From cover to cover Seeing Things features a series of interfaces: journeys in and out of real world situations; between real and mythical worlds; between secular and spiritual; between existence and annihilation; between objective and subjective; from the present into the future; between first order experience and seeing things anew; between political affiliations. Movement from one side to the other requires a range of crossing points: doors, windows, gates, casements … the windscreen of a car.
In this piece Heaney comes up against a presence that experience has taught him to be wary of. The poem focuses pointedly on the Ulster’s Troubles and evidence of British forces and military vehicles sent to the province.
Sighing with exasperation (Only), Heaney is slowed (come up behind) by a vehicle he has had to put up with year after year: a standard British army personnel carrier (open-ended, canvas-covered truck) with its payload of armed men (hands round gun-barrels), constricted but zealous (soldiers sitting cramped and staunch), distant (their gaze abroad/ In dreams), uncomfortable against body-heated metal, impassive as armed men ever (time-proofed), seated in regimented order (even distance) … as far as Heaney can make out beyond the windscreen glass.
Heaney senses forward momentum (carried ahead) via a cinematic illusion of the road itself moving in reverse (the phantasmal flow-back of the road). Illusion stops there -these are real soldiers and will not flinch from their military purpose (They still mean business in the here and now).
Heaney asks himself how best to navigate this intrusive obstacle: above all do not attract their interest (draw no attention); just keep moving (steer) and avoid eye-to-eye contact (concentrate/ On the space that flees between) …
… then accelerate past these sweating demons (meltdown of souls) rising from Dante’s straw-flecked ice of hell and put them behind you.
In the Inferno Dante depicts Satan as a demon frozen mid-breast in ice at the centre of hell;
- soldiers/ trucks: the British army was deployed in Northern Ireland after 1969 when Heaney was 30; minority Catholic folk in particular saw them as symbols of Protestant repressive tactics;
- cramped: without sufficient space for comfort;
- staunch: loyal;
- abroad: elsewhere;
- time-proofed: impervious to, unaffected by the present moment;
- phantasm: illusory likeness of something;
- flow-back: oncoming stream;
- mean business: have a mission to accomplish;
- here and now: present time;
- draw attention: attract interest;
- meltdown: reference to dangerous, uncontrollable nuclear overheating;
- straw flecked: Heaney’s image of straw remains elusive;
NC 180 In Crossings xxvi, being stuck behind a British Army lorry in Northern Ireland provokes the quasi-Dantean image of ‘a speeded-up / Meltdown of souls from the straw-flecked ice of hell’. These enlargements of the commonplace when it is brought into apposition with the Christian and classical are managed with tact and finesse in the sequence; there is a vibrantly authoritative assurance in Heaney’s tone and address;
- The 48 poems of the ‘Squarings’ sequences follow an identical format (12 lines in 4 triplets}; Heaney suggests the format just happened that way: ‘given, strange and unexpected’ … ‘I didn’t quite know where it came from but I knew immediately it was there to stay’) DOD 321;
- 4 triplets; line length based on 10 syllables; unrhymed;
- 3-sentence structure: 1 an unpleasant repeated experience; 2 soldiers who mean business; 3 dealing with demonic presences;
- autobiographical, including Heaney’s scarcely veiled personal feelings;
- narrative flow an even balance between punctuation and enjambed lines;
- sci-fi film elements of cloned soldiers and cinematic effects (road moves not vehicles ‘speeded-up’) juxtaposed with classical images;
- contrast stress between Heaney’s poetic imagination at work and reality (‘the here and now’);
- frequent use of compound adjectives (from ‘open-ended’ to ’straw-flecked’), a neat economy;
- 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;
- 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 heavy with alveolar plosives [d] [t] sibilants [s][z] and nasals [m] [n] alongside front of mouth sounds [w] [l] [f] [v];
- a full breakdown of consonant sounds and where in the mouth they are formed is to be found in the Afterthoughts section;