Vitruviana

for Felim Egan

Heaney composes a sequence featuring three static graphic art shapes: a two-dimensional Renaissance drawing that Heaney realizes he once once copied in three dimensions as a youngster at the seaside; a much earlier sacred mural revamped for the twentieth; finally a Dublin Bay ‘canvas’ capturing in words the painting of an abstract artist who lived and worked there and to whom the poem is dedicated.

Old postcards of Portstewart reveal the natural deep pool in which boy-Heaney on vacation could immerse himself and did (waded in up to the chest), then found his floating balance (half-suspended) and adopted a Vitruvian pose: (legs wide apart … arms stretched sideways  buoyant to the fingertips), the sea level with his arm-pits, vital for coordinated movement (oxter-cogged).

Entering unheated sea-water caused giddiness (my head was light) and stiffened his stance (backbone plumb) – his most sensitive extremities (boy-nipples bisected and tickled) reacted to the icy feel at the height the water reached (steel-zip cold meniscus).

  • Vitruviana: -ana (plural) things associated with person, place, field of interest, here a drawing;
  • Vitruvian Man: drawing made by the Italian polymath Leonardo da Vinci around 149, accompanied by notes, precise measurements and elaborate geometrical relationships based on the work of the architect Vitruvius whose conviction was that architecture was essentially an imitation of nature and that understanding the proportions of the body led to a better grasp of desirable proportion in buildin
  • Felim Egan: Irish abstract painter (b.1952); originally from Strabane Co. Tyrone; studied at the Slade School of Art in London and became known internationally early in his career after representing Ireland at the 11th Biennale de Paris (1980) and at the 18th Bianale de Sao Paolo five years later; spent a year at the British School at Rome in 1980 before returning to Dublin where he has since lived and worked at Sandymount Strand on the edge of Dublin Bay.
  • Portstewart: coastal town near to the point at which the Lower Bann river flows into the Atlantic north of Lough Neagh;
  • wade in: enter water firmly;
  • buoyant: able to float
  • oxter: hollow beneath the arm where it meets the body;
  • cog: a toothed wheel that operates with the one next to it, causing both to move in tandem;
  • plumb: vertical, exactly straight
  • bisect: divide equally into two parts; here separate across the middle
  • steel-zip: sliding metal fastener with intersecting teeth;
  • meniscus; curving surface of a liquid;

*

Secondary school physical drills at St Columb’s (hard scrabble of the junior football pitch) in the hands of a real name (Leo Day, the college ‘drillie’), a teacher bursting with energy (bounced) and in full control of his class (counted … kept us all in line) amidst the gym apparatus (wooden horse) – he, the voice of authority (‘One! Two! In! Out!) … they, instantly obedient (we upped and downed and scissored arms and Iegs). Out in the fresh air they could rest their ‘Vitruvian’ body shapes against its flow (spread ourselves on the wind’s cross).

Heaney links the body tensions he felt a schoolboy at the time (palms … tautly strung) to a work of art he has seen since (Francis of Assisi in Giotto’s mural); in fact he can do better in words than the tempera’s flat, fixed representation of the seraphim shock-waves (angelic neon) that have pierced holes (stigmata) in the saint’s body –he depicts it as an instantaneous lightening-strike (zaps the ping-palmed saint).

  • scrabble: suggestive of the scuffing sound of boots on a hard surface;
  • junior: lower years of a Secondary school;
  • football: Gaelic version as played in St Columb’s
  • Leo Day ‘drillie’; a real name; member of staff with responsibility for physical exercise classes;
  • bounce: spring up and down;
  • wooden horse: standard piece of gymnastic equipment with solid body, leather top and hand grips (known now as pommel horse);
  • scissor: move legs backwards and forwards imitating a pair of scissors;
  • cross: materially an upright post with transverse bar; here transferred to the wind resistance felt by cross-shaped Vitruvian back and arms;
  • palm: inner surface of the human hand;
  • tautly strung: held tight so that tendons are stretched;
  • Francis of Assisi: (first met in Death of a Naturalist) Giovanni Francesco Bernardone; (1181– 1226); friar and founder of the Order commonly known as the Franciscans, venerated Catholic saint celebrated for his patronage of animals and the human environment;
  • Giotto’s mural: currently in the Louvre, Paris; painted in tempera between 1295 and 1300; depicts Francis receiving the stigmata during his prayer on Mount Alverno from a flying Christ who appears him as a seraphim;
  • angelic neon: early compositions depicted rays of light transmitting divine messages or miracles from the Almighty or his divine representative; the latter’s wounds emit light rays which strike Francis’ body;
  • zap: provide, send out an instant electric shock or signal; a touch of remote controller signals seems intended;
  • ping-palmed: suggests sonic results of that instant shock or signal;
  • stigmata: Crucifixion wound marks on hands and feet of Christ are impressed on the body of St Francis;

*

Living permanently in Dublin after the period spent in Glanmore Heaney knows Sandymount Strand well.

He hangs on to disparate memories (can connect some bits and pieces), one loaded with colour (my seaside whirligig), another related to the beach’s 360 degree flatness and expanse (cardinal points), a third recalling the murky depressing days when sea and sky merged into one (grey matter of sand and sky); the final descent of celestial brightness (light that is down to earth) that spreads and lifts his spirits (fan out and open up).

  • bits and pieces: odds and ends, miscellaneous items;
  • whirligig: spinning toy, top or child’s colourful plastic windmill;
  • cardinal points: main points of the compass (north south east and west); cardinal: foremost, fundamental, essential;
  • down to earth: in one sense without illusion or pretension; in a second, from highest sky to lowest land;
  • fan out: disperse outwards from a central point;
  • 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;
  • 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;
  • for example, the final four lines are rich in alveolar plosives [t] [d] , nasals [m] [n], alongside sibilant variants [s] [z]  and  velar [k] [g];
  • a full breakdown of consonant sounds and where in the mouth they are formed is to be found in the Afterthoughts section;

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