Station Island – the Sequence IX

A hunger-striker’s ghost guarantees a restless night for the pilgrim who is operating at varying levels of wakefulness.

A voice describes in graphic detail the effects of self-imposed fasting: brain dried like spread turf/ stomach ( ) a cinder ( ) tightened and cracked and evidence of bodily haemorrhage: Often/ I was dogs on my own track/ Of blood on wet grass.

The solitude of the hunger-striker’s cell provides a kind of sanctuary: an ambush/ Stillness I felt safe in settled around me.

The pictures he conjures up are of the place where he committed the paramilitary assassination for which he is imprisoned: the fateful car journey (me in the back … like a white-faced groom);his imminent murderous intent: A hit-man on the brink, emptied and deadly. When his body was later released for burial, at once dead yet still sentient, he felt the same unreality as when I took aim at his sectarian target.

The voice from blight/ And hunger fading away through theblack dorm is replaced by a scene from a dead man’s wake, his body laid out with a drift of mass cards … shrouded feet then the ‘last-post’ paramilitary salute the firing party’s/ Volley in the yard. Sense data are those of damp, deterioration and decline: saw woodworm … smelt mildew in places where the fleeing terrorist took refuge.

Better to have buried him In the bog where you threw your first grenade, to the maimed music of the military forces of occupation and birdlife, where peaty growth provided medicinal repose for this Unquiet soul, until the weasel’s alarm signal warned them all off: No other weasel will obey its call.

In and out of sleep I dreamt and drifted into a viscous, apocalyptic Salvador Dalí-like landscape of waste … mucky, glittering flood … Strange polyp … huge corrupt/ Magnolia bloom, surreal as a shed breast building a nightmarish climax of softly awash and blanching self-disgust.

From it comes a cry of deep remorse for allowing his natural disposition to silence his public voice at crucial moments and leaving him in a dishonourable position on the wrong side of the arguments: I repent/ My unweaned life that kept me competent/ To sleepwalk with connivance and mistrust.

Then on the point of drowning in an alarming mix of liquid imagery he witnesses an emblem of revival: like a pistil growing from the polyp,/ a lighted candle rose,ending his nightmare and settling his mind: No more adrift/ My feet touched bottom.

The next sleep reveals something round and clear ( ) like a bubbleskin ( ) a moon. A musical instrument that has lain undisturbed Rose in cobwebbed space. The object has a dazzling quality (the molten/ Inside-sheen of an instrument, its polished convexes … close and brilliant) that affects the dreamer’s balance and sends him spinning backwards into the void.

The falling sensation jerks the pilgrim out of sleep. His bad dreams are replaced by sunshine and a bell and gushing taps in the pilgrim hostel.Waking has not obliterated the memory of a trumpet he once found in a farm’s loft thatch but left undisturbed because it was not his: a mystery/ I shied from then for I thought such trove beyond me.

In the light of day his self-disgust swells into a bitter outburst of self-hatred: against his meek obedience (how quick I was to know my place), against his background and his nature (biddable and unforthcoming). His words are levelled at his half-composed, discomfited reflection as he shaves. Men befuddled by alcohol (the Drunk … during a party/ Lulled and repelled by his own reflection) have been known to berate themselves in this way.

Nature offers the speaker a means of facing up to irresistible forces: acceptance of the self, of the way one is, is a prerequisite to moving on. Some things are beyond one’s grasp: As if a rebellious cairnstone could defy the cairn or the eddy … reform the pool, or as if astone being worn down by the cascade could change the shape that circumstances dictate: grind itself down to a different core.

Persistence becomes the by-word as demonstrated by hungry Indians of First Nations’ legend: the tribe whose dances never fail/ for they keep dancing till they sight the deer. The same animal is the deer of poetry, the nervous creature of A Migration and On the Road; Heaney will be persistent in his search for a change of direction.

  • Glenshane: a townland and pass through the Sperrin Mountains on the road from Derry to Belfast;
  • Toome: a County Derry town in the north-east corner of Lough Neagh;
  • hit-man: an assassin hired for contract killings, a gun for sale; mainly of a sectarian nature in the period of the Ulster Troubles;
  • blight: a disease affecting plants; of particular significance in Ireland historically associated with the loss of potato crops and famine in the late 1840s; came to be used figuratively for anything that undermined hope or threatened prosperity;
  • dorm: shortened form of dormitory, overnight accommodation many beds in the same room;
  • woodworm: infestation; wood-eating larvae or grubs that munch away at woodwork;
  • jambs: the vertical section of a door frame;
  • mildew: a fungal growth or mould affecting not only plants but internal and external wall surfaces, associated with dampness;
  • sphagnum moss:  commonly called peat moss due to its prevalence in wet habitats where it contributes to the formation of peat bogs and wetlands; per se very much part of Heaney’s landscape;
  • weasel: one of the world’s smallest carnivores able to pursue mammals down tunnels; it makes a range of sounds including a shrill defensive squeal resembling a whistle; difficult to detect and study; common in the Ulster landscape;
  • polyp: abnormal, ugly tissue growth commonly found in areas of the human body connected by a stalk; not life-threatening;
  • pistil: in plant anatomy the female reproductive part with swelled base and stalk-like extension;
  • bubbleskin: the thin soapy film surrounding the fragile spherical bubble that floats in the air;
  • convexes: a noun here butusually an adjective describing outward -curving surfaces (opposite of concave, inward-curving)
  • valves and stops: to produce different notes the trumpet uses valves and stops to re-route air through the instrument and offer differing wave lengths that reverberate as notes;
  • shied away: the suggestion of ‘shy’, ‘cautious’ of the adjective was extended in the verb to suggest ‘avoid’, ‘shun’ even ‘be scared of’;
  • trove: a French derivation, literally ‘things found’; associated with treasure(-trove) to indicate a ‘hoard’ of unknown ownership;
  • biddable: potentially meek, obedient and ready to follow instructions without question;
  • core: Latin cor meaning ‘heart’, centre;
  • The ghost figure would seem to be a poetic composite made up of Francis Hughes who was known to the Heaney family and Thomas McElwee whose wake Heaney attended. They died in Long Kesh in 1981;
  • the poet is angry with himself for having remained attached to Catholic restrictions of the self and its powerful personal inhibitions it generated; he concedes he might have, even should have, had a stronger political involvement;
  • Heaney speaks sensitively to DOD about hunger-strikers and the impact on him of the predicament; he felt sympathy for the men, acknowledging that some people would see their sacrifice as a knock-on effect of a ‘war of liberation’ and others that of a ‘war of genocide’, but he was wary of appearing to promote one cause and not the other; he also introduces Thomas McElwee a local man whose wake he was able to attend with its paramilitary ceremonial but whose family respected his presence as a Catholic above and beyond the politics that were distressing everybody (p 259-61);
  • The five sonnets … complete the vigil and rigorous self-inquisition that has accompanied it … the poet plummets to his lowest point yet, sucked down in a vortex of ‘self-disgust’ ( ) restorative images in the last three sonnets bear him up (MP(p201);
  • Steeped in guilt, anger and frustration, the poem determines neither to endorse not to condemn overtly the striker’s actions … in the second sonnet several phrases recognise the ‘common ground’ shared by the paramilitary and the poetic activist (ibid p201);
  • the gutter imagery bears not only the poet’s self-disgust, but also the sickening tide of hatred reactivated by the hunger-strikes and the pressure to conform demanded by Catholic and Republican ideology (ibid p202);
  • political suicide is juxtaposed with a dream of release and revival (NC p118);
  • In cantos VII, VIII, and IX Four dead men leave Heaney at his most exposed … each of them forces him to live their final moments, to scrutinise his conduct in the face of their deaths; exposure will lead Heaney via lame excuse through accusation , self-accusation to self-disgust and might be said to bea critical requirement of the pilgrimage which is to ‘chastise one’s own soul (MP p198);
  • NC asserts that Heaney is no longer content to know his place,to celebrate it as a virtue, to meekly accept servitude to the mores of a community , to renounce worldliness which is the essential prelude to repentance. NC reminds us that No praying is done on the pilgrimage …kneeling is Habit’s afterlife (p120);
  • Ambivalence characterises the presentation: tracker and tracked, ambusher and ambushed ’emptied and deadly’,aggressor and victim hints at common grounds shared by the paramilitary and the poetic activist; (ibid p202) Each possesses an ‘unquiet soul’ … shaped by and trapped by the ancient bog, allured by the ‘maimed music’ of tribal loyalties … the sickening tide of hatred reactivated by the hunger strikes and the near irresistible pressure to conform demanded by catholic and Republican ideologies ; MP suggests that the redemptive power of Art is to be found in the candle that illuminates the way ahead; the trumpet that promises harmony (MP p201);


  • a sequence of 5 sonnets (S) based on lines of 10 syllables with some exceptions;
  • S1: a five sentence construct; enjambed lines contribute to the ebb and flow of the rhythm; variable rhyme pattern; direct speech from hunger-striker; dead but not dead; initial comparison anatomy and peat bog;hunting image replaced by IRA-speak; paradox: incarceration brings relief; use of hyperbole: ‘years away; comparison: nerves of gunman and one getting married’; use of adjectives including a compound; play on words: light in weight after fasting and dizzy in the head;
  • S2:4 sentence structure with use of enjambment; cinematic melt of one scene into another; cards compared with snowfall; vocabulary of rot and waste; vocative form of address ‘(O) Unquiet soul’; winged object: birds and military hardware equally present; example of folk-lore;
  • S3: 5 sentences; nightmarish events and vocabulary of ugliness to match; direct speech provides a confession of self-disgust; some vocabulary of political nature;

gaudí-esque landscape replaced by symbol of restoration; sailing imagery;

  • S4: 5 sentences; start is rich in adjectives; the pilgrim on the edge of sleep; double comparison; emerging instrument of such glare as to cause the falling feeling that shocks one into wakefulness; contrast with the familiar calm of the hostel;
  • S5 in 11 sentences; repeated vocabulary of dislike; play on words ‘composed’: not calm; horror-movie style half decomposed, this psychological reflected in the drunk simile; triple ‘as if’ somehow echoes the hopelessness of the individual trying to be anything other than what he is; the climax pays a final tribute to those of old who refused to give up their quest;


  • the music of the poem: thirteen assonant strands are woven into the text; Heaney places them grouped within specific areas to create internal rhyme , or reprises them at intervals or threads them through the text:

  • Analysis of Heaney’s poems reveals how deliberately he seeks alliterative effects that allow pulses or beats or soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify his assonant melodies. Heaney deliberately deploys pairs or clusters of like consonants; these come and go as the poem develops, entering the sound narrative, dropping out or reappearing at interval; he rings the changes. The simplified phonetic table that follows will facilitate your own analysis. Consonant sounds are formed in various parts of the mouth; plosives and fricatives come in pairs (and Heaney will often deploy both in combination in the same phrase or sentence or stanza): a voiceless version and a voiced version; for example [p] and [b] are identically formed but [b] requires input from the vocal chords whereas [p] is simply air modified by the lips.
  • Front-of-mouth sounds and their phonetic symbols:

voiceless bi-labial plosive [p] voiced bi-labial plosive [b]; voiceless labio-dental fricative [f] voiced labio-dental fricative [v]; bi-labial nasal [m]; bilabial continuant [w]

  • Behind-the-teeth sounds:

voiceless alveolar plosive [t] voiced alveolar plosive [d]; voiceless alveolar fricative as in church match[tʃ]; voiced alveolar fricative as in judge age [dʒ]; voiceless dental fricative [θ] as in thin path; voiced dental fricative as in this other [ð]; voiceless alveolar fricative [s] voiced alveolar fricative [z]; continuant [h] alveolar nasal [n] alveolar approximant [l]; alveolar trill [r]; dental ‘y’ [j] as in yet

  • Rear-of-mouth sounds:

voiceless velar plosive [k] voiced velar plosive [g]; voiceless post-alveolar fricative [ʃ] as in ship sure, voiced post- alveolar fricative [ʒ] as in pleasure; palatal nasal [ŋ] as in ring/ anger.

  • Sound it out for yourself and witness Heaney’s intricate sonic draughtsmanship.