The Backward Look

A complex variant of Heaney’s ‘languagey’ poems, the piece explores linguistic impurities that have crept into the spoken word and adulterated the Irish language. The poet’s principle concern is linguistic dispossession. By use of a kind of Audenesque ‘verbal contraption’ he reflects on the wider erosion of the Irish domain.

The landscape might have changed little but the language that describes it has suffered from crossbreeding. In his Backward Look, the poet measures the impact of repeated invasion and incursion. His message is carried by the emblematic Irish snipe.

Heaney recognizes changes in the sounds and movement of the startled snipe, pretending all is well (sleight of wing) but under closer scrutiny showing signs of injury: A stagger in air as if a language failed.

The native snipe is speaking with a different, pleading voice (bleat); it no longer feels at home: fleeing its nesting ground. Its habitat has decayed, like language, into dialect,/ into variants. Its flight sounds ‘foreign’ – transliterations whirr on the nature reserves its Nordic etymology has excluded colourful Irish language folk alternatives: little goat of the air,/ of the evening,/ little goat of the frost.

The snipe call is doleful

(his tail-feathers drumming elegies); it is left behind by its etymologically stronger wildfowl neighbours: in the slipstream/ of wild goose/ and yellow bittern.

The snipe’s spiralling downward flight (as he corkscrews away) takes us backwards in time into the subterranean world of Irish history and origin: vaults/ that we live off. To arrive intact he will have run the gauntlet of hostile attempts to kill him off (through the sniper’s eyrie) and overflown the evidence of historical Irish defensive structures (over twilit earthworks/ and wall-steads) only to discover that the earliest recorded lot of the Irish is of meagre subsistence on crumbs and remnants: gleanings and leavings / in the combs/ of a field worker’s archive.

  • backward: directed behind as in a rear-view mirror or retrospective memory; the word also alludes to backwardness, lack of education;
  • stagger: moment of unsteadiness;
  • sleight: notion of knowing deception; here, perhaps evidence of a wound;
  • snipe: wading bird of marshes and wet meadows, with brown camouflaged plumage, a long straight bill that vibrates the outer tail feathers in flight to produce a throbbing sound;
  • bleat: the weak, faltering cry generally of a sheep;
  • dialect: form of language heard exclusively in a particular area;
  • variants: (of word, sound or print) versions with slight differences;
  • transliteration:  (highly original usage) in philology the conversion of a text/ letter from one script into another; allegorically, rendering the communication sounds of one creature using words that apply to another;
  • whirr: the continuous regular sound of something rotating;
  • elegies: poems lamenting something disappeared;
  • slipstream: air driven back by forward momentum (e.g. jet engine);
  • goose: large water-bird generally migrating over huge distances;
  • bittern: large marsh-bird of the heron family noted for its deep, resonant call;
  • corkscrew: fly with a spiral motion;
  • vaults: natural underground arched chambers;
  • sniper: (dual intention) a wartime sharpshooter firing from hidden places (ref: the Troubles), a man shooting snipes (considered the ultimate challenge given the bird’s erratic flight);
  • eyrie: originally eagle’s nest, by extension a camouflaged shelter looking down on wetlands;
  • twilit: illuminated by the last light of evening;
  • earthworks: man-made banks of soil often stone-age defence walls;
  • wall-stead: a dwelling or settlement surrounded by a defence wall
  • gleanings: items gathered from a variety of sources e.g. grain left in a field after harvest
  • leavings: leftovers, remnants;
  • comb: possible shortened form of honeycomb; possible reference also to the toothed strip used for untangling, tidying;
  • archive: literally ‘beginning’, ’first place’, by extension a record that provides information about places, people and language;
  • John Braidwood’s Ulster Dialect Lexicon suggests ‘some of the most imaginative bird names are translation loans from Irish’; though not literally applicable to the snipe’s Norse derivation it supports Heaney’s italicised borrowing;
  • Heaney’s poem ( ) represents death of the native linguistic milieu and its resurrection ( ) after a transliterative metamorphosis … it is ( ) a complete linguistic and cultural journey, at the end of which comes a fall. The transition from presence to absence signifies the failure of Gaelic … the bleat of the bird can be considered a scream in response to the long colonial history during which anything that might bring the Irish back was forbidden’ Mümin Hakkıoğlu Anadolu University;
  • So how do “goat” and “snipe” come together?  It’s the Irish idiom.  Although there is a basic word for “snipe,” namely “naoscach,” there are also several folk expressions for the bird, especially the male… gabhairín reo, male snipe, jack-snipe, literally, “little goat of (the) frost”; gabhar reo, male snipe … literally, “goat of the frost”; gabhar oíche, jack-snipe, literally “goat of (the) night”; meannán aeir, male snipe, literally, kid of (the) air (that’s “kid” as in “young goat”). Goats and snipes intrinsically connected’ (Róislín , posted on 19. Sep, 2013);
  • Tongue’ is a word that reverberates through the volume … Not knowing the ‘tongue’ of the country you travel in is the deepest kind of estrangement; and Heaney’s preoccupation with the tongue, in this book ( ) subtly registers the contours of a divided culture’ (NC38);
  • 7 quatrains in 3 sentences; unrhymed; variable line length (2-6 syllables);

  • balance between enjambment and punctuation establishes breath groups and flow of oral delivery;

  • vocabulary of natural decline, panic/ ill health allegorical (read Irish traditions): ‘stagger’, ‘failed’; ’bleat’, ‘fleeing’;

  • environmental challenges interwoven with/ delivered through linguistic lexis;

  • description of snipe flight reworks the deception implicit in a magician’s ‘sleight of hand’;

  • italicized transliterations allude to Norse and Old Irish languages (better times?);

  • symbol: snipe represents Irish tradition/ culture put to flight;

  • vocabulary of regret: ‘bleat’, ‘elegies’, ‘vault’; downwards movement/ development;

  • preposition ‘off’ is puzzling;

  • modern military threat made explicit: ‘sniper’s eerie’;

  • final emphasis on the potential fate of an endangered genus/ race: ‘gleanings’, ’leavings’, ‘archive’;

  • 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 or soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies:
  • the first lines, for example, register continuant sounds that mimic air flow (bilabial [w,] alveolar [l], labio-dental fricative [f] and sibilant [s]) alongside a cluster of plosive sounds;
  • it is well worth teasing out the sound clusters for yourself to admire the poet’s sonic engineering:
  • Consonants (with their phonetic symbols) can be classed according to where in the mouth they occur
  • Front-of-mouth sounds voiceless bi-labial plosive [p] voiced bi-labial plosive [b]; voiceless labio-dental fricative [f] voiced labio-dental fricative [v]; bi-labial nasal [m]; bilabial continuant [w]
  • Behind-the-teeth sounds voiceless alveolar plosive [t] voiced alveolar plosive [d]; voiceless alveolar fricative as in church match [tʃ]; voiced alveolar fricative as in judge age [dʒ]; voiceless dental fricative [θ] as in thin path; voiced dental fricative as in this other [ð]; voiceless alveolar fricative [s] voiced alveolar fricative [z]; continuant [h] alveolar nasal [n] alveolar approximant [l]; alveolar trill [r]; dental ‘y’ [j] as in yet
  • Rear-of-mouth sounds voiceless velar plosive [k] voiced velar plosive [g]; voiceless post-alveolar fricative [ʃ] as in ship sure, voiced post- alveolar fricative [ʒ] as in pleasure; palatal nasal [ŋ] as in ring/ anger.

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