From cover to cover Seeing Things features a series of interfaces: journeys in and out of real world situations; between real and mythical; 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 again. Such crossings require a range of access points: doors, windows, gates, casements, a moment of final unroofing.
Heaney indicated to DOD (p.25) that the poem was set specifically at The Wood farm inherited from great-uncle Hughie into which the family moved from Mossbawn following the death of the poet’s brother Christopher in 1953; it was partly rebuilt: one of the twelve-liners recollects my father’s vision of what the new house would be like: ‘big, straight, ordinary … ‘ – a vision he certainly managed to realize. It was one of those 1950s take-me-or-leave-me dwelling houses, facing the road, bare faced, built on a bare field.
Heaney instructs himself to set imagination aside for a moment (Be literal) and bring to mind a moment of severance: walking out of the paternal home stripped of its personal effects (what had been emptied out) – the moment he consciously left his past behind (turning your back and leaving), his final unroofing.
In a series of comparatives, Heaney ‘s emotional responses and the loss and absence reeflected by house and garden become one and the same: loss of family closeness (tiles harder); loss of inner warmth (windows colder); raindrops bearing the whip-marks of affliction (scourged), grass at the mercy of the elements (Barer to the sky), etched with suffering (wind-harrowed).
‘or that is how it struck me at the time’, my words not Heaney’s (so it seemed).
Seen afresh the house that Patrick built is Patrick himself – in his father’s own words (‘Plain, big, straight, ordinary, you know‘) – in the son’s words the epitome of a meticulous planner (paradigm of rigour and correction), of a strong-willed minimalist (Rebuke to fanciness) – a memorial to the down-to-earth (shrine to limit).
A hieroglyphic sense of origin and paternal personality are kept alive (stands firmer than ever for its own idea) both by the site and in a poem – the house is a dead ringer for the person who built it and, to the eye of a poet who saw through them both a printed X-ray for the X-rayed body. An x-ray – nothing more literal than that!
- literal: factual, straightforward;
- empty out: clear out;
- scourge: tormented, tortured;
- wind-harrowed: both furrowed and distressed;
- paradigm: classic example;
- rigour: meticulous planning
- correction: improvement, putting straight;
- rebuke reprimand, reproach;
- fanciness: ornate decoration
- limit: restriction, enough-is-enough
- its own idea: Einstein considered the notion of ‘one’s own ideas’; “Everyone sits in the prison of his own ideas. A human being is a part of the whole called by us “Universe,” a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest”;
- X-ray: electromagnetic waves that see through many materials; also paradoxically the supposed faculty for seeing through outward form;
- MP 221 As the first poem of Lightenings i implies, Seeing Things is full of ‘Unroofed scope’, ‘Knowledge-freshening wind’, ‘soul-free cloud life’. Though the old hearth, and the old certainties, may now be cold, they retain an afterlife in his imagination. One cannot imagine Heaney not returning to them to rekindle memory, to admit ‘things beyond measure’ (Squarings xlvi), to relish ‘the dazzle of the impossible’ (Station Island’, x). ‘I trust contrariness’, he says early on in the collection ‘Squarings’, like so much of his poetry since Death of a Naturalist exemplifies his determination to keep faith with his ‘Plain, big, straight, ordinary’ origins (Crossings xxxiii), and his preparedness to flash beyond them like light from ‘a god’s shield’ (C xxxv) or a ‘goldfinch over ploughland’ (C xxx).
- HV 146 In Seeing Things almost every hieroglyph inscribes within itself its own annihilation: ‘The places I go back to have not failed / But will not last’ (Squarings xli) … the sturdy parental house (Crossings xxxiii), after the poet’s father dies of cancer, becomes an X-ray of itself, as it too takes on the quality of abstraction (something that exists only as an idea) into paradigm (a typical example, pattern of something). In the light of such a passage, we can see that each hieroglyph is to ‘stand for its own idea’, and that abstraction itself, in these hieroglyphs, is a ‘rebuke to fanciness and shrine to limit’. One could say that the hieroglyphic poems, in their plainness of diction (not necessarily accompanied by plainness of structure or of imagination), represent an aesthetic of which Patrick Heaney might not be ashamed. Heaney aims at ‘an art that knows its mind’, ‘unfussy and believable’ (Squarings xxxvii’);
- 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 around 10 syllables; unrhymed;
- 4-sentence structure: the first two are imperatives addressed to himself; the third a past memory; the fourth an epitaph to heirloom and forebear;
- self-addressed imperatives: ’be’, ‘recollect’;
- vocabulary of severance: ‘walking out’, ‘emptied out’, ‘turning your back’;
- comparatives that shift from objective to emotionally subjective: ‘harder’, ‘colder’ to ‘scourged … wind-harrowed’;
- language of rural farmer-father (‘plain, big’ etc.) contrasts with that of more academic son (‘paradigm … rebuke … shrine’);
- neat interweave of physical house (‘firmer’), hieroglyph (‘own ides’) and advanced medical ‘X-ray’ to make his 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: eleven 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 dominated by alveolar plosives [t] [d] alongside bi-labial plosives [b] [p], labio-dental fricatives [f] [v], sibilants [s] [sh] and nasals [m] [n];
- a full breakdown of consonant sounds and where in the mouth they are formed is to be found in the Afterthoughts section;