Remembering Malibu

Dedicated to Brian Moore, Belfast novelist and friend, remembered by Heaney for his ‘kindness’ and his invitation to the Heaney family to visit him and his wife at their home in Malibu around 1970. New experiences challenge old attachments, transition is in the making.

The first of two ‘American’ poems and first of a series of poems of transit and transitions (MP). A tale of two oceans and two cultures. The speaker recalls his introduction to the Pacific ocean at Brian Moore’s door. It was wilder and colder than he had led himself to believe. Surprised, perhaps, but above all relieved I would have rotted/ beside the luke-warm ocean I imagined.

A cold ocean perhaps but less harsh than the ocean washing the western shore of Ireland: no way … ascetic/ as our monk-fished, snowed-into Atlantic.

In California Moore was not living the beehive hut life of a 7th century hermit on a rocky Irish outcrop, rather the abstract sands of Malibu. Heaney associates what he sees with the early pointillist dune-landscapes of Piet Mondrian that depicted indistinct outlines similar to those Heaney has witnessed along the Malibu coastline. The blurring by wind and sand (misting towards the ideal forms) is suggestive perhaps of the Dutch artist’s association of dune-curves and the female body.

The elemental power of what is heard is echoed in horse imagery: wind and sea neighed loud/ as wind and sea noise amplified.

This moment is the realisation of a dream: a visit to the California coast: there in the flesh, subjected to the bluster of the day (the choice of noun introduces a cultural touch with hints of brag and bravado).

The speaker confesses that his eureka moment was a long while coming. What he was familiar with until this moment was the ocean around Great Skellig off the Kerry coast, a place where Atlantic storms have flensed (flayed and cleansed) the hermit cells to be seen on the site. Though he never climbed the steps between the graveyard and the boatslip what they represent is the essence of his intrinsic Irishness: as if sewn on, welted solid to my instep.

And now Malibu, a challenge to old attachments, transition in the making. The Californian coast (and the University post that went with it) is offering him new freedom, the chance, stallion-like, to throw off constraints and hindrances: rear and kick and cast that shoe.

He is distanced now from the Irish scene beside that other western sea andfar from the inhospitable climate of an island known for its bleakness and cold: far/ from the suck of puddled, wintry ground.

He will not figure for long in the minds of people back home; as on any beach the traces of presence are quickly eradicated: our footsteps filled with blowing sand.

  • Piet Mondrian: Dutch artist (1872-1944) who spent time in Paris when Braque and Picasso were developing the Cubist style but whose earlier more ‘conventional’ works failed to meet his aspirations. He had gone through a phase of dune paintings inspired by the North Sea coast of Zeeland around 1909.Mondrian ultimately became an figurehead of ‘Modern Art’ progressing through a period of cubist abstraction and eventually developing the style for which he is perhaps better known: lines in abstract patterns and complex linear networks with in-fills of poster red, yellow and blue. Mondrian spent the last four years of his life in New York;
  • ascetic: the noun refers to the earliest Christians who retired from society to live solitary lives of prayer and devotion; the adjective expresses the rigorous self-discipline required of such monk/ hermits/ anchorites;
  • monk-fished:Heaney plays on words: fish was clearly a staple requirement for monks so the Atlantic was fished by them; monk-fish is also the specific name of a fish found in abundance in the north-west Atlantic;
  • Great Skellig: 12 miles off the Kerry coast of southern Ireland, one of 2 islands;this UNESCO World Heritage site was home to a 7th century monastic complex (also known as Skellig Michael) built high up and accessible via stone steps. The site features clochan (beehive huts) so-called for their particular shape. There is a suggestion that St Sweeney founded the settlement and this would fit in with the collection as a whole;
  • flense: originally a Danish word meaning ‘splice’, ‘split’;
  • bluster: Germanic origin, ‘to blow violently’;
  • welt: a reinforcing leather strip sewn between the sole and upper of a shoe or sandal;
  • Remembering Malibu is the first of a series of poems of transit and transitions depicting a situation that for Heaney eases the pull of conscience, that permits temporary respite, ridding him of the encumbrance of ‘disciplina’ ( ) in the anonymity of exile (MP188-9);
  • thirteen couplets arranged in a five-sentence construct;
  • line length between 6 and 10 syllables; no formal rhyme scheme but sporadic rhymes within couplets or on alternative lines;
  • considerable use of enjambed lines and varied sometimes mid-line punctuation offers varied dynamic flow of oral delivery;
  • the poem contrasts two oceans, reflected in the use of comparatives and descriptive vocabulary associated with comparative sense data: touch, temperature etc;
  • use of compound adjectives that stitch multiple ideas into hyphenated pairs: ‘monk-fished’ – catching monk-fish or fished once by monks;
  • use of historical archaeological features;
  • transferred epithet: the sands are real enough; Mondrian has adopted an abstract style; vocabulary of aesthetics;
  • metaphors: nature makes horse sounds; the poet’s creative spirit might feel like rearing up and showing his horse-like spirit; the ocean is a cleansing agent;
  • the music of the poem: fifteenassonant 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 or soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies: ll. 1-4 combine voiceless bi-labial sounds: plosive [p[ [w]; 5-8 interweaves voiceless alveolar fricative [s] with plosives: velar [k] bilabial [b] alongside alveolar nasal [n]; 9-12 intensify uses of nasals [m] [n] adding fricative [s] [z] sounds to create onomatopoeia; 13-16 adopt a similar pattern; 17-20 are marked by voiceless and voiced velar plosives [k] [g] alongside alveolar fricatives [s] [z]; 21-26 are heavy with [s] sounds , repeated voiceless velar plosive [k], the final couplet a welter of plosive sounds [p] [d];

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