The title of the first section, ‘Lightenings’, arrived by accident, when I found a dictionary entry that gives it to mean ‘a flaring of the spirit at the moment before death’. And there were also the attendant meanings of being unburdened and being illuminated, all of which fitted what was going on as the first poems got written (DOD321)
Heaney offered his reader a clue as to how to ‘enter’ the poems: You could think of every poem in ‘Squarings’ as the peg at the end of a tent-rope reaching up into the airy structure, but still with purchase on something earthier and more obscure (DOD 320);
So long for air to brighten, said Fosterling, Time to be dazzled and the heart to lighten.
The truth is often stranger than fiction! English-born abstract expressionist painter, Barrie Cooke, settled in Ireland and friend of the Heaney family refurbished a disused handball alley in Thomastown, Co Kilkenny in the mid-1980s for the use of Irish landscape painter, Bernadette Kiely.
The very incongruity of the initiative triggers Heaney’s opening ‘would-you-believe it’ (a glass roof on the handball alley)!
Initially Heaney describes the unpredictabilities of an Irish game played on a rough concrete surface with an erratically bouncing ball (hopped) that might rebound in any direction(merciless angles … in and out of play) or on occasion prove to be an un-returnable drop-shot (levelled true/ For the unanswerable dead-root).
Tongue in cheek but with the warmest of smiles on his lips, Heaney focusses on the ‘builder’: only Barrie Cooke from Heaney’s close circle of friends had the right (read ‘had the artistic nerve’) to conceive of creating an artist’s workshop (studio) from such a disordered space (free maze).
Cooke’s personal traits were more those of a passionate abstract impressionist than building tradesman: constantly sensitive to minor variations (our walking weathercock), stripping his subject matter down to basics (Our peeled eye at the easel).
To Heaney’s mind he could turn light effects on their heads (outside in) and perform optical tricks (curb the space), so that something unintended (accident) turned into something he intended all along (tricked to accuracy); where individual elements became somehow more absolute (rain … rainier) for being part of deliberate design (blown /Across the grid and texture of the concrete).
Heaney is all but confessing that while he and Cooke might operate on different creative wave-lengths their approach is not dissimilar!
For Heaney the ‘marvel’ is the extraordinary ‘new lamp for old’, a disused recreational space reborn as a studio … and as for Cooke himself, he is a colossus who scales the world, taking painterly squarings, his perspectives determined at arm’s length … thumbs up!
- handball alley: reference to Gaelic handball played in a court or alley; players struck the ball with hand or fist against a wall in such a way that the opponent could not return it; similar to English ‘fives’; squash is a similar game but played with a racquet;
- hopped: bouncing about;
- merciless: unsparing, cut-throat;
- unanswerable dead-root: un-returnable ball because it never leaves the ground;
- weathercock: vane in the form of a rooster that tests the wind;
- keep your eyes peeled: watch alertly and vigilantly;
- studio: artist’s working space;
- maze: confusing space;
- curb: control, govern; variant also of ‘kerb’ a stone edging;
- accident: suggestion of a lucky, chance, experimental brush stroke;
- trick: manoeuvre, refashion;
- accuracy: truth, finished product
- grid: a framework of wooden shuttering gives the concrete a slabbed appearance;
- scale: mount, climb to the top of; take the measure of
- thumbs up: both rough measuring instrument using the thumb and visible sign of approval;
English-born abstract expressionist painter, Barrie Cooke, settled in Ireland and became a Heaney-family friend. Heaney dedicated ‘Cairn Maker’ in Wintering Out to him and referred to his ‘Godbeam’ poems in Saw Music (District and Circle)
- the poem assembles motifs and hieroglyphs appropriate to the Squarings sequence: Kiely, recently returned to Ireland, needed a creative roof over her head; handball alleys were built without a full roof; alleys were laid out to meet the rules of a game, the Irish handball players required ‘squarings’ to pull off skilled shots;
- Bernadette Kiely (b.1958) Irish landscape painter; returning to Ireland in 1984, she became the first administrator for the Butler Gallery, and a year later took up painting full-time. She works in a studio built by the Irish abstract expressionist artist Barrie Cooke(b.1931) – one of her most important influences – in a disused handball alley in Thomastown, Co Kilkenny.
- NC (183): ‘Squarings’ is a series of hymns to portent and concentration, since to know portent in a setting is fully to appreciate the miraculousness of the ordinary, and to concentrate properly is to assimilate setting in a way that will eventually enable the reproduction of it in the new setting of the poem. The geometry of the sequence is, then, the plotting of a graph of the trajectory in which portent and concentration become self-aware enough to articulate themselves; a process in which, as poem Lightenings xi has it, ‘accident got tricked into accuracy’, in which desire exceeds restraint, achievement catches up with intimation, reach coincides with grasp in poems lucidly mobile with their own meanings;
- An original draft discovered in 2014 in a cubby hole in Barrie Cooke’s home just prior to his death sheds a more intimate light on Heaney’s special relationship with the artist, not least Cooke’s ‘feral’ habit of taking a pee when he needed, without let or hindrance:
To put a glass roof on the handball alley To put a glass roof on the handball alley
Where a hopped ball cut merciless angles Where a hopped ball cut merciless angles
In and out of play, or levelled true In and out of play, or levelled true
For the unanswerable dead-root … For the unanswerable dead-root …
He alone, our walking weathercock, Only you our neo-bushman-brushman
Our peeled eye at the easel, had the right Our squatter at the canvas had the right
To make a studio of that free maze, To turn light outside in, to curb that space
To turn light outside in and curb the space Freedom’s maze, where accident converted
Where accident got tricked to accuracy By unexpected strokes to accuracy
And rain was rainier for being blown And rain was rainier for being blown
Across the grid and texture of the concrete Across the grid and texture of the concrete.
He scales the world at arm’s length, gives thumbs up. He squats and squats. Is he making fire or water?
- The draft is dedicated as follows: For Barrie and Jean with love and all together in old ‘freedom’s maze’, Seamus 23rd August 1990
- 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 largely based on 10 syllable; unrhymed;
- 3-sentence structure; narrative flow derives from the uninterrupted enjambment of the 1st and the balance between enjambment and punctuation of the 2nd; the final 1-liner has a joviality beneath its artistic poses;
- vocabulary specific to Irish handball: ‘hopped, ‘dead-root’;
- painterly references to technique and body language;
- the Squarings sequence looks for ways of expressing things in their superlative, absolute, quintessential forms, here ‘rain … rainier’, in other pieces ‘sheer’ or ‘utter’, all part of Heaney’s ‘taking-a-new-look’ pattern of seeing things anew and fishing for marvels to credit;
- onomatopoeia: ‘for’ introduces the ‘wind’ whose sound it mimics;
- 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 are heavy with alveolar plosives [d] [t], alongside velar plosives [k] [g] and front of mouth sounds [w] [f] [l];
- a full breakdown of consonant sounds and where in the mouth they are formed is to be found in the Afterthoughts section;