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 objective and subjective; from the present into the future; between first order experience and seeing things through new eyes. Such boundaries require a range of crossings: doors, windows, gates, casements, ‘A crossing, for sure … the airport bus as death coach’ (DOD 324) between existence and annihilation.
In Settings xxii Heaney set WB Yeats questions about the human ‘spirit’. A snippet Heaney met in a Yeats’ letter acts as the catalyst for a Californian experience that haunted him for a long time afterwards.
Put simply Yeats suggests that those who have contact with the dead (see spirits) are marked by the experience, find human skin ( ) most coarse. Heaney too has recently suffered the loss of his remaining parent and discovered that things have a different texture!
Heaney witnessed ‘a dead man walking’: returning by bus over Bay Bridge to his university post at Berkeley the poet came face to face with an unforgettable passenger (face … that all falls short of since) at the start of a personal ordeal – a conscript about to be pitch-forked into the hell of the Vietnam War (Treasure Island … Vietnam bound).
Heaney completes the circumstantial detail.
The power of the written word lies in the poem’s final four lines: Heaney turns the situation on its head, refiguring the conscript as a revenant from the war returning to the land of the living (one of the newly dead come back), someone who has experienced the full hell of it all (Unsurprisable), dejected (disappointed) at the prospect of picking up the threads of his previous rural existence (Having to bear his farmboy self again), having to live with its humdrum daily pitfalls (shaving cuts) … the marks of hell he has experienced in Vietnam etched on his face (his otherworldly brow).
- coarse: rough to the touch; also connotations of unrefined, earthy, vulgar;
- fall short of: fail to live up to;
- aisle: central passage between rows of seats;
- Berkeley: University of California where Heaney spent a sabbatical year with his family in 1970-71;
- Treasure Island: an ironic misnomer: name of a fictional place of buried treasure; a San Francisco naval station from which conscripts embarked on the journey to the Vietnam War;
- Bay Bridge: iconic San Francisco landmark;
- Vietnam war: (1955 – 75): costly confrontation with the communist forces of North Vietnam from which the Americans ultimately withdrew;
- unsurprisable: no longer fazed by events; seen-it-all;
- farmboy self: the person he was before military service;
- otherworldly: not of this world;
- brow: forehead;
- (DOD 324)There’s even a twelve-liner about a Vietnam-bound soldier; it begins with a Yeats quotation which I don’t recognize. SH It’s from one of his letters to Lady Dorothy Wellesley. The quotation isn’t exactly word for word, but it’s very close. It reminded me of a young soldier I’d once seen on an airport bus when I was coming across from San Francisco to Berkeley – the only other passenger. He was around nineteen or twenty, obviously lonely and no doubt afraid, en route to Treasure Island military base, which was the embarkation point for Vietnam. He looked doomed and there was a pallor on his brow, probably the result of a hangover from a party the previous night in Arkansas or wherever; it gave him that ghost-who-walks look. I’ll never forget it;
- HV 150 The anguish of the knowledge of death in Seeing Thingsis usually expressed in deliberately muted ways. But it can be seen explicitly in two ‘bookends’ of ‘Squarings’, one of which (Lightenings xii) represents the good thief – whose death is imminent – and the other (Crossings xxxiv) a soldier bound for Vietnam – whose potential death makes him seem like a revenant … If the crucified thief stands for the intolerable knowledge of the physical pain of dying, then the bleached face of the soldier stands for what one learns on the other side of death, its emptying of human experience. Heaney saw the soldier on the airport bus in California: … So too must Heaney return to ‘bear his farmboy self again’, with only his ‘otherworldly brow’ to mark the passage he has undergone through his parents’ deaths. Everything is so ‘normal’ – the airport, the bus, the passenger being dropped off. Yet once the dead are admitted into consciousness, the ‘otherworldly brow’ is the result, borne like an uninterpretable sign;
- 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;
- 3-sentence structure: the first a borrowed quotation; the second a lengthy clarification of the circumstances; the third a powerful short-sonnet volta turning potential cannon-fodder into returning ghost;
- survival depicted as anti-climax: ‘having to bear’;
- 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: thirteen 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 interweave a balance of bi-labial plosives [b] [p], alveolar plosives [d] [t], velar plosives [g] [k], sibilants [z] [s] [sh], labio dental fricative [f][v], free air sounds [h] and [l], 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;