Nov 072011
 

‘The door was open and the house was dark’

This ‘dream’ poem is dedicated to the memory of David Hammond, much admired Northern Irish writer, singer, teacher, songwriter, historian, musician, film-maker and broadcaster who died in August 2008. As with all dreams the conscious and sub-conscious intrude in random measure to complicate the dream’s main ‘message’.

Pitch-black night: the stuff of nightmare. A visitor stood before the door of a familiar house (he reveals he is not there for the first time). He was faced with an eerie paradox: the doorwas open yet there was no sign of life. The caller sought some reassurance from hearing his own voice: Wherefore I called his name

The scene was heavy with prescience: I knew the answer this time. His call received no human response. It was ‘answered’ by silence, at once arresting (that kept me standing, listening) and possessing a detectable force-field: it grew/ Backwards and down and out into the street

The movement of silence and the door left open evoked the soundless passage of a soul or shade departing in search of alternative refuge. The visitor could not have ‘seen’ it: as I’d entered … The street lamps too were out. He could only have dreamt it, felt it.

The dream brought a sense of insecurity: I felt for the first time there and then, a stranger,/ Intruder almost. His instinct said take flight; his reason told him there was no danger because what he had just witnessed was Only withdrawal, a dead man’s soul moving silently on. 

The emptiness, the loss of all that joie de vivre and hospitality the house once exuded, was not unwelcoming: the visitor draws comfort from a site he was familiar with as a youngster, recalling the emotions he felt in a midnight hangar/ On an overgrown airfield in late summer as he revisited a once-active wartime site empty but for the shadows and memories of the period.

  • Heaney, who has, of course, been ‘the visitor’ all along, writes elsewhere in his poetry about Toome airfield with its teeming activity during the build-up to D-Day in June 1944 in stark contrast to its silence and disuse once the war was over.
  • in a BBC interview with Eimaar Flanagan on 23rd September 2010 Heaney insisted the poem was not written – but dreamt. “The dream is just recorded in verse that rhymes. It was an extremely strange, haunting dream. One of those dreams that marks, that you don’t forget,” he said.
  • As one example, The Aerodrome in District and Circle  describes the wartime activity at Toome;
  • 4 triplets, lines generally of 10 syllables;
  • unusually for the collection Heaney offers a rhyme scheme: knew/  grew; now/ out stranger/danger; hangar/ summer;
  • The early frequency of the diphthong as in now … out … down resembles the British ‘ow’, an exclamation of pain;
  • Slightly archaic usage: Whereforethis permits the assonance door/ wherefore;
  • The final syllable of the double participle, standing listening, is a continuant that can prolong  delivery to reflect the instant;
  • Alliterative there and then; well aware/ withdrawal/ unwelcoming;
  • Litotes of not unwelcoming that urges amendment
  • Frequency of alveolar [t] in stanza 3; assonance: no/ Only; overgrown;
  • Vocabulary of the insubstantial; silence/ withdrawal/ emptiness;
  • emptiness plays on the double idea: ‘there is nothing there’; ‘there was something there.;
  • The use of ‘late’ can refer also to death.
  • For a celebration of the life of David Hammond, see Seamus Heaney’s obituary in The Guardian newspaper of Thursday 28 August 2008 and Keith Baker’s BBC News Obituary of August 26th 2008.
  • At times, despite his effort to be consoled, it is as though whatever is being remembered has taken all his heart for speech. This is most apparent in an elegy for the Irish singer David Hammond, which contains four of these three-line stanzas plus one extra line. It is the poem where the struggle between pure lament and the search for comfort in images seems most intense: Colm Tóibín in The Guardian of Saturday 21 August 2010