riverbank/ Going over and over their secrets.
The babble of sound they hear has gradually captures the attention of those present: cocking their ears …Gathering, quietening/ … stepping/… Stopping and holding hands.
Heaney affirms the successful fusion of elemental, technological and spoken ‘languages’ and their innovative musicality: Earth was replaying its tapes/ Words being given new airs. ‘Modern’ technology and the installation’s enchanted quality merge past and present as if Dante’s whispering wood/ The wood of the suicides- had been magicked to lover’s lane.
The wizardry was such that nothing would have surprised: If a twig had been broken off there/ It would have curled itself like a finger/ Around the fingers that broke it, a piece of sorcery as if it were mistletoe/ Taking tightening hold, a spell only enhanced as the fairy/ Lights came on.
Heaney confesses his responses were dictated by his imagination: Or so I thought.
- From the late 1970’s Seamus Heaney enjoyed a long relationship with Harvard University in Cambridge, near Boston, Massachusetts, USA. He went there initially as a guest lecturer. His regular presence enabled him to share the cultural calendar of America’s oldest established Ivy League university. Harvard Yard is an extensive, pristine grassy area in the centre of the Harvard campus surrounded by academic and administrative buildings;
- David Ward, born in Wolverhampton, UK in 1951, and initially a painter. He works in a range of media including painting, photography, light and performance and he has worked extensively with choreographers and architects. He has exhibited widely in the UK, across Europe and in the USA. He was Visiting Artist at Harvard University;
- Animism is an eastern belief attributing living souls to inanimate objects;
- This emotive and evocative piece is a prime example Heaney’s mastery of form:
- 9 quatrains; free verse; lines based around 6 syllables; Stanza 1 contains both the alliteration of line 1 and the assonance of trees/ green; the use of present participles: -ing is an extendable sound, adding a musical dynamic to the poem and permitting variation of pace;
- The next 6 lines combine the alliterative [w] of Ward/ wrapped/ wasps/ shadow with the variant sounds of [a]: Ward/ installed; had/ sacking/ wrapped; wasp; Adam’s apples; Voice boxes take us from the visual launch into sound: the frequency of sibilants [s] and [sh] echo and mimic the distortions caused by the sound system: sibilant ebb and flow/ Speech-gutterings, desultory/ Hush and backwash and echo. The Physics of sound-waves invites a tidal analogy: ebb and flow/ backwash;
- the assonance of sleep and reeds marks the introduction of people and with them present participles that give presentness to a story from the past whilst expressing the gradualness of the hypnotic process;
- new airs: the term ‘airs’ conveys multiple connotations: words are literally released into the open air; airs are songs with melody and musicality; airs put on by humans betray attitude, demeanour and bearing: Heaney’s words enter the quiet of a Dantesque scene of Words/ whispering/ wood, a quiet shattered by the onomatopoeic crack audible in the alveolar plosive of twig as the latter takes on a life and mind of its own (in a nightmarish reminder of inanimate objects coming to life in ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice);
- Heaney’s response to the make-believe atmosphere brought to a climax when the fairy/ Lights … came on culminates with a reference to pagan practices: strangulation by parasitic mistletoe Taking tightening hold;
- An entry from The Boston Globe, May 1994 reads: This week, Ward works his wizardry in the other Cambridge, illuminating the ancient elms in Harvard Yard and making sound pour forth from their topmost branches in a work called “Canopy …
- The 1994 Harvard University Public Art Residency was an unprecedented collaborative effort to demonstrate the importance of contemporary visual art within a research university. British artist David Ward was in residence at Harvard for six highly productive months, culminating in the temporary installation Canopy: a work for voices and light that featured thirty separate sound sources suspended in the trees of Harvard Yard. Each source played the recorded voices of people speaking in a number of languages including English, Italian, Haitian Creole, Polish, and Russian. The voices told stories about place (including passages from Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities), personal memories, poems, and folk tales.