To a Dutch Potter in Ireland
for Sonja Landweer
The poem is dedicated to Sonja Landweer, born in 1933 in Amsterdam, resident in Ireland since the late 1960s; a creator of ceramics, jewellery and sculpture, Landweer exhibited in Ireland and internationally. She and Seamus Heaney shared a mutually inspirational friendship over many decades including a joint exhibition in Kilkenney entitled ‘Out of the Marvellous’.
Heaney dedicates a two-poem sequence to her, celebrating creativity, resurrection and indomitable human spirit adding a version of a short poem written by a Dutch poet who described the agonies of nazi repression in WWII and the jubilation of freedom. Heaney’s history of creative writing and his cautious hopes that the current truce will lead to peace in Ulster are continuous with the final phrases of Bloem’s poem.
The poems are preceded by an italicized epigraph describing a visit to a potter’s storeroom. The picture is half-real (the ‘I’ Heaney has visited her studio). It is also metaphorical, a deliberate interweave of ceramic and poetic allusions. The store translates into a strongroom of vocabulary its individual clay artifacts akin to the lexis the poet has shaped and fired: Where words like urns that had come through the fire then set aside in their bone-dry alcoves next a kiln awaiting the next move in the poetic ‘glazing’ process.
The transformations brought about by the kiln’s heat are little short of miraculous (came away changed) akin to Jesus’s resurrection (like the guard who’d seen The stone move in a diamond-blaze of air).
The literary image of ‘gates of horn and ivory’ mentioned in both Virgil’s Aeneid and Homer’s Odyssey distinguishes between true dreams and false (the phrase originated in the Greek language, in which the word for “horn” is similar to that for ‘fulfil’ and ivory ‘deceive’); he is suggesting that in Landweer’s pottery he has found the ‘real thing’ (high acclaim from Heaney): the gates of horn behind the gates of clay.
Heaney’s roots lay deep in the Irish landscape; the peaty bogland around his childhood home, deep brown in colour (The soils I knew ran dirty) cloaks a reference to ‘tainted’ activities in Northern Ireland.
The exception was River sand ( ) the one clean thing that stayed itself, deposited in saturated, muddy slabbery, clabbery, wintry, puddled ground.
There, as a youngster, the poet made a discovery, Bann clay, quite unlike the soft, porous soils (the felt and frieze / Of humus layers) beneath which it lay in a little sucky hole (an amalgam of touch and sound). The clay is distinctive in its colouring (Like wet daylight} and its texture (viscous satin), akin to a smooth, silky fabric with a sticky consistency somewhere between solid and liquid. Heaney knows from his learning how this deposit, this true diatomite, came about; he sets out its other properties: its insipid colour (Grey-blue), bland surface (dull-shining), lack of smell scentless and its tactileity: touchable.
Heaney’s young senses recognize it from somewhere else: the comforting balm of an old ointment box, sticky and cool.
At that same moment Sonja Landweer was swimming in the North Sea that separates Holland from Britain. He paints her as a mythical creature of the sea itself: luminous with plankton,/ A nymph of phosphor by the Norder Zee. In his imagination she translates into a priestess at the spiritual centre of an imaginary, problem-free potter’s underearth paradise where she serves its goddess: A vestal of the goddess Silica,/ She who is under grass and glass and ash / In the fiery heartlands of Ceramica.
Had their paths crossed then they might have played together in a make-believe world, that Cold gleam-life under ground and off the water, birds of a feather doing what children do around water: Weird twins of puddle, paddle, pit-a-pat. They might well have disregarded what parents warn their children about (the small forbidden things /Worked at mud-pies or gone too high on swings) even experimented dangerously with their innocence: Played ‘secrets’ in the hedge or ‘touching tongues’.
There was a reason why this could not happen: WWII delivered nazi occupation, bombardment and death on the Dutch … in the terrible event./ Night after night instead, in the Netherlands, / You watched the bombers kill.
Sonja came to his attention, emerging film-like from the flaming backdrop of war, when she arrived at Kilkenny in 1965 like a blessing: heaven-sent,/… backlit from the fire through war and wartime. The gift she represented was celebrated in her pottery Through glazes of fired quartz and iron and lime.
Heaney turns something Sonja once told him neatly on its head, links it with the buried substance used to make her pots and the magma-like heat of the kiln that fires each artifact as a means to coining a new cry of adoration: if glazes, as you say, bring down the sun,/ Your potter’s wheel is bringing up the earth./ Hosannah ex infernis. Burning wells./ Hosannah in clean sand and kaolin.
As a coda, Heaney’s concluding passage borrows from the poem he will translate in the final section: ‘now that the rye crop waves beside the ruins’: natural growth is taking place alongside the tell-tale signs of the potter-vestal (ash-pits, oxides, shards and chlorophylls).
- slabbery: Heaney creates an adjective imitatitve of ‘slobbery’; the word compares with the Germanic/ Frisian slobberje “to slurp,” Middle Dutch offers overslubberen and slabberen.
- clabbery: adjective suggestive of ‘muddy’ 1824, from Irish and Gaelic clabar “mud.”
- puddled: from 15th century the verb means ‘to dabble in water, poke in mud’;
- Bann: (Irish: an Bhanna meaning “the white river’) reference to the longest river in Ulster, 80 miles (129 km) long, winding its way from the southeast corner of Northern Ireland to the northwest feeding the enormous Lough Neagh en route;
- diatomite: diatomaceous earth produces the skeletal remains of single celled plants called diatoms, hence the name diatomite. These microscopic algae have the capability of extracting silica from water to produce their skeletal structure. When diatoms die their skeletal remains sink to the bottom of lakes and oceans and form a diatomite deposit. Natural diatomite is mined from deposits that were formed millions of years ago. Silica (sand) is the most abundant compound on the earth’s crust. Natural diatomite comprises 85% silica the rest made up of inert oxides www.diatomite.com
- sucky: an adjective coined to conjure up sound and touch;
- plankton: organisms that live in water and provide a crucial source of food to many fish and whales; plankton is made up of tiny plants called phytoplankton and tiny animals;
- phosphor: solid material that emits light, or luminesces when exposed to radiation such as ultraviolet light or an electron beam ;
- Norder Zee: Dutch for North Sea;
- vestal: in ancient Roman religion the Vestals or Vestal virgins were priestesses of Vesta, goddess of the hearth. They cultivated the sacred fire that was not allowed to go out. Heaney’s invented goddess is appropriate to pottery themes of the poem, borrowed from the word for ‘sand’;
- Silica the goddess bears an appropriate but adapted name; Ceramica is based on the term for ‘pottery’;
- pit-a-pat: with a sound like quick, light steps;
- glazes: vitreous substances used to coat pottery before it is fired in a kiln: quartz, iron and powdered limestone are presented as ingredients;
- fired: baked in a kiln ;
- Hosannnah ex infernis: a neat reversal of the Biblical shout of adoration, from ‘hosanna in excelsis’ (Glory to God in the highest) to ‘Glory (to pottery) from underground;
- kaolin, also called china clay, soft white clay that is an essential ingredient in the manufacture of china and porcelain; it owes its name to Kao-Ling a hill in China;
- shards: broken pieces of pottery or glass;
- chlorophylls: reference to green pigments found in algae and plants. These extremely important biomolecules are critical in photosynthesis, which allows plants to absorb energy from light.
2 After Liberation
Bloem’s lyric celebrates a new consciousness: the unmitigated renewal of something lost and now back within grasp: Sheer, bright-shining spring, spring as it used to be. The senses drink in the morning chill, the opening door of light (broad daylight /Swings open); Holland’s huge flatland sky is miraculous to those who have survived to witness the ending of Occupation: the everlasting sky ( ) a marvel to survivors.
The poet is soothed by tangible evidence that in a pearly clarity that bathes the fields /Things as they were come back; despite the fading sounds of shelling, farmers have not lost the planting instinct: slow horses / Plough the fallow.
The very moment for his inner-self to indulge in the joy of survival and the freedom to celebrate it: Utterance, body and soul. The realization that the spirit-breaking ordeal iis over is worth repeating and repeating: gone and gone for good, the thing/ That nearly broke you. The human spirit that never ceased to resist injustice has triumphed after five years on the rack,/The fighting back, the being resigned.
Yet the sheer exhilaration of the moment includes a stern warning ‘lest they forget’: not/ One of the unborn will appreciate/ Freedom like this ever.
The Earth’s gyres produce predictable, recurring continuity: Turning tides, their regularities! Inner human currents are riven with frailty: What is the heart, that it ever was afraid; and yet its inner strength (Shining heart, heart constant as a tide) appreciates a moment of triumph: it must know spring’s release. Bloem salutes the calm strength of human endurance in the face of demise: Omnipresent, imperturbable/ ( ) the life that death springs from.
The visible renewal of growth in the fields urges men to move on without continually harking back: complaint is wrong, the slightest complaint at all, Now that the rye crop waves beside the ruins. The poem’s final phrases set out what will be required to put an end to conflict in Ulster: the past will need to be forgotten and people hostile to each other sit around the same table and agree to co-manage the future. Could Heaney have had some premonition of the Good Friday Agreement of two years later?
the end of the poem pays tribute to Dutch poet J.C.Bloem (1887-1966); Bloem is highly regarded in Holland as a lyric poet, ‘minor’ only in the sense of his limited output;
- fallow: land that has lain for a period without being sown in order to restore its fertility; in this case war interfered with the normal farming calendar;
- rack: literally an instrument of torture consisting of a frame on which the victim was stretched by turning rollers to which the wrists and ankles were tied; metaphorical reference to years of suffering under Nazi occupation;
- regularity: Heaney applies the word to a maritime phenomenon that follows the rules of physics and can be forecast to the second; sunrise, lunar eclipse and the movement of the sea’s tides are all examples of consistency;
- omnipresent: widespread, everywhere;
- imperturbable: calm, hard to upset;
- Bloem’s tribute to Dutch spirit offers interpretations that point to the same end: all bad things come to an end in the ebb and flow of life; change for the better is predictable; the timid heart will finds a way to resist the might oppressing it and relish being free;
- NC refers to Heaney’s translation of ‘After Liberation’: ‘a post-war poem of endurance, survival, constancy and renewal by the Dutch poet J. C. Bloem’ (p189);
- a section of Bloem’s original poem Na de bevrijding reads:
Schoon en stralend is, gelijk toen, het voorjaar, / Koud des morgens, maar als de dagen verder/ Opengaan, is de eeuwige lucht een wonder/ Voor de geredden./ In ‘t doorzichtig waas over al de brake/ Landen ploegen weder trage paarden/ Als altijd, wijl nog de nabije verten/ Dreunen van oorlog./ Dit beleefd te hebben, dit heellijfs uit te/ Mogen spreken, ieder ontwaken weer te/ Weten: heen is, en nu voorgoed, de welhaast Duldloze knechtschap -/ Waard is het, vijf jaren gesmacht te hebben,/ Nu opstandig, dan weer gelaten, en niet/ Eén van de ongeborenen zal de vrijheid/ Ooit zo beseffen. …. En de kleinste klacht schijnt nauwlijks hoorbar,/ Waar rogge om de ruines groeit./
Comments attributed to Irish poet Eamonn Grennan about Seamus Heaney’s final collection, ‘Human Chain’ (2010) have a particular resonance: “… the poet, like a master potter, slowly shapes on his word wheel the given clay into a vase, an urn, a bowl and … glazes it with living colour” .
- the epigraph comprises two tercets in a single sentence; 1 has eleven tercets of 15 sentences; 2i comprises four quatrains in three sentences and 2.ii two quatrains in four sentences;
- Heaney’s epigraph and his poem are based around a line length of ten syllables; the poem follows a rhyme scheme, at first regular axa/ byb/ czc etc but varied in the last six lines;
- the Bloem versions have a much more irregular flow between five and twelve syllable alexandrines; there are no rhymes;
- punctuation: the frequent use of enjambed lines in verse that pauses in mid line or includes questions offers rhythmical pointers for oral delivery;
- the elements: the Heaney poetry is placed predominantly on or under the ground, close to or in water; Bloem’s favoured element is air; fire is provided by the subtext of firing pots in the kiln
- the vocabulary of 1 reflects Heaney’s knowledge of technical botanical and geological issues plus insights into the chemicals and substances associated with glazing and firing pots; reference to light (phosphor, luminous) adds to the mythologized, otherworldly picture of the young potter;
- a distant chiasmus: imagination creates a mythology surrounding a goddess Ceramica and her kingdom; the lines reverse the order (grass, glass, ash (a+b+c in line 20) ash-pits, shards and chlorophylls (c+b+a in line 39);
- Bloem’s versions are to do with natural light and enlightenment the first set in a narrower historical and geographical window (2i); 2ii expands into much wider spheres: tides, omnipresent and so on
- epigraph and 1 are anchored in the past; Bloem is reporting a series of present moments and the implications emanating from them;
- addition of suffix y creates adjectives from nouns on 4 occasion;
- there is use of simile and personification but imagery is broadly theme-bound;
- 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 consonant effects allow pulses or beats or soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies:
- the epigraph of Dutch Potter, for example, is strong in alveolar nasals and sibilants alongside bi-labial and velar plosives; it is well worth teasing out the sound clusters for yourself if only 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.